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Population Decline and the Future of Germany (December 7, 2005)

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Thus the demographic shift will affect every one of us. It is equally important to realize, however, that we aren’t entirely at the mercy of the causes and effects of this demographic shift. We definitely have options to take action to influence the future. And we need to take advantage of these options; we owe that to future generations.

But first we must ask ourselves the following questions: How do we actually envision the future of our country in twenty or even fifty years? How will we live, how do we want to live? Do we want to place our trust in society’s powers of self-regulation or do we want to try to set a new course? And what options do we have in that regard? These are fundamental questions. I would like an open, unbiased discussion of these issues – at this conference, but most of all throughout Germany as well.


Understanding what is happening, dealing with the consequences, and developing future options for action: these are three major challenges for our country – and for all of us here in this room.

Perhaps we should start by asking whether the available facts and figures are sufficient to determine the impending changes. Do we have the necessary statistical data? Or do we need more precise surveys, deeper sampling, possibly even a new census? We want to become familiar with the complex effects of the demographic shift on all areas of our society. We want to know what it means for the companies and businesses located here, for schools and universities, for research and development. We want to find out how it will change the face of our cities and landscapes, who will be affected and how – in the east, the west, the north, the south? And how will these changes affect how we live together?

I personally have given particular thought to the question of what it means for a country to have fewer and fewer children. What does that really mean? People often say, “a society without children is a society without a future.” And it is in fact true that children, by their nature, are curious, confident, and eager to learn. But does it necessarily follow that fewer children automatically means less innovation, less openness toward new ideas and greater fear of the future? Is that true? Does it have to be that way? Can’t older societies be just as innovative as younger ones? And who determines what and who is old? There’s the saying, “you’re only as old as you feel” – does that also apply to countries?

I am certain that even elderly people can remain open to innovation and creativity. The experience and prudence of the elderly are important in many contexts. I would like to go even further and say that maybe those things are even becoming more important. We need to take that which the elderly have “accumulated” – to use economists’ jargon – and make it accessible to youth, especially [since we are] in a phase of social development in which we are forced to adapt to and cope with considerable change. As an economist, I would like to take on the challenge of developing models for integrating so-called human capital or human assets into macroeconomic models, in order to determine how we can manage this capital more efficiently.

I believe that we are long overdue in thinking about ways to counter age discrimination on the labor market; so many people feel helpless in the face of it. What kind of country is this – a country where soon we’ll have to work until age 67, but where many people can no longer find jobs at 50 because company managers fear an “aging staff” or because they calculate that older employees cost them too much? We can and must develop new ideas about this.

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