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Congress addresses age-old issues

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, recipient of the first "Prix des Générations"

(Keystone)

An international conference in St Gallen, which started on Thursday, is addressing retirement-age issues from sociological, political and medical perspectives.

Some 400 experts including academics, former ministers, representatives of the United Nations and various non-governmental organisations are attending the three-day 2005 World Ageing & Generations Congress.

Marcel Bischof, head of Viva 50plus, a Swiss voluntary organisation concerned with demographic and generational topics and the organisers of the congress, says one of the key areas is the funding and sustainability of the social-security system.

"When Switzerland's social-insurance scheme came into force in 1948, life expectancy beyond the age of 65 was a mere three years," he said. "Now it is quite normal for people to live well into their 80s. However, since the 1990s we have seen a trend towards early retirement."

The trade unions insist on this as a right, but politicians and the business world would like to scale down this trend.

Bischof, and many other experts, regard early retirement as a waste of human capital, with a wealth of experience and knowledge not being handed on.

"We cannot have a situation whereby people study and train until they are 30, work for 20 or 25 years, then live in retirement for a further 30!" he said.

The Public Forum on Friday will address the issue: "Will the age pyramid turn our way of life upside down?"

In addition, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, 86, will become the first person to receive the Viva 50plus "Prix des Générations", a tribute to an international personality who has rendered outstanding services to age and generational questions over a long period.

Challenge

Demographic studies estimate that in Switzerland the over-65s will account for 25 per cent of the population in 2040 (compared with 15 per cent in 2000).

What's more, the fertility rate (the average number of births per woman) in Switzerland is 1.4 – too few to ensure a secure old age and guaranteed pension for future generations.

To keep the social security and pensions system in balance, the fertility rate would need to be at least 2.1.

Experts say decreasing birth rates and ageing populations will result in a gradual reduction in the ratio of active workers to retired people. They say this is one of the greatest challenges facing the western world.

Unfortunately, says Bischof, politicians take a very short-sighted view of the future. "A politician who, in playing to the gallery, says that the social-security system is safe and the retirement age will remain unchanged, even for up to 50 years, is making a very, very dangerous promise."

swissinfo

Key facts

At the end of 2004, Switzerland had a population of 7,418,400, a 0.7% increase on 2003.
According to demographic studies, 50 years from now Switzerland could have two million fewer inhabitants.
In 1948, when Switzerland's social security system was introduced, the ratio of working to retired people was 9:1. Now it is 4:1.
In 2040, with approximately 25% of the population aged over 65, the ratio could be as low as 2:1 – one pensioner for every two workers.

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In brief

The World Ageing & Generations Congress 2005 is being held from September 29 to October 1 in St Gallen.

The international scientific congress on the theme of ageing and society will be attended by some 400 experts from 35 countries, including academics, gerontologists, former ministers and representatives of the UN and various NGOs.

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