Labor Policies Need Changes as Germans Live Longer | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.09.2006
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Labor Policies Need Changes as Germans Live Longer

A shift in demographics means Germany should alter its labor policies to encourage more older people to continue working as the average life span grows and the birth rate stagnates, according to some experts.

Older Germans sit together in a university auditorium

The average life span has gone up 2.5 years per decade

Germany has a tradition of aged politicians -- Konrad Adenauer was 73 when became the first chancellor of the Federal Republic in 1949 and remained a member of parliament until his death at the ripe age of 91 while Helmut Schmidt is 87, and his successor Helmut Kohl, at 75, is still going strong -- but it's not just the politicians who have a proclivity for living long lives.

The average German's life span is also rising, according to data released by the Health Ministry last week. For women, it is 81.6 years, and 76 years for men -- up nearly three and four years, respectively, since 1990.

Germans are healthier and living longer

German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer

Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, remained in parliament until his death at 91

Germans are healthier than ever, according to the 220-page report, but German Health Minister Ulla Schmidt warned, "They are still much too fat, exercise too little, smoke excessively, and drink too much alcohol."

In Europe, North America and Japan longevity has steadily increased since 1840, climbing 2.5 years every decade, and shows no signs of stopping, according to James Vaupel, head of the Max Planck Institute for Longevity in Rostock.

"If the present trend continues, half of infants who were born in the year 2000 will live to see 2100, compared to less than 1 percent at the turn of the last century, who lived to 100," Vaupel said.

Lifestyle factors more important than genes

Longevity cannot be chalked up to what genes children inherit, and has renewed the nature vs. nurture debate over which influences are predominant, Vaupel added. The prevailing view among scientists is that how long one's parents or even identical twin has lived, has generally little to do with one's own life expectancy.

Two sets of identical twins

Even identical twins die more than 10 years apart

"Identical twins on average die within 10 or 11 years of each other. The gap between siblings, who share half their genes, is 12 years, and for non-related individuals from the same community, it is 14 years. That's not a whole lot more," Vaupel said.

Furthermore, the genetic component for two of the leading natural causes of death -- heart disease and cancer -- is almost negligible. Over 90 percent of all cancers have environmental, not hereditary, causes, including radiation, chemicals and pollution, while medical advances have been made in treating heart disease over the last few decades.

"Maybe you're unfortunate enough to inherit the apoE4 gene, which predisposes you to heart disease and Alzheimer's, but you can do something about it," Vaupel said. "Proper diet and exercise can suppress the bad effects of certain genes. The bottom line is that lifestyle factors are far more important in determining longevity than genes."

Gap between eastern and western Germany shrinking

The German flag flies in front of the Bundestag

The longevity of those who grew up in the East has now reached the level of the West

German reunification in 1990 provided a natural laboratory for determining the impact of better nutrition, medical care and living conditions on the longevity of former East Germans.

The life spans of men and women, who grew up in the German Democratic Republic jumped by nearly five years to reach West German levels between 1990 and 2002, whereas West Germans experienced gains of 2.5 years over the same period of time.

Impact of aging society on labor policy

The demographic implications of a graying society, where the elderly are living longer and healthier lives, compounded by the low fertility rate of 1.36 per woman in Germany, is already having an impact on the government's labor policies, as the working population ages and gradually declines.

This month, "Initiative 50plus" was launched by German Labor Minister Franz Müntefering, who at 66 is past the retirement age for public servants. The initiative attempts to counteract age discrimination and encourages employers to give older unemployed workers a chance to re-enter the job market, to be re-trained and to stay employed longer.

Nearly three-quarters of all employers in Germany no longer hire people over the age of 50, according to the Institute for Employment Research.

Redistribution of work among broader age range

Labor Minister Franz Müntefering

Labor Minister Franz Müntefering's "Initiative 50plus" was launched this month

"Policies of the last few decades have strongly encouraged older workers to go into early retirement with generous financial incentives, in order to make room for a younger generation," said Bernd Katzenstein, spokesman for the German Pension Institute (DIA). "But this hasn't done anything to reduce unemployment among the young.

"With better health and longevity, many of those above 60, want to continue working," he said.

Work needs to be redistributed among all age brackets, including those over 60, and more part-time work options need to be made available, Vaupel added.

"This way it's possible to balance work, leisure and family in varying amounts in each phase of life, without so much of the burden falling on 30-50 year olds, who are in the prime of their working lives and raising younger children," he said.

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