This is what aging looks like in three very aging countries

The Dutch are getting older and older, and this has major consequences. To keep pensions affordable, the state pension age is already being raised in steps.

But a ‘grayer’ society encounters more problems. We look at three countries that are much grayer than the Netherlands: Italy, Spain and Japan. The inhabitants of these countries are among the oldest in the world:

News hour / Lars Boogaard

First Italy. In Europe, the Italians are the oldest people, as you can see in the chart above. The country also has the highest proportion of people over 65.

And it doesn’t look like the country will ever be rejuvenated again, because few young people are joining. On average, an Italian woman now has 1.3 children, fewer than ever before.

News hour / Lars Boogaard

Usually the following applies: as prosperity increases, the birth rate decreases. Because people then need fewer or no children for their livelihood. In the Netherlands, too, the birth rate is now far below the value of 2.1 needed to maintain the population without migration.

That the Italian figure is even smaller is due to economic and cultural reasons. For example, it is difficult to combine a child with a job in the inflexible Italian labor market. Employers are not quick to let employees work part-time.

And so women postpone having children, demographer Elena Ambrosetti sees. “They leave the parental nest late and start working very late. All phases of life are pushed forward.”

“If a couple doesn’t get together before they’re both over 30, the chances of having two or three children get smaller and smaller.”

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Silvia had three children. Her employer provides extra pay and leave for young single parents

The Italian government is not completely blind to the problem. Two years ago he introduced a plan to tackle the lack of births. There were tax breaks for young parents, child benefits and longer parental leave.

According to Ambrosetti, the Italian government waited far too long with these measures.These are initiatives that must lead to a cultural change. It takes time for them to reach families, couples and young people.”

The Spanish countryside is emptying

In Spain, the effects of an aging population can best be seen in small villages. For example, in Almedijar, just north of Valencia, half of the 281 inhabitants have already retired.

Still, if you come there in summer, you will not say that the village is so gray. The old/young ratio is now fairly balanced due to the large number of young holidaymakers and relatives who come to visit.

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In the cafe in Almedijar, it is mostly pensioners

Almedijar seems to be the foreland of all of Spain. In 2050, one in three Spaniards will be older than 65, it is expected.

The aging of Spanish villages is not only caused by a low birth rate, but also by emigration. Young people decide en masse to move to the big city or abroad. Because if well-educated healthcare workers, for example, choose to stay, they often end up in poorly paid jobs with great uncertainty.

Many of them are therefore aiming for a future in the Netherlands, among other places. It helps (somewhat) against the lack of staff in our healthcare system, but there is now a threat of a lack of trained staff in Spain, says economist Raymond Torres. “We are at a crossroads. We are facing the demographic shift that will await this country over the next 30 years. This is where we become aware of the need to retain young people here.”

In regions outside the big cities, the population has already fallen sharply in recent years:

News hour / Lars Boogaard

This migration also leaves too few working people to support the aging population. The pension system is under great pressure.

Radical reforms are therefore needed, says economist Raymond Torres. “Either Spain drastically cuts pensions so they remain affordable. Or the labor market will be overhauled. By implementing tough measures to tackle youth unemployment and by reforming the way businesses operate, the pension system can survive stays.”

Is Japan our future?

Then Japan. The population of this country is the oldest in the world: the average age is still a few months higher than in Italy. The proportion of over 65s is increasing rapidly:

News hour / Lars Boogaard

If you put these two graphs on top of each other, you can say that Japan is about twenty years ahead of the Netherlands. But the countries are not easy to compare. For example, the working weeks in Japan are longer, which means that there is less shortage of staff than in the Netherlands.

Even so, the proportion of people over 65 is already much higher in Japan than in the Netherlands. And then, on average, people also get quite a bit older than here. To keep pensions affordable, the Japanese government has begun encouraging the elderly to continue working after retirement.

But it is still not enough to compensate for the low influx of workers and ensure that there are enough young hands at the bedside. And then companies look abroad.

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21-year-old Kathlyn Romano from the Philippines works in a Japanese nursing home

But this growing need for foreign labor collides with another Japanese need: the desire to absorb as few migrants as possible. The government would like to take in more migrant workers, but the rules are strict. Usually, the company a migrant works for decides how long he or she can stay in Japan.

“The Japanese government is not bringing in foreigners as people but as workers, that’s the biggest problem,” said Ayumi Maido of a migrant support group. “The government only wants people to come over if it is beneficial for the companies and if there really aren’t too many.”

The strict migration policy came under fire last year when a 33-year-old Sri Lankan who had overstayed in Japan died in a detention center. Her cries for medical help were seen as a ploy to get released.

These kinds of incidents are typical of the attitude of the government and the population, says Maido. “Workers from Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East are seen as inferior in Japan. Those people are still looked down upon.”

  • Aging Japan needs migrants, but does not warmly welcome them

  • In Italy they desperately want people to have a child

  • Spanish young people travel en masse to the city or abroad

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