The BSPC gathered an expert seminar to discuss the changing population composition in the Baltic Sea region, in particular the ageing population. A focus was placed on lifelong learning to develop skills suited to new demands in the labour market and keeping older people employed, active and healthy. The meeting included about 60 participants from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, Denmark, Finland, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Iceland, Karelia, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Nordic Council, Norway, Poland, the Russian Federation and Sweden.
BSPC President Pyry Niemi welcomed the participants to this seminar on the topic “Adaptation to new demography and challenges to the welfare model: Urbanisation, an ageing population and labour shortages and the connection to trust in public institutions, social and regional equality and young people’s opportunities”.
He pointed out that the labour market and social welfare were traditional topics of the BSPC along with the integration of young people into the work force. The pandemic had exacerbated the problems. Connected to that were the trust in democracy and the state.
Mr Gunnar Andersson, Professor in Demography and Head of the Stockholm University Demography Unit (SUDA) on demographic patterns and developments, current challenges and trends in the region, provided an introduction to the current demographic trends that could be seen in the Baltic Sea region.
Three population processes were contributing to demographic change: fertility, mortality and migration. Mortality had been a major factor, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in Sweden and the southern and eastern nations of the Baltic Sea region. Fertility had been declining in recent years in the Nordic countries. Migration had been primarily affected by the influx of refugees in 2015. The pandemic had also impacted migration in that inter-European borders had been shut while a demographic shift from cities to rural areas was taking place. Fertility could experience a short-turn rise but a medium-term decline, it had been suggested.
As a whole, Prof Andersson noted that people were living longer in the Baltic Sea region, increasing the number of people receiving pensions. In the younger adult ranges, migration was a major factor – emigration in some Baltic Sea countries, immigration in others. Most decisive for demography was fertility as it set the bottom of the population pyramid and would determine the development for the next 100 years. The pyramid in the Nordic countries was rather balanced, with enough people of working age to support pensioners. In Germany, much like the southern and eastern nations around the Baltic Sea, there had been low fertility for many decades, with shrinking cohort numbers at the bottom. This created much more of a challenge than in the Nordic countries since large numbers of people would move into the pensioner range while far fewer would be coming of working age.
Therefore, interest had focused on the Nordic countries with their relatively high fertility, presumably due to their welfare state. In short, they made it easier to combine a working career with a family career through supporting female participation in the labour market and incentivising men taking over parenting duties with parental leave systems. A focus on gender equality and childcare had aided women continuing to work. By contrast, highly educated women in the rest of the Baltic Sea region had to choose between family and work. As a rule, fertility had been higher in the Nordic nations than in the other countries, with educated and less educated women having similar numbers of children. However, there had been a yet unexplained drop in fertility in the past decade, reaching all time lows recently. For example, Finland had even dropped below Germany. Economic and labour force effects could not account for this decline nor social policy changes. Uncertainty about the future might be a factor, as the drop-off had started with the recession in 2010. More research was needed as well as new data that included subjective dimensions, such as perceived uncertainties, trust in society and institutions as well as fertility intentions.
Prof Andersson replied to a question that the Nordic countries, in particular Sweden, had implemented a system to respond to the ageing society: Pension age was tied to the overall age of the population. Two years earlier, it had been raised to 67 years, from 65 before.
He was asked about the influence of migration on fertility. Prof Andersson noted that, despite the belief that migrants had a higher birth rate, they were quickly adapting to the fertility rate of their new country. As such, they were contributing by entering a country at a fertile age and having children there but not at higher numbers. Indeed, second-generation migrants even had a lower birth rate.
He further pointed out that the life expectancy in the Nordic countries had been barely changed by the pandemic since the disease had primarily affected older people.
Ms Tatiana Razumova, Professor at Moscow State Lomonosov University, spoke about Labour Market and Social Policy under COVID-19, with a view to youth employment during the pandemic. Speaking about the latest international labour market developments, some workplaces had shut completely in the spring of 2020 while closures due to circumstances and part-time closures abounded. Overall, the situation in that year had seemed highly difficult. In terms of working hours being lost, Northern Europe had fared quite well compared with Latin America and some territories in Asia and North America. The International Labour Organization (ILO) had estimated the equivalent of 305 million jobs having been lost.
The development of different branches of industry as well as agriculture had been hit hard by the pandemic, Prof Razumova explained. Social support measures had been implemented to attempt to counteract the effects. Women were affected worst by the pandemic, followed by young people.
For young workers, the conventional risks of the labour market had grown worse, such as unsuccessful job searches or their willingness to work in informal environments lacking social security measures. An increase in the retirement age had led to slower career progression for younger people.
The Russian population had declined by half a million people compared to a year earlier, among others due to a high mortality rate from the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment in Russia had shot up in the period after March 2020 but had been corrected at the end of the summer. Overall employment had been recovering very slowly since then. At the same time, youth unemployment in Russia had seen an inversion of the usual distribution, now seeing a peak of unemployment in summer and a trough in winter. Russian youths were entering the labour market after university a little bit later than in other countries. During the pandemic, retraining measures had been put in place, with the intent on getting people into the labour force immediately after completion of the course. As of February 2021, 40 per cent of retrainees had found new jobs, underlining the success of said measures. Youth unemployment was particularly struck because most of their employers were industries highly affected by the pandemic, such as tourism, transportation, entertainment and the restaurant business.
Urgent support measures had been provided by the government, including direct help as well as several additional payments for young families and families with children. On the whole, it was expected that the ILO programmes in Russia would support the country’s population in overcoming all the difficulties.
In response to questions, Prof Razumova underlined that, as per the ILO view, a holistic bundling of employer, employee and state measures to support both businesses and workers was the only way to resolve critical problems. As for labour development, she considered international collaboration, in particular in terms of training, to be vital.
She also noted that mortality rates were thought to be higher for women of working age because they were in higher-risk professions, such as medicine.
Regarding a question of how parliaments and their cooperation could help in solving these problems, Prof Razumova said that the pandemic was the primary concern. Therefore, cooperation in vaccination efforts, medicine development and the like were the most vital. Also essential was joint work to establish safe conditions for work and life. She expected another wave of labour migration in the near future for which both migrants and native populations had to be protected from disease, given social support and safe conditions of work. Decent and safe work had to be the goal.
Ms Daria Akhutina, Senior Advisor, Head of Priority Area: Sustainable and Prosperous Region, Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS), spoke about the Baltic Sea Labour Forum for inclusive labour market in the Baltic Sea region. The Forum was concerned with the social dialogue between trade unions, employer organisations and governments in EU and non-EU countries of the Baltic Sea region. A recent round table event had dealt with “Distant/Remote Work as a New Reality”, specifically the opportunities and responsibilities, the untapped potential, the requisite digital skills as well as whether respective legislation was appropriate. Another conference had concerned “Future Work and Provisions of Lifelong Learning Systems in the Context of an Ageing Labour Force”, with a focus on how retraining could adapt to rapidly changing labour markets and who should bear responsibility for that.
She further mentioned the project Baltic Sea Labour Forum for Sustainable Working Life which was promoting Active Ageing. Here, the challenge of an ageing population was to be turned into an opportunity through lifelong learning, competence and skill development, labour migration and senior entrepreneurship. Social and health elements also played a role here, as Ms Akhutina explained. Motivation and incentives were another factor. Policy briefs had been developed on a wide range of topics, such as a gender perspective on early retirement, bridging the digital divide for the age group 55+, age discrimination, future work and technological change and public employment services for older workers. These briefs had been published on the CBSS website. In distributing these outcomes and recommendations, she singled out the BSPC as a crucial conduit to political frameworks.
Ms Akhutina highlighted an upcoming event on “Beyond COVID-19: Population Challenges Ahead” which would be dealing with old-age poverty, generational conflict, an ageing society, adaptation of educational systems for lifelong learning and other issues.
Mr Rolf Elmér, Director Nordregio, and Mr Mats Stjernberg, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio, presented on the topic of the silver economy – a response to population ageing: How can older people continue to make valuable economic and societal contributions after retirement? Nordregio was working on regional policy and policy planning. Regarding the lower fertility rates in the southern and eastern parts of the Baltic Sea region, it was crucial to keep older people in the work force. The so-called silver economy referred to all economic activities linked to older age groups, considering seniors as valuable contributors. This “overlooked demographic” continued to be significant in terms of the economy and society, with recent policy changes acknowledging their potential. Active and healthy ageing were closely associated with the silver economy.
Population ageing differed somewhat in intensity and timing among the Nordic countries. Location was another factor, with rural areas having a greater share of elderly populations than urban regions. That was common among all Nordic countries. Another key aspect was health in older age, a goal pursued by the WHO. A healthy and active older population was the precondition for their inclusion in the labour market, Mr Stjernberg underlined. In most Nordic regions, men aged 65 still had 18 – 20 years left to live and women 2 – 3 years longer. There were regional and gender differences in that respect while health and wellbeing also depended inter alia on income, educational level, dietary habits as well as living and housing arrangements.
Pension and labour market reforms in many countries had aimed at extending the employment span of people into older age. Recent years had seen a significant increase in the Nordic countries, although differences between countries remained noticeable. Overall, it could be said that more people worked longer than before.
Mr Stjernberg spoke about the key elements for uncovering the potential of the silver economy. Promoting health and activity was a decisive factor which not only extended the working career but also improved well-being and delayed care dependency. The WHO had also actively promoted age-friendliness in recent decades, establishing a network of age-friendly cities. Society had to be changed to be more age-friendly, removing barriers such as ageism and age discrimination. The perception of population ageing, based on outdated stereotypes, had to be altered. It was necessary to go beyond labour and pension reforms and explore education and training, such as digital skills, minimising the issue of digital exclusion. Mutual learning between older and younger generations was an important aspect. Labour and retirement schemes had to become more flexible, such as part-time engagements to combine work with retirement.
Overall, population ageing was a multi-faceted issue that required a holistic approach. The interlinkages between many policy areas had to be taken into account. Collaboration was needed in designing and implementing the policies, bringing together the public sector, private companies and senior citizens themselves as well as the organisations representing them.
Ms Agnieszka Chłoń-Domińczak, Professor and Director of the Institute of Statistics and Demography SGH at the Warsaw School of Economics, Poland, gave a presentation on Lifelong Learning in the current times of crisis – the need of upskilling and reskilling. A recent green paper of the European Commission had pointed out the shrinking labour force. Her presentation focused on the eastern part of the Baltic Sea region (specifically Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland) which would be more severely hit by the ageing population, given the lower fertility rate there. The main challenges for the labour market and skill development were not only population ageing but also technological transformations and globalisation which were changing the skills sought on the labour market. Furthermore, lifelong learning was less a part of life there than in Scandinavia. Digital skills, which could also be performed long-distance, had become an essential skill.
The reduction in working age population would hit the central and eastern European countries very soon. About half of the jobs were threatened by computerisation and low ICT skills. Apart from lacking lifelong learning, adolescents and adults also had low skill levels, although the countries had been catching up to the rest of Europe. Estonia had made progress in establishing lifelong learning. Computer skills were below average in most of the observed nations, with rather low shares of highly skilled people. The investment in human capital for ages 0 – 30 were close to the EU25 average, with the exception of the trailing Poland. The employment rate among working adults was generally low, in particular in Poland. What was striking was that those employed in jobs threatened by computerisation were considerably less likely to engage in lifelong learning than the national average. All of those were challenges to lifelong learning in the considered countries, with an added barrier formed by both employers and employees underestimating its importance.
To promote lifelong learning, labour market and benefit policies favouring the increase in economic activity at all ages were required, targeting in particular people aged over 50, women as well as people with low education. Sharing experiences and peer learning were one avenue to explore. At the same time, incentives and better conditions for lifelong learning, in particular for the older population, should be put in place. Transversal and social competences were desirable as well, also in light of the COVID-19 pandemic locking especially younger people out of their real-world social networks for over a year. Finally, coordinated support was required to develop new technology sectors, including IT skills, investing in research and development as well as promoting the use of new technologies together with lifelong learning.
In the Q&A section, Prof Chłoń-Domińczak noted that new skills and competences were vital in the social area as well even if not directly linked to employment. Lifelong learning had a wider definition and could also involve soft skills and interests. Regarding opportunities to engage in learning, she saw a range of mixed tools as successful, including incentives for employers but also immediate support for learners through e.g., institutions. She underlined that the attitude to appreciate lifelong learning was crucial and had to be developed.
Referring to age discrimination, Mr Stjernberg saw developing more age-friendly societies as decisive. In practical terms, the experience and knowledge of older workers should be seen as assets, not least in transferring that to younger workers. Keeping people active into old age was vital, whether connected to employment or not, as they continued contributing to society and felt more valued. As for political tools to counteract age discrimination, tax incentives to employ older people might be an option but Mr Stjernberg stressed that the mindset had to be shifted towards healthy aging. Perception of age had to move beyond stereotypes and also had to acknowledge the great diversity of the older generations.
Ms Akhutina saw a complex of measures as necessary, including economic support of employers, the internal culture to welcome older workers as well as healthier life and work conditions. Solutions had to be customised to specific situations and companies.
Regarding political approaches, Mr Stjernberg said that healthy aging as currently promoted by the UN and the WHO was vital. The various points mentioned throughout the seminar required a holistic approach at various levels and policy domains, acknowledging both the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population. He underlined the need for research to better understand the trends and diversification within older populations.
Ms Akhutina highlighted peer-learning at all levels and in all fields, be they academia or social contexts. Permanent experience exchange was crucial and needed to be facilitated, for example through the Baltic Sea Labour Forum. A further political tool, for instance for the BSPC, was to raise awareness by sharing information such as the policy briefs she had mentioned earlier. These briefs were informed by various levels and groupings, dealing with a multiplicity of topics.
Prof Chłoń-Domińczak stressed that ageing should not be seen as a catastrophe. Policies had to adapt to this natural, long-term process as it would remain and stay important. To that end, long-term collaborative international strategies had to be established. Measures that had proven unsuccessful needed to be discarded. She underlined that peer learning was crucial.
BSPC President Pyry Niemi concluded that demographic change strongly affected the labour market as did the digital age. The pandemic had shown how vital it was to focus on young people getting access to the labour market. Keeping older people active in the work force was of equal value, with peer and lifelong learning contributing to shared knowledge and experience among the generations.