Germany is exporting people.
Well, Eurozone countries exporting people is hardly news. But Germany isn't exporting the same sort of people as other Eurozone countries. Other countries are exporting their young and their skilled. Germany is exporting its old.
Economically this makes complete sense. Germany has a lot of old people and a relative shortage of the young & skilled. So it imports young & skilled people and exports old ones. After all, exporting old people is surely better than killing them.
There's nothing new about this, of course. Britain has been exporting old people for years. Relatively well-off pensioners like to retire to the sun after years of tolerating British weather. The southern countries of Europe contain substantial populations of expatriate Brits, many of them retired and living on savings. The economic collapse of the southern European states has taken its toll on them, of course: many British retirees in Cyprus lost substantial amounts of money in the recent bank restructuring, and owners of Spanish properties have seen the value of their villas and apartments drop as property prices have collapsed. But most of the sun-seeking pensioners are still there and enjoying a comfortable - and increasingly cheap - retirement.
Christina Odone recently bewailed the end of her "dream" of a Mediterranean retirement. She was talking rubbish. Property prices around the Med have never been so low, and for British pensioners expecting to live on savings, moving to a country that is undergoing internal devaluation has to be a good bet. Savings go much further when prices are falling (though admittedly they haven't much, yet). And sunshine is still free and plentiful: the southern European economies might be depressed and miserable, but the weather is as cheerful as ever. A renewed inflow of well-off pensioners from Northern European countries could do wonders for the Southern European states. I foresee the growth of new industries dedicated to serving the needs of the elderly, and perhaps new retirement homes with sea views and golf courses could revitalise the construction industry. And as our expatriate pensioners get older, of course they will need care homes and personal care. The healthcare industry, too, could be revitalised - though expatriate pensioners would have to pay, of course. Health insurance would be essential.
Germany's pensioners don't seem to be quite so keen on sun as British ones, since they seem to be going to Eastern Europe more than Club Med. Perhaps that's because Eastern European countries are closer, or perhaps it's because of historic ties, or perhaps it's just that retirement homes and care workers are cheaper in Eastern European countries than in Greece. The way things are going, that will soon change.
Interestingly, some of the countries to which Britain and Germany export their old already have a demographic problem. They are exporting their young and skilled, leaving a residual population of old and sick - who are being joined by old and sick from elsewhere. They are becoming the countries of the old.
What will life be like in the countries of the old? I asked this question on twitter and was told "look at Devon". Or anywhere along the South Coast of England, really. Visit any English seaside town in Kent or Sussex and the population looks distinctly grey. The landscape is peppered with bungalows (retired people like bungalows because there are no stairs) and retirement homes. There are lots of little shops, tea rooms and golf courses. There might even be the occasional art gallery. But not much in the way of industry. You see, elderly people don't want to start businesses, and they don't want to work long hours: if they work, they want it to be a little part-time job that is not too strenuous. And once the majority of your population is old, the motivation to create new industries, grow existing ones, create employment and revitalise the economy just isn't there any more. It is young people who have the urge to take over the world and reshape it to their liking. Most old people just want a quiet life.
So "quiet" is exactly what these places are like. Which is fine for a coastal town. And Devon has always been a pretty quiet place anyway apart from the occasional bout of smuggling. But a whole country that is happy simply to potter along, providing a comfortable life for its elderly citizens but not aspiring to anything more vibrant? Whatever happened to "restoring competitiveness"? Surely a whole country should be looking for growth?
There seems to be no logical basis for this assumption. What is wrong with a country becoming a sleepy backwater, if its population is happy? And what is wrong with a country deciding that what it really does well is look after the old - and providing exactly the right calm, undemanding environment for people in their sunset years? Why shouldn't some countries simply opt to become enormous retirement homes?*
There is a snag, of course. Although there would, as I have mentioned already, be new industries popping up dedicated to serving the needs of the elderly, the elderly themselves wouldn't be working in those industries, generally. And these countries have a growing shortage of working-age people: after all, the reason why care homes are being built in these countries is that care workers are cheaper....if they can find better-paid work elsewhere they will of course migrate. And not just care workers. The bigger risk is to the more skilled services required by the elderly, particularly in healthcare. These countries might have to pay doctors and specialist nurses rather highly to get them to stay. Would the elderly population be wealthy enough to pay them?
Well, perhaps. The fact is that most wealth is held by the retired and those approaching retirement. The trouble is that the elderly have come to expect to hang on to their wealth and be supported by younger people through their taxes. But in countries where the majority of the population is elderly, clearly this is not possible. An alternative means of providing universal services such as healthcare would have to be found. I've mentioned health insurance already: but even the US, the world leader in insurance-dominated healthcare provision, recognises that geriatric services are the most expensive and difficult to insure. And not all elderly can afford health insurance anyway. So some form of taxation is going to be required to maintain universal healthcare and social support. As the majority of people would not be earning significantly, realistically this is going to involve taxing property and financial assets rather than earned income: indeed it might be necessary to give workers tax incentives to stop them leaving. So in the countries of the old, perhaps wealth taxation rather than income taxation will become the norm.
But supposing that despite tax incentives, there still aren't enough working-age people to look after all those elderly? After all, these countries don't just have a migration problem. They aren't breeding enough people to maintain their working-age population anyway. And as their population ages, the birth rate is bound to fall even more. In the countries of the old there will be few children.....
There is a solution, of course. Technology. "Telecare" and "telehealth" schemes are already being promoted in Britain as a solution to the shortage of carers: if robots can replace human carers, and computers can constantly monitor health and provide early warning of problems, there could be far less need for real people to work in the elderly care business, and costs could be much lower. The usual response to such a suggestion is "But the elderly need human interaction!". For me this confuses two things. Personal care and health care currently involve human beings, and have therefore for some elderly people become a substitute for real human contact. But they are not fundamentally about real human interaction at all. For me it seems entirely reasonable that personal care, particularly for the frail elderly who need 24-hour support, could be better done by robots than by humans who can be tired, distracted, embarrassed or grumpy. I have seen how tired my 80-year-old father has become now he is my mother's full-time carer: it seems to me that a few robots monitoring her and helping her would be a very good thing, not only for her but for him. The same applies to a good many routine healthcare functions: we are used to nurses monitoring long-term health problems, but there is no particular reason why this could not also be done by robots, though I think some human intervention would still be sensible (since robots would lack the intuitive skills that the best healthcare professionals have, which pick up problems that otherwise might have gone unnoticed).
Of course, a world of elderly care done entirely by robots, with elderly leading isolated lives and lacking human interaction could be horrible. I have no desire to see Romanian orphanages re-created in retirement homes. Realistically, human nature being what it is, there will be some horror stories.....but I hope that the majority of technological elder care will be better than that. And in the countries of the old, of course, the elderly don't have to be alone. One of the things that retired people have in abundance, unlike younger working people, is time. Yes, they may be busy - but they are busy with things they want to do, rather than with things that they have to do in order to earn a living and care for children. I would hope that one of the things that retired people would want to do is meet each other and support each other. In the countries of the old, perhaps elderly isolation could become a thing of the past.
There are losses, of course. Migration of the old to other countries breaks the ties with their families and prevents them spending time with their grandchildren. Many will regret this. But then the same happens when the young migrate in search of work....after all, many never return. The fact is that our family ties are becoming progressively more attenuated. Even in my own family, all four of my parents' children left the place where we grew up, and we are now scattered all over the UK. And our children may end up scattered all over the world.
Yet the attenuation of family ties is mitigated by technology. Worldwide web applications allow people in different countries to communicate with each other by video link, send each other messages and share photographs instantaneously. International voice communications are still expensive but becoming cheaper, while data communication is cheap and abundant. And technology is improving - and becoming cheaper - all the time. In the countries of the old, the desire to keep in contact with distant families may encourage the elderly to start using the communications technology that they fear. And of course, as time goes on the elderly will not fear that technology anyway....after all, the currently middle-aged invented much of it.....
Technology both expands and shrinks our world, enabling people to live and work at considerable distances from each other while still remaining in close contact. And technology both depersonalises and personalises: things that are now done by humans may be better done by robots, freeing up humans to do what we do much better than robots - interact with each other at a personal level through conversation and shared activity.
The countries of the old could, of course, be terrible. But they could also be wonderful places. Places that the working people of the world love to visit....quiet havens, where humans, technology and nature are in balance.
And if it doesn't work....for example, if we decide we would rather keep our old people with us, in pods in the back garden.....well, there is always another future for countries that no-one wants to live in. For where humans no longer want to be, the wild things find homes. Kipling called it "letting in the jungle". It is no shame for us to abandon a place. Nature has plans for our ruins.
Germany "exporting" old and sick to foreign care homes - Guardian
The movement of people (and its consequences) - Coppola Comment
The creeping desert - Coppola Comment
The zero-sum trade in people - Coppola Comment
Kill the old - FT Alphaville (and the other editions of Kill the Old, too)
And so the sun goes down on my villa by the Mediterranean - Cristina Odone (Telegraph) (paywall)
Can technology fill the elderly care gap? - Telegraph (paywall)
High-tech devices to meet housing and care needs of old people - FT (paywall)
The Second Jungle Book - Kipling
* Yes, I know this is the theory of comparative advantage. And yes, I know it supposedly doesn't work where capital and labour are fully mobile. But in this case, I think it might. Time for a fresh look at Ricardo, perhaps!