Europe is facing a serious demographic imbalance with the number of elderly people growing and a dwindling number of children. Two Catholic organizations organized a webinar on Monday to study the issue reflecting on the theme, “The Elderly and the Future of Europe”.
By Robin Gomes
The problem of Europe’s demographic imbalance is not the growing number of its elderly people but the shortage of children and young people. Hence the future of Europe lies in policies that support the family, where the elderly and children, along with others, create a network of families and communities based on intergenerational solidarity, sharing and dialogue. This was underscored by participants in a conference on Monday, jointly hosted by the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe (FAFCE) and the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE).
The 1 March webinar discussed, “The Elderly and the Future of Europe”, a theme on which the FAFCE and COMECE had released a joint reflection paper earlier in December 2020. The paper focused on intergenerational solidarity and care in times of the Covid-19 pandemic and the demographic change following the crisis.
While considering the vulnerabilities of the elderly, which the months of the pandemic have highlighted, the FAFCE and COMECE seek to underscore the role of the elderly generation in the construction of a peaceful Europe.
The coronavirus spread quickly in Europe in March and April, last year, leading to particularly high fatality rates, especially in Spain and Italy. A report by the prestigious Pew Research Centre in April said that Europe has the biggest share of people aged 60 and older, the smallest share of children under 15, and an average age of 43 years. That’s almost 12 years older than the global median.
Opening the 1 March online event, FAFCE President, Vincenzo Bassi acknowledged that the pandemic has been a tough time for families, also in terms of loss of livelihoods. But the biggest problem, he said, is that of loneliness, especially of the elderly, who are persons and hence are part of families and communities. Relations within and between families and communities, Bassi said, are more important than housing and homes. Europe needs to invest more on the family in order to offset this intergenerational imbalance.
Bassi spoke about the need to create networks of solidarity among families and communities to support the most vulnerable in society who face loneliness. He urged EU policies to support families that are reluctant to welcome children because of obstacles and economic and social difficulties.
Family, children and elderly
Gabriella Gambino, Under-Secretary of the Vatican Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life, also spoke in similar terms, underscoring the need to support families and to create networks of families and communities based on mutual support. She said we cannot care for the elderly unless we care for families with children.
A member of the European Parliament from Slovenia, Romana Tomc, pointed out that emphasizing only youth at the cost of the elderly is dangerous for the EU. She lamented that families are left out of discussions in policymaking. European families, she said, need to be encouraged to have children in order to meet the continent’s demographic challenges.
She expressed her opinion that there is a strong bias against the family in the EU parliament, especially among some leftist parties which are strong in numbers. She also noted that the elderly are ill-represented in the EU. Money is not the problem, she said, but the priorities, where the family and elderly are neglected.
Another participant, Ettore Marchetti, a European Commission Policy Officer, cited figures indicating a diminishing number of marriages and a growing number of divorces, that are leading to a demographic imbalance in Europe. The number of older single mothers is also growing, as is also the number of migrants who retire with a meagre pension. In Sweden, for example, he said, single persons form the majority of the country’s population. To reverse the trend, Marchetti said people in the EU need to abandon the utilitarian outlook and favour life and the family.
Need for “real conversion to family”
COMECE President, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg concluded the webinar, underscoring that the future of humanity and of Europe depends on the family. It is not just the elderly who need care, but the young who need the elderly, he said, stressing that intergenerational solidarity and justice require knowing and loving each another. By way of example he said that in a family, the rigidity of the father towards the child is offset by the love of the grandfather, which builds bonds. The family is a link between the various components of the family.
Sometimes in families, Cardinal Hollerich said, children are regarded an obstacle to jobs and careers, and the elderly are relegated to care homes. The 62-year old Jesuit said this will destroy society by creating selfish people. To avoid this, he concluded, what is needed is “a real conversion to family”.