Sociologist and author Peter Gross vehemently rejects pessimism about old age. He strongly believes that longevity is the greatest achievement of recent centuries, because of the advantages it offers society.
Mr Gross, you turn 76 this year. How does it feel to be a cost factor?
Thanks very much. It’s true of course that old people are a cost factor. We are the recipients of real live pensions, after all. But I don’t have any sympathy for moaning about the redistribution from young to old.
So young people aren’t getting a “raw deal” by having to pay for ever more pensioners, as the political scientist Wolfgang Gründinger suggested in an interview with Swiss Life?
No. Young people forget how much children and youth receive from public coffers by way of income and wealth taxes. And the universities, too, are financed mainly by taxpayers. A considerable share of those funds comes from pensioners, and the more of those there are, the more money will flow from old to young. Besides, what with declining birth rates, there will also be fewer old people in future sharing the pension pot. So young people should really be happy that there are so few of them!
Because they are much better off than their counterparts in cultures with higher birth rates, where they have real battles over places in the school system, jobs and the chance to start a family. And because children have never been as valuable in our society as they are today. Parents are having to divide up not only their estates but also their time and affection among fewer progeny. Children are living assets.
In your book “Wir werden älter. Vielen Dank. Aber wozu?”
(“We’re getting older. Thanks a lot. But what for?”), you describe increased life expectancy not as a threat but as an opportunity.
Increased life expectancy is perhaps the most important accomplishment of our civilisation in the last two hundred years. It gives us the chance to restructure our society. We are living in an overused natural world and an overtaxed society, with ever more pressure, stress and speed. The demographic trend to fewer children and a long life is slowing our modern society down, and relaxing it. And it pays a peace dividend. Cultures with plenty of young people tend to be unstable and violent. Old folks don’t beat each other’s brains in.
So then why does the ageing society have such a bad image?
Because of all the hysteria and half-truths about old age. Especially from people who aren’t old themselves. All we can do is show people the advantages in a plausible fashion. And that begins with language.
In what sense?
Words like “gerontocracy” and “age-appropriate” have negative connotations. We would do better to talk about being “oriented to the elderly”, or enjoying a “culture of longevity”. That sounds good, much better than a short-lived society...
A survey conducted by Swiss Life found that 91% of respondents set great store by a self-determined old age. What does this require?
The most important thing is for older people to have as many options as possible available to them. They should be able to do whatever they want for as long as they want. The best example is work. The retirement age should be abolished. Not because everyone should be forced to carry on working, but because it’s important that they have the option. Or as the actress Liselotte Pulver once put it: “The worst thing is not being invited to a party you wouldn’t have attended in the first place.”
Eliminating the retirement age would require more jobs for the elderly. Will we need an age quota in future?
No. We’ll need consciousness-raising. Companies must recognise that older employees no longer constitute a disadvantage, but are rather a success factor. They should adapt their staff to an ageing clientele, who can address them on an equal footing. Especially when it comes to people services such as education, consulting, security, treatment and care, where personal contact is key. Older employees know what older customers want, and how to talk to them.
How do we pay for that? An unwillingness to cede one’s place, high salaries and rising social security contributions: all of these make employing people over 50 expensive.
We could take a page from Japan’s book, the oldest country in the world, where they’ve abandoned the seniority principle. Wages increase until about 50, then it’s all about new titles, awards and promotions with no raises, although reductions are possible. It’s defensible because most people over the age of 50 don’t need as much money as they did when they were younger.
What do you see as the advantage of a long life?
We have added almost 30 years to our life expectancy over the past century. Life used to be like a sonata without a final movement. Today we have the chance to see our music resolved. It gives us an opportunity for reflection and contemplation. We can think back on our lives, process them and mourn our losses. And we can cohabit with three or even more generations, and learn from one another.
Only one thing remains the same: death.
I think there’s even an advantage to be had from longevity in the way we die: live a long time, and you will die well. Dying young and unexpectedly is much worse than getting old at a stately pace. The aches and pains begin, and you have a chance for a reckoning with yourself. It’s easier to leave this world when you aren’t at the top of your game.
Peter Gross is among the best-known sociologists in the German-speaking world. He taught at the universities of Bamberg and St. Gallen and came to international fame with his notion of the “multioption society” and the book of the same name. After retirement he devoted himself in a series of books to the topic of growing older (Glücksfall Alter, “Lucky old age”) and the societal consequences of longevity (Wir werden älter. Vielen Dank. Aber wozu? Vier Annäherungen, “We’re getting older. Thanks a lot. But what for? Four approaches”). His 2015 book Ich muss sterben (“I have to die") is a personal elegy for his deceased wife, Ursula. All the books were published by Herder-Verlag.