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Europe's Ageing Crisis

DW staff / dpa (df)
October 31, 2006

Under growing pressure to tackle the challenges of a shrinking workforce and an ageing population, the EU has urged member states to help citizens better unite paid work with family commitments at a special forum.

Having kids and a job isn't easy for mothers in EuropeImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

The first-ever EU-level expert forum on Europe's ageing crisis kicked off in Brussels on Monday. The two-day conference will look at ways to reverse the Europe-wide trend of a falling birth rate and a graying population that experts fear might have a devastating effect on the continent's economy as well as social structure.

Governments in the European Union must set up more flexible working conditions, such as cuts in working hours when parents are caring for younger children, to be made up at a later stage in life, Vladimir Spidla, the EU's employment commissioner told reporters on Monday.

"Staying at home and taking care of the kids should not mean losing out in a career," said Spidla.

Mutter und Kind
Birth rates are plummeting across most of EuropeImage: Bilderbox

EU member states need to draw up policies that would enable women to balance their work with having the number of children they want, Spidla added. Most Europeans would actually like to have at two children.

"Fathers who stay at home are not wimps. And working mothers are not Rabenmutter, (a derogatory German term for women who are not stay-at-home mums)," said Spidla.

Sinking birth rates

The average number of children per woman across the EU is at 1.5, but 2.1 are needed to replace a previous generation.

The birthrate in Germany, at 1.36 per woman, is slightly below the European Union average.

"In the future, we will have to look at all policies through demographic glasses," said Spidla. "Changes will be evident in the labor market, the health care and pension system, but demographic ageing will also be a challenge for our educational systems, our urban planning, housing facilities or infrastructure."

Spidla welcomed Germany's plans for setting up a "European Alliance for Families" aimed at supporting family friendly work policies in EU member states. Germany takes over the rotating EU presidency from Finland in January.

The EU, however, would not plan any concrete legal proposals to tackle the lack of a good balance between work and family life but leave mapping out new policies to the bloc's member states.

Policy tools to battle trend

"Family-friendliness is also a major location factor for European enterprises engaged in global competition," said German Minister for Family Affairs Ursula von der Leyen, adding that a balance between work and family life would also increase productivity.

Von der Leyen, a mother of seven, also presented new German initiatives such as the introduction of a salary for parents, which will amount to a maximum of 1,800 euros ($2,284) per month.

Deutschland Symbolbild Elterngeld
Policies that enable fathers to take a more active parenting roleImage: AP

Finnish Minister for Social Affairs, Tuula Haatainen called for "universal childcare services" to help in particular women better unite career and family life.

The EU Commission earlier this month presented a new strategy to address demographic change in the 25-member union. The number of Europeans of working age (between 15 and 64 years old) is expected to shrink by 20 million by the year 2030, taking into account 1.8 million immigrants annually.

Falling birth rates, rising life expectancy and the retirement of the baby-boomer generation mean that by 2050, two workers will be paying for one pensioner.

In almost all European countries, having a child pushed down the employment rate of women between 20-49 years by more than 14 percent, while it drove up men's by almost 6 percent, the commission said earlier.

The continuing struggle to balance work and home not only forces women to quit their job, but also lowers fertility rates, the EU executive said, adding that this had a negative impact on the bloc's already sluggish economy.

National action plans drawn up by member states so far 'showed less visibility and a loss of momentum of gender issues,' according to the commission.

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