Dziennik Gazeta Prawna's Anna Zaleska talks to Agnieszka Chłoń-Domińczak, PhD, DSc
One in five citizens of Poland is over 60 years old. The latest national census demonstrated a drop in the working age population from 64.4 to 59.3% of society, and an increase in the number of people of post-working age from 16.9 to 22.3%. In what direction should the socioeconomic policy go in light of these data?
When it comes to the change in population age and the shrinking of the Polish population, these tendencies will only intensify. This is demonstrated by the forecasts developed both by the Polish Central Statistical Office and Eurostat. What this means is that we will have to face the challenge of ensuring generational equilibrium. This is linked with the sense of security of different generations in terms of access to the labour market, the possibility of staying active, or having adequate social security.
What does generational equilibrium entail?
If we analyse the course of life from the perspective of consumption and income, within our adulthood we earn until retirement, but children and youth, as well as people past the working age, have consumption needs. Generational equilibrium is attained when a generation’s income from work is sufficient to satisfy the consumption needs of those who are not yet or no longer working professionally. Another condition of generational equilibrium is that this needs to be achieved in an effective and transparent way.
Let us return to the directions of socioeconomic policy.
Taking into account the demographic structure of Poland and the average lifespan of Poles, we have a relatively early retirement age, namely 60 years for women and 65 years for men. It is a fundamental challenge, as it can produce serious consequences for the stability of the pension system, as well as, which needs to be highlighted, for the amount of pensions for women. If we want to ensure economic generational equilibrium, we need to promote professional activity and consider a gradual increase of the retirement age, which is something that other European countries have done.
The number of Poles over the age of 70 or even 85 will increase. Apart from a solid pension system, these people will also need access to long-term welfare and adequate healthcare. The solutions in place in Poland at present require a systemic overhaul.
At the same time, the labour resources of people who can work are shrinking and will continue to do so. It is imperative that steps be implemented with the aim of curbing the barriers preventing access to the labour market and promoting activity among working-age Poles.
Which labour resources could be activated? Are they seniors, women? Who else?
Women and seniors are the most essential groups of potential workers that should be activated. Moreover, if we look at employment indicators, Poland differs significantly from other European countries in terms of people who attain lower education levels and leave school after graduating from primary or vocational schools. It is clear that low qualifications are, in fact, a barrier when it comes to activity on the labour market. The challenge here is to improve the quality of vocational training and provide opportunities for lifelong learning to improve skills and qualifications. Scandinavia is a great example of how to support job satisfaction.
What about the activation of senior citizens and women? What can we do in this regard?
Women with young children often leave their jobs. The reason behind this is the limited accessibility of institutional childcare and the relatively high amount of child benefits available, for example, the 500+ allowance and other family benefits. The idea is for nurseries and other childcare facilities for children under the age of 3 to be more available as this would make it easier for young mothers to reconcile work and childcare, but also to offer training for mothers who wish to return to work. It is also necessary to carry out so-called soft activities such as promoting equal participation of mothers and fathers in childcare, and equal division of household chores. For some women, going back to work would mean handling two full-time jobs – one at the office and the other at home.
As regards senior citizens, apart from increasing the retirement age, it is essential to implement activities aimed at ensuring that work at a later stage in life is attractive for workers. The results of a European study of health, ageing and the retirement process, entitled “SHARE: 50+ in Europe”, conducted at the Warsaw School of Economics demonstrate that in Poland workers over the age of 50 years do not feel great satisfaction with the work they do – they are either exhausted by it, they perform a lot of manual work, or they do not feel appreciated or remunerated sufficiently for what they do, which translates into lower employment rates.
Health prophylaxis and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle are also of importance. In comparison to other European countries, Poland demonstrates a tendency toward deterioration of the health of those over the age of 45 years.
In the context of job satisfaction and job exhaustion, the issue of the activation of older citizens coincides with the issue of the activity of people with low education levels. It is easier to work longer if the job is not physically exhausting and is not harmful to health.
This is another reason why we need to implement activities that support lifelong learning and skills improvement to adapt to the changing conditions and market needs. Moreover, changes, especially technological, make physical labour easier. A large share of processes, e.g. in the car production sector, have been automated. In the future this will translate into a lesser toll of work on the body, which will in turn translate into better health and longer periods of professional activity. At present, more and more women are performing what is traditionally considered hard manual work, e.g. 45% of the staff, including production line staff, at the Mercedes plant in Poland are now women. Also women make up 30% of the staff at the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada.
I wanted to ask whether automatisation is the ‘enemy’ of professional activity if it means that the same amount of labour can be performed by fewer people, but you answered this question before I could ask it. It seems to be just the opposite.
Let me go back to the fact that we are currently experiencing a shortage of workers, so it is not so that technology is the culprit, taking jobs away from people. On the contrary, it is one of the ways for people to deal with the problem of under staffing.
Another solution that we have not talked about yet is the integration of migrants. Some of the war refugees who have fled to Poland from Ukraine will want to stay here. Demographic forecasts have shown that by 2050 we will have approximately 2 million fewer people of working age in Poland. This is why we should be open-minded in terms of developing a migration policy, as the inevitable future workforce shortage could be filled by migrants. They are not entering a labour market saturated with local workers. Quite the opposite.
Will these practical arguments be enough? Does an open-minded approach to migration not require a much greater change in the way we think about the economy or even the state?
The demographic changes we are experiencing are an enormous issue that we need to tackle. The population is shrinking and ageing throughout Europe. Poland is no exception here. Ever since the early 1990s we have been dealing with a very fast drop in fertility rates in Central and Eastern Europe. This demonstrates a need to adopt a comprehensive approach to, on one hand, the activation of available resources and, on the other, supporting families and facilitating their decisions on whether or not to have children.
We are back to the issue of generational equilibrium. Does such equilibrium exist at all?
Not entirely. If we stop and think of the moment when the average person can no longer finance their consumption needs, i.e. the threshold of the economic working age, it is 55-56 years in Poland. This is lower than in most European countries. We cannot give up on broadly defined reemployment activities – it is a process spread across many years and decades, which calls for a lot of commitment and determination on our part.