The age crunch


Flanders’ modern demographics are a ticking time bomb. We’ve know that for awhile now. Populations are dwindling as young couples become increasingly disinterested in having large families, and not having children at all is becoming more common.

The age crunch
The age crunch

Who's going to be left to do the work in Flanders in 2050?

Flanders’ modern demographics are a ticking time bomb. We’ve know that for awhile now. Populations are dwindling as young couples become increasingly disinterested in having large families, and not having children at all is becoming more common.

It’s also become a trend to retire at the earliest opportunity. As a result, future Flemings will be charged with supporting the social benefits of an outsized generation of senior citizens. They’ll pay more taxes and have to work longer than any anyone has before.


So how bad does it look? That depends on what steps are taken – and when.


The Flemish workforce as it stands isn’t efficiently staffed. That isn’t necessarily for lack of manpower, but rather because the right people don’t always find their way to the right jobs and because employees aren’t sufficiently encouraged to prolong their careers.


“Flanders, like most industrialised regions, will lose population in the coming years,” says Donna Murphy, author of a study on the health of the Belgian workforce by the Adecco Institute, a think-tank on global workforce trends. “What’s most dramatic is the shift in the demographic population. Just over 37% of Belgians will be older than 55 by 2050.”

“Companies really need to change the way they look at their workforces,” Murphy adds. “Just because employees are 55-plus, doesn’t mean they have a crisis. Today people that age are expected to leave the workforce even though their life expectancy is 80. They’re expected to do nothing for 25 years.”


This thinking, says Murphy, has got to change. “There will be plenty of people to work, but not if employers think that the only people who can work are between 24 and 55. Somebody who is 65 or even 70 can easily contribute to the workforce. The only way industrialised nations will be able to continue to compete is if they change their attitudes towards age.”


According to Murphy’s study, only a third of Flemish companies manage to fill job vacancies appropriately, and the biggest shortfall comes in technical and language skills. Yet when one juxtaposes that with the fact that most companies are very satisfied with their 50-plus employees but still only 11% expect to hire more of them (down from 18%  last year), the problem becomes apparent.


Workers in their 50s are hypothetically in the prime of their careers, yet they struggle to get hired. Technical and language skills are for the most part a product of experience and practice. It would be fair to assume that those in their 50s possess those assets. But if nobody will hire them, it’s no wonder that companies struggle to find enough technical and language skills.


Not an easy transition

Still, this necessary change in attitude and approach won’t be easy to come by. Although the Adecco survey shows that most companies are at least as satisfied with their 50-plus employees as any other age category, those more senior workers tend to command higher salaries. That isn’t easy to accommodate in the current economic climate, which is why government assistance with those hires is crucial.


But for the moment, companies are best off convincing current employees not to retire as early as they would like. “We need regulations that will encourage companies to hire older workers and that encourage people to work longer, without punishing them from a pension or flexibility point of view,” says Murphy.


In this way, the demographic problem will be alleviated. “It won’t be a burden on youth but rather an incentive for everyone to participate,” explains Murphy. “This problem can be avoided with an attitude change, but that has to change everywhere. It isn’t enough for a company to say ‘OK, I’m gonna hire older workers,’ because the worker has to be convinced, too.”


All three parties – employer, worker and government – have to cooperate, argues Murphy, to make this happen “for the benefit of the country”. If you allow people to work on a flexible basis, “it will foster creativity and encourage older people who don’t want to work 40 hours a week.”


Shortages coming soon

“For Belgium, like other European countries, the ageing of the population is a fact,” says Erwin van Iersel, the CEO of Adecco Benelux. “There will be a shortage of available labour in the near future, not only because of the ageing but also because there will be fewer people coming into the labour market. Some companies see the demographic challenge as still in the remote future. But, sooner or later, they will be forced to appreciate the potential and real contribution made by older employees.”


Aside from a leakage of 50-plussers, the other end of the labour spectrum is also whittling down. “Most  of the businesses surveyed – 86% – believe that the skills shortage can be addressed by improving the transition from school to work,” the Adecco report says. “While this is an important factor in any social context, it is however clear that improving this transition will not generate sufficient talent to meet the shortage of skilled workers in Belgium. School leavers will also comprise a shrinking proportion of the employment market.”


School dropouts and those ending up in jobs for which they’re unsuitable (or who would be more effective in another role) is a parallel issue. It will need resolving if Flanders is to remain competitive in the international market. “Competition is expected to emerge in India, which is likely to become one of the most competitive nations,” says Murphy. “China actually has its own demographic problem, but Flanders will be able to compete in terms of innovation and creativity.”


More than half of Belgian companies state that they cannot find the right people. According to the Adecco Institute, they’d be better off reaching out to potential employees as early as secondary school to foster interest in their field and make teenagers aware of the opportunities at their disposal.


“Demographics is not rocket science,” the Adecco report concludes. “All the measures companies can take in the areas of career management, lifelong learning, health management, knowledge management and age diversity are simple to develop and implement, as well as relatively affordable.”


Whether those necessary changes will be made, however, remains highly contentious. A separate survey by Adecco notes that three-quarters of Belgian companies polled reckon they have no problem with the ageing of the population.








The age crunch

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