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Document 52004IE1655

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Relations between the generations’

OJ C 157, 28.6.2005, p. 150–154 (ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, IT, LV, LT, HU, NL, PL, PT, SK, SL, FI, SV)

28.6.2005   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 157/150


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Relations between the generations’

(2005/C 157/28)

On 29 January 2004 the European Economic and Social Committee, acting under Rule 29(2) of its Rules of Procedure, decided to draw up an opinion on ‘Relations between the generations’.

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 25 November 2004. The rapporteur was Mr Bloch-Lainé.

At its 413th plenary session, held on 15 and 16 December 2004 (meeting of 16 December), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 143 votes to two with nine abstentions:

1.   Preamble

1.1

Relations between the generations (1) are clearly one of the major factors which determine the degree of cohesion of all societies, our own in particular, and, therefore, of the evolving geopolitical entity formed by their UNION.

1.2

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the European nations is their ageing populations. This phenomenon is having an extensive impact on their societies and presenting them with complex challenges which they have a responsibility to weigh up and address in as coordinated and far-sighted a way as possible. They have a responsibility to draw up and implement what could be called a ‘generations policy’ (2) in the field, consisting not of short-lived, fragmented, isolated measures but of a comprehensive, global, consistent strategy encouraging understanding and solidarity in the long-term between the growing number of generations which are now living side by side.

1.3

Taking stock of the situation — irrespective of the different or specific circumstances in the different countries — it would appear that there is still a long way to go. The European Economic and Social Committee feels that the issue is crucial for Europe's future and intends to make it an ongoing priority in its future discussions and work programme.

Hence the need for this opinion, the aim of which is:

having set out a few key facts and observations (2);

to propose some guidelines and recommendations (3).

2.   Facts and observations

2.1

It is fair to say that our countries and their joint institutions have not fully exploited the unprecedented range of forecasting tools and techniques which have been available to them over the last 50 years to define and implement policies in the field in question; they have not employed the most appropriate means of addressing these different issues and factors.

2.1.1

There are three extremes to be avoided when expressing an opinion of this kind.

2.1.1.1

Firstly, to say that it should have been a very simple matter to make an accurate forecast would be wrong. Although the tried and tested methods of demographic research do allow meaningful predictions of medium- and long-term trends to be made, it is clear that such predictions can change according to economic, sociological and political factors which are quite random. Thus, for example, although birth rates, death rates and migration flows fluctuate according to their own rhythm, they are also affected by external, extraneous factors such as economic growth and slowdowns, poor welfare provision, changing customs, the political environment and the degree of public confidence in the future. Furthermore, the experts base their key forecasts, made using demographic data, on averages, and the averages chosen differ according to the expert.

2.1.1.2

Another extreme would be to underestimate enlightened, long-term programmes implemented and success achieved over the past 50 years in areas such as health, social protection, solidarity, training, amenities and infrastructure, land-use planning, social dialogue and community life.

2.1.1.3

A third extreme would be to play down the importance of the promising, innovative forecasting initiatives completed or launched by the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission in many fields.

2.1.2

However, since the end of the Second World War, there has been a clear lack of discernment and far-sightedness when dealing with a number of consequences, harmful to society, of the ageing of our countries' populations. This demographic phenomenon has been brought about by the combination of two foreseeable and long-foreseen trends: greater life expectancy and falling birth rates. Despite any discrepancies or subtle differences in the diagnoses of forecasting experts, the fact that it is inevitable has never been called into question.

2.1.3

One would have to be blind to reality to deny that there have been a number of instances of neglect, error and omission in planning for a situation that is immediate, ongoing, sustained, and requires action: the increasingly frequent coexistence in EU countries of three or even four generations, rather than just two.

2.1.4

Regrettably, the areas affected by these failures to adapt are numerous, for example:

the funding of pensions: in several Member States, the least that can be said is that there was too long a delay in addressing the issue, that it was addressed belatedly, under pressure, and in difficult conditions that could have been avoided;

the respective roles of the increased number of active age groups in the running of businesses and administrations and their respective contributions thereto: the ad hoc measures taken to resolve staffing issues and reduce operating costs did not take into sufficient account the ‘collateral damage’ and harmful consequences of short-term expedients;

lifelong learning: concerns relating to prolonging working life have, in some cases, too often been overlooked where ‘older’ workers are concerned;

town planning, housing and the siting of community and commercial facilities: prevailing approaches in these areas have frequently overlooked the specific needs of the very young, the very old, and families, whether living together or not;

the inheritance of material goods: there has been no revision or adjustment of legal and fiscal provisions to take into account demographic change;

relations between the education sector and the world of work: here, a few countries only have made progress, while many more are lagging behind;

the preservation, enhancement, use and sharing of experience gained and memories: advances in technology, innovation in the field of management and a certain idolisation of the cult of youth have served to divert attention away from the danger of wasting knowledge, ability, experience and memory;

culture: there has, perhaps, at times been an excessive, complacent focus on emerging cultures (3) and a failure to discern adequately between fashion and inventions representing lasting progress; the different generations have been allowed to forget, despise, fear and reject each other and have thus become divided.

2.1.5

Validity of welfare indicators: The EESC welcomes the work carried out by the Indicators sub-committee of the Coordinating Committee for Welfare and, specifically, the definition (or the refinement of previous definitions) of the proposed indicators. This now makes it possible to break down by age group a series of indicators relating, among other things, to the risk of poverty. It emphasises the need for this work to continue, not least in order to complete and consolidate a range of indicators that will make it possible to evaluate ever more accurately the condition of different age groups, both from a qualitative and a quantitative point of view.

3.   Guidelines and recommendations

3.1

Why have genuine, crucial issues such as these been all too often overlooked in recent decades? That is a huge, key subject for sociological and political debate, and this opinion is not the place for a superficial exposition of the issue. Be that as it may, the EESC stands firm in its belief: the Committee is a consultative body and, as such, is less subject to the constraints and pressures of the immediate present than decision-makers. The diversity of its members, the way they work freely together over long periods of time, compare experiences, exchange knowledge, information and concerns and share ideas and evaluations, their ability to propose methods, the way they are rooted and actively involved in what is known as participatory democracy: potential assets and abilities which open up to the Committee areas in which it has both the freedom and the responsibility to be more active than it is at present. Relations between the generations is one such area.

3.1.1

In order to speak on such a complex matter, one needs to be prudent and clear:

3.1.1.1

The EESC must stay within its remit and avoid setting itself goals that are disproportionate to its resources or incompatible with its mandate.

3.1.1.2

Foresight — or forecasting — must not be confused with planning or futurology.

3.1.1.3

The most conscientious scientists willingly admit that their knowledge is no more than a set of theories waiting to be superseded. Economics is not an exact science, and sociology even less so, so there is no reason why socioeconomic forecasts should be free from the risk of error.

3.1.1.4

Work is being carried out in numerous areas in the field of relations between the generations. Some of these relate to remedial measures; some, to a shift in direction; while others call for a significant capacity for research and invention. It is important to identify these areas properly, to distinguish accurately between them and, in all cases, not to place trust in pipe dreams which might prove risky or fruitless.

3.1.2

In seeking to achieve its goal in this area the EESC has decided to work as closely as possible with the EU institutions — the Council, the Parliament and the Commission. It was guided in this decision by the arguments set out in points 2.1.1.3 and 3.1.2 above, by the desire to adhere to both the letter and the spirit of the institutional texts and, quite simply, by common sense.

3.1.2.1

Relations between the generations is an extremely wide-ranging subject. It was not possible to attempt to do anything more than give a very general overview in this initial study of the matter.

3.1.2.2

The Committee has decided to use this initial opinion to draw the attention of the EU institutions to a list of subjects for reflection which the Committee could address together with those institutions, if they so wished, by means of mutually-agreed procedures which will allow for coordination of work in these areas. The list is as follows (not in order of priority):

the extent, burden and limits of roles and responsibilities that will fall to families in the future social order: children, adults, parents, grandparents;

access for women to the job market and communal childcare facilities;

isolation and loneliness in European societies: the elderly (4), disadvantaged young people; child poverty;

intergenerational contracts and solidarity between the generations: how to find fair solutions socially and politically — solutions which respect the future — given the constraints and pressures of the present and the fact that future stakeholders are not here to claim their rights;

town-planning and housing models and relations between the generations: the approaches to and models of town planning and housing adopted in recent years have often overlooked the emergence of substantial requirements of specific generations, particularly the problems posed by:

the (welcome) development of facilities allowing the elderly to live independently and of their relations with younger generations, children and adolescents;

young single adults (students and young workers) being forced to share family accommodation not intended for this purpose;

the need to house ‘difficult’ families in permanent, non-segregated accommodation.

what useful roles can participatory democracy play in relations between the generations?

3.2

For the time being, the Committee has decided to focus, in the form of suggestions, on two aspects of the general topic that would also lend themselves to cooperation with the EU institutions, if these institutions so desire.

3.2.1

Length of working life: this issue is one of the best illustrations of the European countries' failure to take a clear-headed, far-sighted approach to the challenges posed by the ageing of their populations, despite the fact that this had long been foreseen.

3.2.1.1

Earlier retirement leads to a loss of economic, social and cultural potential. It has not produced the expected effects in terms of job-sharing and increasing employment among young people but has, in many countries, been viewed and used as a short-term expedient.

3.2.1.2

Prejudices and preconceptions wrongly led decision-makers in politics, business and society alike to believe that older workers were less able to adapt to changes in production techniques and management methods and held back progress in productivity.

3.2.1.3

However, for a number of years, useful studies, strong warnings and sensible recommendations have been being produced. In this regard, the clear-sightedness, consistency and high quality of the Commission's work on this difficult subject must be stressed. The helpful work carried out by the OECD and by many research institutes, professional organisations and economic and social councils in various countries also deserves to be mentioned.

3.2.1.4

The range of measures that can be implemented to reverse the trend is now well established and well-known: making the oldest workers more employable by fine-tuning lifelong learning methods; improving the quality of jobs and making working hours more flexible in order to allow a better work-life balance; developing mixed age-group teams in companies and administrations; boosting the self-confidence of the oldest workers; increasing health protection measures for the oldest workers; improving career planning; creating incentives using the tax and pension system, etc.

3.2.1.5

The Council of the European Union, at Lisbon, Stockholm and elsewhere, has called for measures to encourage the European public to work longer on a voluntary basis.

3.2.1.6

However, apart from in a very small number of countries:

there are aspects of taxation and social security systems, collective bargaining agreements and company-level agreements which, either explicitly or implicitly, greatly encourage early retirement;

the declarations made and intentions expressed at Council meetings are not, in practice, properly passed on in the Member States themselves.

3.2.1.7

There is general agreement that a reversal of the trend and a change in current practices will not occur as the result of a miraculous, overnight conversion.

Indeed, force of habit, the different types, sizes and cultures of businesses and administrations and the natural and legitimate problems of social dialogue mean that, in a matter such as this, where simply abolishing the social ‘acquis’ could not be advocated — as it would lead straight to disaster — the desired changes require the implementation of quite complex global strategies. The transition will inevitably take some time, and that is one more reason for not wasting time and drawing up and applying these strategies without further delay.

3.2.2

The Committee urges the EU political decision-makers — i.e. the Parliament and the Council — to work more unequivocally, specifically and actively, in the Member States which have elected or appointed them, to bring about greater consistency between words and deeds. This should spur them, in the common interest of a European Union which has set itself the goal of becoming one of the world's leading economies, to:

pinpoint measures in the legal or contractual systems in use in their respective countries which are explicit or implicit barriers to the voluntary extension of working life;

to pass on more effectively and to a greater extent than is the case today the Commission's sound recommendations and to implement its directives more rapidly and more resolutely;

to run campaigns to inform, encourage and persuade economic and social partners and decision makers, and to improve communication with the media of their respective countries.

3.2.3

Restoring the balance in the age structure of Europe's population: here, one need only recall the very alarming forecasts set out in a great number of reports of the effects that the drop in fertility and the birth rate will have on the demography of the European Union: an insufficient renewal of the generations, which will certainly not be compensated for by immigration, can only diminish Europe's position in the world and, within Europe, cause economic and financial difficulties and the risk of undesirable divisions and conflicts between the generations.

3.2.3.1

If we believe that rebalancing the age structures of European countries needs to be a long-term goal, it follows that the European Union should set itself the task of doing more to boost the birth rate in its constituent countries, and, to this end, to pay more attention to those countries' family policies. No one could accuse the Union of not being interested in family matters: the Council of Ministers has, on numerous occasions, made proposals concerning families. However, the guidelines set out at EU level remain fragmented, and aim at targets that are certainly justified and interesting, but very limited (5).

3.2.3.2

Obviously, bringing about greater and better commitment in an area such as this will not be easy. Member States' policies are extremely diverse; pro-birth policies are expensive; and finally, on top of all that, there are significant differences of opinion among both experts and decision-makers about just how effective these policies are. However, the EESC does not believe that these difficulties, however great they may be, are an excuse for the EU institutions to continue avoiding the issue to a great extent.

3.2.3.3

The Committee considers it desirable that those institutions should set out a proper strategy on the subject, taking into account the numerous aspects of the issue; and, specifically, that they encourage Member States to pursue family policies with the long-term aim of rebalancing the age structures in the countries of the Union.

3.2.3.4

The EESC wishes only to cooperate — actively and as far as its resources permit — with the work that such a step, were it to be taken, would make necessary.

4.   CONCLUSION

4.1

The societies of Europe, and the European society they are committed to building together, are and will continue to be subject to ongoing risks of social, political, ethnic and cultural division. It is important that we do everything possible to ensure that these divisions are not compounded by inter-generational divisions.

4.2

By their very nature, the problems posed by relations between the generations are long-term problems. Therefore, in seeking solutions to them, we must also look to the long term.

4.3

The large number and complexity of the sectoral aspects that need to be taken into consideration are no excuse for not developing a forward-looking, holistic and systematic approach; in this area, as in others, the issues are neither separate nor separable. Moreover, it must be stressed that proper management of the problems of relations between the generations would have an extremely positive impact on the economy.

4.4

Although we should not rush things, nor, of course, violate the subsidiarity principle, neither the European Union nor its Member States should adopt a wait-and-see or minimalist attitude.

4.5

The European Economic and Social Committee considers this area of discussion to be very important. It clearly warrants increasing attention but the Member States and the EU have yet to give it the political consideration it deserves.

4.6

This opinion is a response to a challenge: the challenge of facilitating the development in the future of more consultation on a major issue, where coordinated, ongoing action from a wide range of players and the continuity of a constructive plan are necessary and short-term interests must not be allowed to prevail. A new pact between the generations needs to take shape step by step across the EU. (6)

4.7

This opinion is in no way a final document. It does not claim to provide ready-made solutions but proposes that a long-term project be undertaken which will continue for some time.

4.8

At this juncture, the Committee calls for a public debate to be held on this huge subject as soon as is realistically possible. Participants at this conference would include political decision-makers, representatives of the EU institutions, members of civil society and experts. The Committee would be willing to launch and organise an initiative of this kind.

4.9

Throughout its involvement in this huge area of concern, the Committee can and must constantly act in close cooperation with the EU institutions.

Brussels, 16 December 2004.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Anne-Marie SIGMUND


(1)  Relations between the generations are discussed here from the economic, social, cultural and political perspectives.

(2)  This is an expression taken from a report by Mr Jean Billet, presented to the French Economic and Social Council in 2004 (unofficial translation).

(3)  In some cases not without ulterior motives of a commercial nature.

(4)  C.f. EESC opinion entitled Towards the seventh Framework Programme for Research: Research needs in the area of demographic change – quality of life of elderly persons and technological requirements. Rapporteur Ms Heinisch. CESE 1206/2004 of 15 September 2004.

(5)  Families in difficulty; childcare; maternity and parental leave, etc.

(6)  In this regard, the May 2004 report of the High level group on the future of social policy in the enlarged European Union. is of interest.


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