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Intergenerational cohesion is beginning to show cracks

On an individual level, Germans’ perception of old age has barely changed in the past few decades and is positive in most cases, according to a recent study. In light of the growing number of older people, however, there is mounting concern over the sustainability of the social welfare system.

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More and more Germans perceive older people as a social burden, according to a longitudinal comparison of peoples’ views of old age commissioned by the German Insurance Association (GDV) as part of their initiative “7 Jahre länger” (7 years longer). The study shows that 30 percent of Germans think older people cost the government too much; in 1996 it was half that. Conversely, 21.6 percent of respondents said the government should spend more money on younger people, compared with only 11.8 percent who had voiced that opinion in 1996. The study is based on representative surveys of people aged 45 years or older in 1996 and 2021. 

Distribution issues are coming into focus 

“It is, above all, the distribution of financial resources that is increasingly driving a wedge between generations. People are worried social welfare systems might soon be overwhelmed,” said Elmar Brähler, professor emeritus of medical psychology and medical sociology at Leipzig University. What makes the results even more surprising, according to Brähler, is the fact that the population has been ageing in the past 25 years – and older people tend to view old age more positively than younger people, as the study also demonstrates. “When comparing the data from 1996 to the data from 2021 this ageing effect does not show,” Brähler said.   

An intergenerational conflict may be in the offing 

Peter Schwark sees the results as a warning to politicians. “We need to make sure intergenerational solidarity does not erode any further,” said the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the German Insurance Association which is sponsoring the “7 years longer” initiative. There was a growing feeling of being shortchanged among the younger demographic, for example when it comes to pensions, Schwark said. “The burden caused by demographic change must be shared fairly.” The need to reconcile the interests of younger and older demographics does not stop with economic issues: “Younger people would like to benefit from a similar social and ecological environment, too.” 

Perception of old age, based on 3 factors: wisdom, rigidity and burden

The researchers assessed respondents’ perception of old age along three dimensions: wisdom, rigidity and burden. While the last dimension captures people's attitude toward the societal consequences of the growing number of older people, wisdom and rigidity measure individual attributions of older people - as knowledgeable and experienced and as restricted and lonely, respectively. "Personal attributions to the elderly have hardly changed since 1996 and continue to be predominantly positive," Brähler said.  

The perception of old age hasn't changed much

Percentage of those who agreed with the old-age attributes wisdom, rigidity and burden, in percent of all respondents



Older people are experienced advisers (wisdom)



Older people are lonely, depressed and not up to date (rigidity)



Older people are a growing burden on society (burden)



Wisdom: A high percentage speaks to a positive view of old age. Rigidity and burden: A high percentage speaks to a negative view of old age. N = 1005 (year: 1996) and 1505 (year: 2021). Source: Studie Altersbilder (study on perceptions of old age) Brähler/Krakau 2022; Initiative „7 Jahre länger“ (7 years longer)

Individual attributes for older people stay positive 

A total of 87.1 percent (1996: 87.9 percent) of respondents perceive older people as experienced advisers. Only 47 percent describe them as lonely, depressed and not up to date. In 1996, that cohort had been even smaller at 43.7 percent. The most significant changes have occurred in the category “burden” which contains questions on the distribution of government money. While in 1996 a mere 9 percent of Germans perceived older people as a heavy social burden, more than twice that – 19.2 percent – said so in 2021. 

Perceptions of old age have an impact on political decisions  

These results are significant both on an individual and a societal level, Brähler explains. “The perception of old age does not only influence individual behaviour towards older people, it can also have an impact on political decisions.” It may, for example, influence the debate on age limits for knee and hip replacement surgery. “And most recently, German politicians were quibbling whether pensioners should also receive the so-called Energiepauschale as part of the federal government’s relief package”, Brähler said.


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