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Prof. Leo van Wissen: ‘The ageing population is a blessing’

02 February 2011

Dutch people are far too gloomy about the ageing population, according to economic demographer Leo van Wissen from the University of Groningen. ‘Obviously it will cause problems. But that is only half the story’, says Van Wissen. ‘It is time we looked at the positive side of an ageing population.’

photograph Leo van Wissen
Leo van Wissen

The ageing population stands for success. This is Van Wissen’s basic message. ‘People used to die at around sixty. We now live some 25 years longer, and spend this time enjoying life’, says the demographer. ‘This is a real achievement on the part of society. So we should be happy to bear the consequences.’


Van Wissen is well aware of the consequences of an ageing population. The baby-boomers had fewer children than the generation before them. ‘So when they retire, there will be more OAPs and a smaller workforce than we are used to. Furthermore, people tend to live longer.’ The doom scenarios put a lot of emphasis on possible shortfalls in the pension funds and the increasing pressure on the health service.

Sunny side

But Van Wissen can also see a sunny side to this ageing population. ‘We are only looking at the expenditure. This will obviously increase if we live longer. But what about the yield, including the non-material income?’ Van Wissen is referring to increasing life expectancy and the growing number of years of good health. ‘If you turn sixty and can still look forward to many healthy and happy years, you shouldn’t complain about the higher costs. It’s like being given extra days of leave and then moaning about how expensive everything is.’

He is equally positive about pensions. ‘The Netherlands has put aside more for pensions than almost any other country: 700 billion euros’, continues Van Wissen. ‘In traditional economic models, businesses pay out salaries, part of which comes back as consumption. In the future, much of our pension money will be released for consumption, without businesses having to fork out for salaries. This is enormously good for the economy.’

Wrong decisions

The disproportionate focus on the costs of an ageing population can lead to wrong decisions, warns Van Wissen. ‘Our decisions do not take the yield side into consideration, particularly not the non-material yields. A government that focuses exclusively on costs will soon opt for cuts, in healthcare, for example. And yet healthcare plays a vital role in our prosperity, which to my mind warrants substantial expenditure.’

According to Van Wissen, politicians stand to gain by stressing the dangers of an ageing population. ‘If you can convince people that cuts are unavoidable, they will be more inclined to accept unpleasant measures.’ Van Wissen is also unconcerned about the future of his positive message. One of his first aims is to find a different term for vergrijzing (the Dutch translation of ageing population), as this word has ‘grim, grey undertones’. He would prefer something along the lines of ‘longer living’.

Forever young generation

Van Wissen thinks that the baby-boomers will go some way to altering the negative image that longer-living senior citizens conjure up. ‘The baby-boomers all have mobile phones, hobbies and a lot of ready cash. They take an active part in society. They are very different from previous generations of senior citizens,’ says Van Wissen. ‘Members of the forever young generation currently retiring are not afraid to say what they think. This started in the1960s, when they caused quite a revolution in society. I think our ideas about the ageing population will improve considerably over the next decade.’

Curriculum Vitae

Professor L.J.G. (Leo) van Wissen is Professor of Economic Demography and until recently, vice-dean of the Faculty of Spatial Sciences at the University of Groningen. Last year, Van Wissen was also appointed director of the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI) in The Hague. Van Wissen studied social geography at VU University Amsterdam, where he was later conferred with a PhD from the Faculty of Economics and Econometrics. The American University of California and the Belgian Université Catholique de Louvain are among his previous employers.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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