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Ageing population taxes minds in Geneva

Pensioners are staying healthier and living longer

(Keystone)

The opportunities and challenges posed by an ageing society will be under discussion at a series of conferences in Geneva this week, starting on Monday.

Academics, government officials and economists will address issues such as the consequences for the labour market, the welfare system, society and the economy.

Like global warming, demographic changes that will see a big increase in the number over-65s in the coming decades tend to be viewed as a "ticking time bomb" menacing society.

Frequent concerns include: Will pensions shrivel under the strain? Can the welfare system cope? And will the retirement age have to be raised?

But the weeklong lecture series at Geneva University, which is being hosted by the non-profit kogita association, also intends to put the accent on the benefits an ageing society can bring.

"I wouldn't say it is a time bomb. There will be changes but the question is: will they be very painful or just painful, or can they be manageable," Pierre Allan, dean of the university's faculty of economic and social sciences, told swissinfo.

"There will also be opportunities with more people who are older and wiser. As scientific studies have shown, people who are more mature are happier to do something for their families, neighbours and society as a whole. You have to find ways to provide non-market solutions for these people, because they want to help."

Pooling resources

Speaking ahead of this week's lecture series, organiser Geneviève Brunet said Geneva could become a centre of expertise for research into ageing.

The city is home to the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, plus non-governmental organisations working in the fields of social security and insurance.

But at present the various fields of expertise are disjointed. "There is a critical mass but the efforts are fragmented," admitted Allan.

The Geneva University professor noted that Switzerland, like Britain and a number of Nordic countries, was already getting to grips with the issue of ageing.

Pension system

He said the Swiss were ahead of the game with their "three-pillar" pension system – state, occupational and private. And while a proposal by Interior Minster Pascal Couchepin to raise the retirement age to 67 caused an outcry, it did grab the public's attention.

"There are some things that are still taboo and that's understandable," said Allan. "But this was further evidence that you have to find solutions to problems which are not yet upon us but in the medium and long term will definitely be with us."

"I think public awareness is improving but in terms of people who see ageing as a threat rather than as a solution to some social problems," he added.

According to figures published by the Federal Statistics Office in July, the number of people over 65 in Switzerland will almost double by 2050.

By then there will be only two people of working age to support each pensioner, while the current rate is four to one.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

Pensions (Three Pillar system)

The old-age pension system consists of three levels (pillars). The first is the state pension plan. Every resident must pay contributions to a ...

In brief

The Swiss population is expected to peak at 8.2 million in 2036 before falling to 8.1 in 2050.

The number of people aged 65 and over will increase by 90% in the same period to 2.2 million people – or 27% of the population.

Swiss trends mirror those in the European Union where the number of people 60 or over is expected to constitute one-third of Europe's population by 2050.

Switzerland has more 55-64 year olds working per head of the population than any other industrialised country, according to 2003 figures.

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The series of conferences on the "Opportunities and Challenges of Ageing" runs from November 6-10 at Geneva University.

Speakers include: Jean-Pierre Roth, president of the Swiss National Bank; Emmanuel Reynaud, head of social security policy at the International Labour Organization; and Werner Haug, vice-director of the Swiss Federal Statistics Office.

Themes include: "Demography, Labour Market and Immigration"; "Age Management in Business and Employability of Seniors"; and "Demography and Economic Policy: the Challenges".

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