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Despite the fact that the Covid years have led to a decrease in life expectancy in the European Union (from 81.3 years in 2019 to 80.1 in 2021), estimates say that by 2050 the over-65s will become 29.6 per cent of the population (today they are about 20.1 per cent) and that the average age will increase (from 44 to 52.1 years). Simply put, the Old Continent will be getting older. There are various reasons for this but, this change is mainly due to the growing denatality affecting Europe. And Italy in particular.

This demographic change is a long process, which has been ongoing for some time and which will have major consequences in many different areas. To try to govern it at EU level, and not only at the level of individual states, the European Commission from 2019 has a vice-president for democracy and demography, the Croatian Commissioner Dubravka Šuica.

The aim of the Commission portfolio managed by Šuica is to understand demographic trends and to close gaps in the labour market. But also to develop forms of intergenerational justice and solidarity, seeking to address population thinning and new structural trends, including family structures, migration and ageing. We asked Šuica how Europe is moving towards these goals.

Deciding that a vice-president of the Commission should devote herself to the subject of demography was a strong political signal of attention from President Von der Leyen. However, bearing in mind that many competencies remain with the member states in this area, what role does the EU Commission play in countering European demographic decline?

Demographic change may be gradual and less visible than some of the challenges we face, climate change or digital transition for example, but it is no less urgent to address. If we do not take demographic change into account, we cannot be fully effective when we roll out our policy initiatives, most notably those that are tackling the green and digital transition, but also the COVID recovery. We now also have the immediate and longer terms challenges caused by the Kremlin’s illegal war on Ukraine.

Everything that we do, and all the policies that we design, are underpinned by demography, and unless demographic change is fully taken into account, all our efforts may end being purposeless.

Therefore, taking into account demographic trends and anticipating their impacts is key to responsible and responsive policy-making in democracies. We will not be able to achieve the targets of our ambitious, but necessary, green and digital transitions without factoring in the third key transition: demographic change.

The Commission’s Report on the Impact of Demographic Change shows that there can be no one-size-fits-all approach. Policymaking needs to focus on the reality on the ground. Most importantly, we have to see these demographic trends not as challenges but as opportunities. This illustrates the change of mindset required in the search for appropriate policy-responses. Building on the Demographic Change Report, we are addressing important issues such as ageing, rural areas, children’s rights, depopulation, brain drain and long-term care. These form the tangible steps towards a European Union for all ages.

With the Green Paper on demographic ageing, the Commission launched “a broad political debate on this issue”. What has emerged so far? Is there a shared vision among the member states? How has the pandemic changed the picture?

The coronavirus pandemic exposed our vulnerabilities. It stressed the importance of understanding and responding to the impact demographic change in our society. Age, the movement of population or its density may influence the virulence of infectious diseases like the coronavirus.

Demographic change influences our daily lives; it impacts on how and where we live. Urban and rural areas are differently affected by demographic changes. Career patterns will continue to change, challenging our education and training systems.

The fact that our life expectancy has increased so much is first and foremost an enormous achievement. We are living more years in good health. But there are certainly challenges. In some Member States this is already felt more acutely than in others. This the very reason why we believe it is time to act, to address these issues and turn them into opportunities.

The Green Paper on Ageing, therefore, takes a life-cycle approach, addressing all ages and analysing both the challenges and opportunities, such as

  • Healthy and active ageing and lifelong learning
  • greater demand for healthcare and long-term care;
  • sustain social protection systems as the working-age population shrinks;
  • boost productivity and increase labour market participation
  • driver for innovation and the silver economy
  • the sustainability and adequacy of our pension systems
  • inter-generational living and learning, and volunteering.

Tackling these issues is essential to maintain prosperity and to ensure solidarity and fairness among generations, and as such contribute to more cohesive societies.

How can a unified management of migratory flows be functional in addressing the demographic issue? In other words, must and can the two issues be linked, all the more so now that we are receiving refugees – in many cases minors – fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Legal migration is an important element as we seek solutions to the shortage of skilled workers. Migration is also a natural phenomenon since the beginning of human kind and many countries and societies have highly benefitted from it and still do.  It is not a secret that migration is here to stay.

We have recently adopted the skills and talents communication under the legal migration package, and you will have seen that demography figures quite prominently in that area. Legal migration can help boost Europe’s working-age population while addressing specific labour market needs and regional disparities.

It is probably still too early to assess the impact of the horrific war being waged on the people of Ukraine. In the immediate term we have been working to map the Ukranian diaspora across the EU, which may help in terms of planning where those fleeing the war could go as they seek refuge in member states

Our magazine deals with second welfare. In your opinion, what is the role of the private sector, both profit and social, in implementing welfare policies that can ‘respond to the challenges and opportunities that ageing brings’?

The demographic changes we are facing are so profound that we have to mobilise all resources and stakeholders in making sure our societies are more resilient and fit for the future. This includes very concrete actions and increased participation of the private sector in provision of welfare services. The growing size of European older population clearly opens potential for innovation and creativity in providing tailor made solutions.

This potential can only be fulfilled if private sector is actively engaged. As regulators both at EU and National level we need to ensure that the correct incentives are in place for the activation of this sector and that the barriers are being continuously removed.  This will allow both profit and social organisations to contribute in very tangible and concrete ways.