Interview whit Anita Abramowska-Kmon
Institute of Statistics and Demography Warsaw School of Economics
Committee for Demographic Sciences, Polish Academy of Sciences
Academia: Is the Polish population getting older?
Dr. Anita Abramowska-Kmon: Poland is no different to other European countries in that we are seeing growing numbers of elderly people in the population. There are two main reasons for this. The first is longer life expectancy – or, to put it another way, lower mortality rates (in recent years, mainly as concerns adults and elderly people). The second is the low number of children being born in Poland. We also face another issue: baby boomers born soon after the Second World War are currently aged around 65 to 70, so we can project that our country’s population will age rapidly in the coming years. I should stress that Poland is currently one of the youngest countries in Europe in the demographic sense, while different population forecasts indicate that it is due to become one of the oldest.
Whom do demographers regard as being elderly?
Demographic analyses generally assume people aged 60 or 65 years old and above. However, I think it would make more sense to look at the average number of years people have left rather than their actual age. According to gerontologists, old age – expressed as a significant reduction in the person’s general health – starts around 10-15 years before their death.
Has life expectancy in Poland changed since the political, economic, and social transformations of 1989?
It has increased significantly, particularly for women. According to information published by Poland’s Central Statistical Office, the life expectancy for children born in 2013 was over 73 years for boys, and over 81 for girls. I should stress here that this is a purely theoretical measure. What it means is that babies born in a given year will live for an average of 80 years, assuming that the conditions of mortality observed in the given year and country remain unchanged throughout those children’s lives. In reality, the life expectancy of babies born in 2013 may turn out to be even higher – but we would need to wait for over a century to verify this.
How many people in Poland are currently aged 65 and over?
There are around 5.5 million out of 38.5 million, which means about 14% of the total population.
People aged 65 and above frequently no longer work. Professionally active younger people often complain that they are working to pay for their elders’ pensions, while the elderly counter that they deserve their pensions after a lifetime of hard work. Where does the truth lie?
Both sides are right. This is because Poland’s pension system is based on the principle of intergenerational solidarity. The term means that people who are currently employed are saving for their own future pensions by paying money into a common fund; these financial resources are then used to pay retirement benefits to existing pensioners, while also providing a guarantee of receiving a pension in the future (paid for by future employees). Currently, there are almost five people of working age for every retired person; according to the latest forecasts from the Central Statistical Office, by 2050 this relation will drop to below two to one. We should also remember that the actual burden on people of working age is even greater, since they support younger generations who are still getting their education rather than working, and that not all people of working age do in fact work.
Should we be worried about the aging of our population?
I try to look at the consequences of aging as a challenge, and view the process itself in a positive way – after all, the fact that we are living longer is a major achievement of humankind. But of course, forecasts predicting that the relations between generations will deteriorate are worrisome. Another problem is that even though we are living longer, we cannot guarantee that we will spend our extended years in good health. These are issues we really must find solutions to now. Let’s not forget that our wellbeing in old age is largely affected by decisions we make throughout our lives, which also includes how we manage our finances. People cannot really count on the support of the government, since it may turn out not have sufficient funds to pay out benefits.
In Poland, the retirement age has been increased recently. Was this the right decision?
I’m very much in favor of this strategy. Changes to the population structure predicted for Poland are almost certain, in particular those concerning older people. As such, we already know what future demand will be for various types of benefit payments needed by elderly people, such as pensions, old-age care, and health care. We really should be preparing for this on administrative and social levels. We cannot bring the retirement age back down, and we shouldn’t even be considering it. This is particularly important when we remember that the current life expectancy for women aged 60 is a further 24 years, and over 15 for men aged 65. These are long periods. Additionally, the increased retirement age means we are likely to have around 10 million pensioners in 2050, in contrast to 12.4 million if the change had not been made. This has a significant impact on the state budget for pension benefits.
Of course much depends on people’s individual working conditions, and whether they are happy to continue working or would prefer to retire. Many studies show that following retirement, many people suffer from significantly worsened health, quality of life and general wellbeing. One of the reasons is that work usually means having contacts with other people, rather than being home alone. This concerns women in particular, since by the time they reach the age of 65, many are widowed, partly due to the differences in life expectancies between men and women. It is also worth noting that not many older people are socially active – for example, only around 10-15% take part in community activities, and they tend to spend the majority of their free time watching TV. These factors have a significant impact on their health and life satisfaction. I am not saying that elderly people should be working as hard as younger people, but there are many intermediate schemes which could be applied.
You conducted an analysis of the data included in the “Social Diagnosis” report (by the Council for Social Monitoring). What does it suggest for our elderly population?
The “Diagnosis,” as well as other studies conducted on the national and international levels, indicate that people’s satisfaction with life tends to form a U-curve during their lives, with the lowest point occurring around the age of 40. This means that elderly people are generally happy with their lives, deriving the most enjoyment from family, children and grandchildren, with health and financial situation seen as being least satisfactory.
But these grandparents have increasingly fewer grandchildren to enjoy.
That’s right – not many children are being born, and we cannot expect this number to suddenly go up. This is partly because people who are and will become new parents in the near future were born during the 1990s, which were already demographic lows.
Currently, the total fertility rate in Poland – the average number of children born to women of reproductive age (assuming no changes in age-specific fertility rates) – is just below 1.3. A generation ago, in 1989, the figure was around 2.0. I should add that this measure is also affected by the number of women who do not have children, and in Poland this figure is one of the highest in Europe. A birth rate of around 1.3 is worryingly low; it means profound and irreversible changes in the age structure of the population, and a more rapid population aging. In the long run, it also means a drop in population numbers. So there will be fewer of us?
Yes, and significantly so. According to the forecast published by the Central Statistical Office in 2014, by 2050 Poland’s population will drop by over 4.5 million to just below 34 million.
Other developed countries have encountered similar problems; what’s the best way to deal with the situation?
I don’t think I’m going to say anything groundbreaking here. For example, France is an example of a country which strives to help families strike a balance between having and raising children, and working. I should stress that for the past 30 years, the number of children born there each year has remained steady at between seven and eight hundred thousand, with the fertility rate oscillating around 2. This is the result of consistent family-oriented policies, with all the major parties in exceptional agreement on the issue. There is a high availability of spaces in day-care facilities and nannies.
Let’s get back to elderly people. What are they really like?
A highly diverse group in terms of wealth, level of education, health, connections with family and friends, social engagement, and so on. All these factors influence one’s wellbeing and life satisfaction. Older people often feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to their families: “I sacrificed so much for my children, and now they owe me something.” In my view, when relationships within the family are good, people don’t tend to think this way, and grown-up children are more likely to care for their parents when they need support. As I said before – many aspects of our old age depend on how we have behaved throughout our lives, and this also includes family ties, how we relate to others, how we form and maintain relationships. Another important aspect is our health, which we should look after whatever our age.
In the past, children were seen as the property of their parents and used as cheap labor helping round the home, farm or small family business; they were also regarded as being responsible for caring for their parents in their old age, including providing financial support. Things are different now, and the value and role of children in the family has changed significantly.
But someone does need to care for elderly people, and their children are often far away and busy.
It’s true to say that even according to the most optimistic forecasts, the growing number of elderly people means that the number of people suffering from various health problems, illnesses or disabilities is also increasing, while the number of potential care-givers is getting steadily lower. But as well as relatives, there are neighbors, friends, acquaintances – another reason it’s worth maintaining social bonds, so we can help each other out at difficult times. Another solution is a formal care system, although unfortunately this is very underdeveloped in Poland. Only one percent of people aged 65 or over are cared for at various types of institutions, predominantly in care homes. This is a very low number. In Western Europe – France, the Netherlands, or the Scandinavian countries – the figure is around 5-6%. I should add, though, that those countries are gradually shifting away from this model, since it has turned out to be too costly. Analyses also show that moving to institutional care tends to correlate with a significant worsening of one’s health, and increased mortality among the eldest group. It is better (and cheaper) to strive for older people to continue living in their own homes for as long as possible. This means we need more community nurses, and home-care providers and support workers.
It is difficult to find people who want to care for elderly people in their homes, though. Should the state or nongovernmental organizations get more involved in this sphere?
We already have certain initiatives organized by NGOs, and charities that contribute to the elderly. A bill reforming the care-providing system was proposed recently by Senator Mieczysław Augustyn, and there are educational programs focusing on care for elderly people. Unfortunately this is not enough at the moment or in the near future. As I said before, families need a support network in terms of caring duties, which should include a range of formal options (including places in care homes). I would also like to stress one more point. The aging population and its consequences are mainly regarded from the perspective of older people, and public expenditure on their benefits and care. But it is important to remember that shifting age structures in the population affect everyone, and perhaps children in particular – children who had, until recently, been left out of these debates. From their perspective, these social changes mean that they grow up in a very different environment than their parents, who were more likely to be surrounded by larger groups of peers (such as siblings and cousins) but had fewer living grandparents. Many of today’s children have no brothers or sisters, and spend the majority of their time with adults (parents and grandparents), and this has an impact on their childhood. I would like to stress that I see the process of population aging as a challenge rather than a problem. However, if we don’t face up to this challenge, then in the near future it may well turn into a problem for our society as a whole.
Interview by Anna Zawadzka
© Academia 3 (43) 2014