Demographic Shifts: We Must Work Differently

All countries undergoing a demographic shift are subject to similar pressures: They're growing older, a growing lack of skilled labor is becoming palpable, and the financing of infrastructure and social services is becoming increasingly difficult. An inevitable downward spiral? Not necessarily. Despite everything, 70 percent of the world's gross national product is currently generated in so-called "aging societies." They are, in other words, rich in resources. Europe and Japan are already being confronted by the complex pressures of maintaining their current level of services and quality of life in the face of these developments. In the long term, though, demographic shift will fundamentally alter the population structure of the entire northern hemisphere. From Canada to Russia and China -- by 2050, 30 percent of the population in all these nations will be over 60.

This also means that whoever can adjust most quickly and find the necessary answers and concepts can be tomorrow's development leaders. If we work and live differently and seize the opportunities offered by globalization, even an aging and shrinking society can unleash enormous energies.

Women, for example, are still employed far below their capacities in the majority of industrialized nations. Many are well-educated and want to demonstrate their capacities beyond a minimal number of working hours by having a career and by sharing the demands of private and professional life more effectively with their partners. This is true not only for young couples who are having children but also for older couples when it comes to caring for dependents. In a society of long lives and many working years, time off can't continue to be a deterrent to a career -- for women or for men.

Less than 10 years ago, Germany was gripped by a discussion of whether Angela Merkel was competent to lead the nation as Chancellor -- because she's a woman! Today the doubts have all been silenced, both at home and abroad. Hardly anyone realizes that the German middle class, the central labor dynamo of the globally-recognized German export machine, already employs women in one-third of all management positions. Lesson learned! In the sciences, it's long been recognized that diversity puts enterprises ahead, not least because a mix of ideas and experiences encourages them to set intelligent goals and thereby to consistently succeed.

Today, groundbreaking enterprises in Germany are learning that the right combination of old and young, of creative and experienced, of dynamic and careful input offers increased productivity and distinct market advantage. Snide ageism sounds distinctly dated. The demographic shift emerges as a significant opportunity for the older population to redefine their role in social labor relations. We must continue to pursue this opportunity by investing in age-appropriate working conditions and discovering how people can continue working into their old age in a way that's satisfying and a healthy for mind and body. Expertise in intelligent processes and defense mechanisms could become a massive new German export.

Sooner or later, a crisis of skilled labor will require all aging industrial societies to actively engage with the global labor market. The entire world is competing for the best talent, which will only come if immigration laws are open and modern, and the society presents a welcoming face to foreign skilled labor.

Every skilled body will be needed. This is especially true for the shrinking younger generation, who will shoulder a great deal of responsibility. Because so much will be demanded of them in the future, they require an educational infrastructure that will allow them to fully realize their capacities and potential. Better-quality child care and all-day schools are important talking points but not sufficient. Keeping all generations in sync with the realities of the modern labor market means an increasing emphasis on continuing education and qualification throughout the worker's professional trajectory -- a task that falls not only to the state but also to the private sector.

Germany today possesses all the prerequisites for coping with the ongoing transformation. But this will require an openness to change. We can't allow the reform process to stall.