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Strengthening Cohesion – Accepting Responsibility

Demography Summit of the German Federal Government on 16 March 2017 in Berlin

Everybody wants to grow older, but nobody wants to be old. These were the words used by Dr. Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s Federal Minister of the Interior, to highlight a dilemma which was a recurring theme of the many speeches and discussions heard during the Federal Government’s Demography Summit, held on 16 March 2017 in Berlin under the motto “Strengthening Cohesion – Accepting Responsibility”.

Given the change that has occurred as regards the notion of ageing and the attitudes towards it, Federal Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel used her speech to urge people to show courage in viewing old age in a positive light. This position was supported by the futurist Matthias Horx, who questioned the negative myths surrounding ageing and made the case for adopting a positive approach towards both old age and the ageing process. In discussions of the work undertaken by the appointed working groups, the issues of digitalisation, the demographic trend in rural areas as well as the commitment of young people to work together in managing demographic change all played a particularly prominent role.

Federal Interior Minister Dr. de Maizière: No indication of intergenerational conflict

In his opening speech, the Federal Interior Minister dispelled one concern regarding solidarity between people of different generations: based on the findings of the working groups, discussion forums and surveys carried out as part of the Federal Government’s demographic strategy, recent forecasts of “intergenerational conflict” have proved to be unfounded. Instead, it has been shown that the political vision of our society has always depended – and continues to depend – not only on the personal interests of the elderly, but also on their immediate surroundings and, in particular, their own families.

As far as preventing a political imbalance between different generations is concerned, de Maizière went on to say that – based on what we know at present – encouraging young people to actively participate in political elections is more important than increasing older people’s awareness of the issues affecting young people. Ultimately, the vital factor in the relationship between young and old is not age, but a sense of democratic belonging instead, the quality of which is shown during elections, said Dr. de Maizière. Discussions regarding the issue of demographic change – to give just one example – revolve far too often around dividing society into winners and losers. He disagreed strongly with this division; in his view, a free society is not about seeing everything in either black or white but instead about finding a balance between material and immaterial wealth that people can live with.

Dr. Angela Merkel: Demographic trend is different to 2012

The picture shows Federal Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel during her speech at the Demography Summit. Federal Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel highlighted the new demographic landscape in GermanyCompared to 2012, today’s demographic trend takes on a different look, underlined Federal Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel. Source: Henning Schacht

Federal Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel pointed to the change that has taken place in the demographic landscape in Germany over the last five years since the introduction of the Federal Government’s demographic strategy in 2012. The assumption at the time was that although conurbations would continue to grow, the population across the country would nevertheless decrease. However, the current picture shows the population to be growing slightly. In her analysis, Dr. Merkel cited immigration from European countries and the large number of refugees who have come to Germany recently as the primary reasons for this increase.

Based on this trend, current forecasts predict that Germany’s population in 20 years’ time will be at roughly the same level as it is today. Nevertheless, the number of people in employment will continue to decline while the number of older people will continue to grow, added the Federal Chancellor, although the figures will vary from region to region.

Still room for improvement: The role played by young people in shaping demographic change

During the course of the summit, the need for young people to play an active role in shaping demographic change was repeatedly stressed. For instance, the Federal Chancellor called on young people to be confident in expressing what they want from politics. She stressed that while it is the task of policymakers to establish a proper framework, the capacity to care and show concern for others ultimately also needs to be a prevalent feature within society.

For Parliamentary State Secretary Caren Marks (from the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth), it is clear that engaging in dialogue with young people is the only way in which demographic change can be managed successfully. She called for young people’s voices to be heard and their opinions to be taken into account during the decision-making process. Four young people used their proposals to put forward examples of ways to creatively address the challenge of demographic change.

The main focus in this regard was the call for young people to become more involved in the issue of demographic change. Ms Marks admitted that there was still “room for improvement” on this front. Nevertheless, specific recommendations for action, such as safe and more numerous mobility options for senior citizens and younger people, especially in rural areas, were also presented. A proposal was also put forward for online schools and universities with small regional learning groups. Under the measure, these groups would spend half of their time learning online and the other half of their time attending either school or university.

Proposals put forward by young people as part of the “Young people shape the future” working group

With peripheral and rural regions shrinking, another idea put forward was to make a targeted effort to attract people to these areas. Finally, and importantly, medical care also plays a role in an ageing society. Here, a well-developed mobile medical care service which would allow patients to be monitored remotely could help to improve the situation in rural areas. Ms Marks added that so-called “Smart Gears”, which are worn on the wrist like a watch and measure key bodily functions, could be used to send data to a doctor who then has an overview of the patient’s condition, albeit remotely.

These are just a few examples of the ideas put forward by young people, but they show what contribution their involvement can make to politics as well, stressed Ms Marks. Their proposals were developed within the framework of the “Young people shape the future” working group for the Federal Government’s demographic strategy. The aim of the working group is to actively incorporate young people and the issues that concern them into the Federal Government’s decision-making process on demographic policy.

Can advancing digitalisation help to manage demographic change?

However, implementing many of the ideas that were proposed will require a well-functioning digital infrastructure, especially in rural areas.

Representing the many different views expressed on the topic of digitalisation, the president of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), Reiner Hoffman, used the panel debate to look at the implications for the labour market which are currently under debate, before posing what he regards to be the crucial question: Will the benefits afforded by digitalisation enable people to stay healthy for longer and still be capable of doing their jobs?

The question of the opportunities that digitalisation brings also arises in other areas – for example, in providing digital access for rural regions which can in turn attract business and prevent the regions from being left behind. Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Christian Schmidt summed up the situation with the following comment: “Who needs a fast road when you have high-speed Internet?”

Dr. Merkel noted that the State ultimately faces a problem in these areas, namely whether or not it is still able to provide public services on a day-to-day basis. She believes that digitalisation can help improve the situation in rural areas – provided that the technical infrastructure required to do so is already in place.

Digital support and human cooperation are both important

For Federal Interior Minister Dr. de Maizière, digitalisation is a massive factor in determining quality of life - including, and in particular, in rural areas. For this reason, he equates digitalisation policy with infrastructure policy for these regions. For instance, digital assistant systems for older people could help to make up for weaknesses in analogue infrastructure. While a carebot is able to help elderly people or even those in need of long-term care in many everyday situations, it cannot replace a human being, he added; in the end, a society needs not only digital support but also cooperation between humans, concluded de Maizière.

Debunking the negative myths around ageing: the views of a futurist

The picture shows futurist Matthias Horx during his talk at the Demography Summit. Futurist Matthias Horx made the case in favour of adopting a positive attitude towards ageingFor futurist Matthias Horx, the calmness and composure of old people is helpful in terms of managing the future. Source: Henning Schacht

The way in which society views demographic change also plays a primary role in how people manage the consequences that it brings, believes the futurist and creator of the Zukunftsinstitut, Matthias Horx. He warned against viewing demographics solely through a “perspective of negative exaggeration”. On closer examination, the negative myths surrounding ageing, for example, are by no means as clear-cut as it often portrayed.

Taking Alzheimer’s disease as an example, the claim that “the older you get, the more ill you become” is shown to be incorrect upon examination, says Horx. The illness is linked very strongly to patients’ respective lifestyles, especially at a mental level. Interestingly enough, in those regions of Europe where the quality of life and level of education is high, there is even a reduction in Alzheimer’s in absolute terms, stressed Horx. However, this has not yet been explored in any study. The same applies to the myth that Germany’s population is shrinking. Based on current estimates, added Horx, the population figure will in actual fact increase.

The assumption that an ageing society becomes increasingly rigid and is reactionary or regressive, is not true either, according to Horx. For instance, despite the fact that people are living longer, the healthy lifespan in old age will increase in future in highly-developed countries. Subjective well-being is also increasing among older people who are much more relaxed in this particular phase of their life, he explained.

As people grow older, their level of stress falls, as do the amount of concerns and worries they have. Taking these factors into consideration, together with the reduction in pressure to have to take decisions, elderly people felt much happier than younger people. For instance, subjective well-being is lowest in particular among people aged in their mid-thirties. Horx cites stress and the need to take decisions during the rush-hour of life, which this age group experienced to a particularly intensive degree, as the reasons why this is the case.

Changing the perception of old age

The diagnosis of the futurist was that all of these debunked myths revealed a mental attitude in Germany which sees people fascinated by the idea that the world is coming to an end. “The typical German takes these thoughts to bed with him and will be happy to do so”, said Horx in summing up the situation.

People need to change the way they think about ageing and see it in a positive sense. This might make our culture more mature and at the same time richer, and stop us from yielding to the negative perception that culture and society are in an existential decline. Managing the future will require a well-functioning network of relationships between different areas of society. In this respect, the calmness and composure that comes with age can be really helpful, particularly since the maturity of a society is very clearly a competitive advantage, analysed Horx.

New section of the Demographic Portal launched at the summit

The Demographic Portal of the Federation and the Länder, which is run by the Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB), was also present at the summit with its own stand. There, Yvonne Eich and Dr. Stephan Kühntopf from the editorial team launched a new section on the Demographic Portal entitled “International Good Practice” consisting of 40 projects. The example projects show what is already working well in other European countries as well as in Japan and Canada in terms of regional services for people’s well-being.

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