Ageing population poses challenges for Switzerland

The number of people aged 65 and older is expected to increase dramatically in the next 60 years

A new study by the Federal Office for Statistics says the Swiss population is no longer increasing and that it is getting older.

This content was published on April 27, 2001 - 13:45

The study looked at possible scenarios of how the population might change between now and 2060, and concluded that there would be a dramatic increase in the number of people over the age of 65.

Switzerland's population is not ageing as fast as it is in Italy or Germany, largely because immigration to Switzerland, primarily of younger people, increased markedly in the 1980s and 1990s.

Nevertheless, if current population trends continue, the study predicts that the number of people over 65 in Switzerland will have increased by 54 per cent by 2060, while those under this age will have decreased by 11 per cent. This would mean that for every 100 people working, there will be 63 people who are past the official retirement age.

The reason for the ageing population is not just increased life expectancy, but a falling birth rate. Swiss women now have, on average, only 1.3 children, while foreign women living in Switzerland have 1.6.

Officials at the Federal Office for Statistics say the situation is unique in human history.

"We have never before faced something like this," said Werner Haug, who is deputy director of the office. "The population is at best stable, if not decreasing, but at the same time it is rapidly ageing."

Nevertheless Haug does not believe the trend towards an elderly population should necessarily cause concern. "It's not something we need to be pessimistic about, but we do need to take action. Our society needs to change to reflect the way the population is changing."

Haug points out that one of the reasons for the falling birth rate is the continuing difficulty in combining work and family.

"Whichever scenario we look at," he said, "the number of women in the work force increases. But here in Switzerland we don't have the social infrastructure to go along with that, and so the birth rate is falling."

Haug says an interesting comparison can be made with Scandinavian countries. "Norway and Sweden have the highest birth rate in Europe, and also the highest percentage of women in the work force. They have achieved that by making it easier to combine work and family, with adequate child care provision and so on."

Haug says our attitude to elderly people will need to change too. "Once again we need to see this as a positive development; people are living longer, and staying healthier longer, this is a good thing."

Nevertheless, the study predicts that, in the first half of this century, the number of people who continue to work past the official retirement age will increase. "We need to see that older people can still contribute," said Haug, "and we need to welcome that contribution instead of viewing the elderly as a burden on society."

In fact, if the population does age in the way the study expects it to, elderly people will probably have to work, because the numbers of men and women of official working age will simply not be enough to support such a large retired population.

All these factors pose a huge challenge to Swiss society; will it be able to adapt to the inevitable changes in the population? Werner Haug is not so sure.

"Well I think Switzerland is still far away from addressing these issues," he said, "these are the biggest challenges facing our society, and I do hope that we will cope."


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