Is Europe’s ageing population a ticking time bomb? With its low birth rate and ageing labour force, the continent faces a demographic crisis that could impact its economic competitiveness and public finances.
The number of people of working age – those between 20 and 64 – peaked in Europe in 2010. By 2035, there will be about 50 million fewer people of working age in Europe than in 2010. Demographically, this makes Europe the oldest continent on the planet.
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With a shrinking labour force and an ageing population increasingly retiring and drawing on their pensions, European policymakers will soon face an unenviable task of maintaining economic growth while expanding Europe’s labour pool. And in many cases, they will do this against a backdrop of hostile public opinion on using migration as a means of balancing the demographic and economic decline.
To surmount this challenge, the European Union just announced 2023 as the European Year of Skills (EYS) to provide new momentum to reach the EU 2030 social targets of at least 60 percent of adults in training every year and at least 78 percent in employment. But can the EU really achieve this without harnessing the potential of the continent’s largest minority group?
There are about 6 million Roma in the EU’s 27 countries and millions more in the wider EU candidate countries. Contrary to the region’s ageing population, the demographic potential of the Roma is immense and, in many cases, primed to plug the holes coming down the road.
For example, the percentage of Roma under 30 years old in North Macedonia is almost double that of the majority population. In Romania, 59.9 percent of Roma are under 30 years of age, and for the majority population, this rate is just 32.8 percent.
European politicians need to capitalise on the potential of these often highly adaptable, multilingual and entrepreneurial citizens as part of their EYS targets. This would offer multiple benefits to society and offer an economic lifeline to a minority within Europe who is living below the poverty line. It would also stave off the need for increased migrant labour from other parts of the world.
According to a long-term World Bank study published in 2019, excluding Roma communities adds to the costs of the national exchequer. Roma inclusion is not only a moral imperative; demographic ageing in Europe means that it is also smart economics. The benefits of Roma inclusion are not negligible and include the productivity gains associated with higher employment rates and labour earnings, and they include fiscal benefits through greater tax revenues and lower social assistance spending.
The study also illustrated that “among Roma who completed secondary education, the average earnings are much higher than the average earnings among Roma who completed primary education: 83 percent higher in Bulgaria, 110 percent higher in the Czech Republic, 144 percent higher in Romania and 52 percent higher in Serbia.”
To unlock the employment potential of this group, EU leaders will need to overcome a series of domestic challenges.
First, they will have to address prejudice and stop political parties from using populist, anti-Roma rhetoric during election campaigns. After all, democracy is about equal rights. But for many of the six million Roma in the EU, these rights are not fully granted. Roma in Europe still face insults and slurs in the streets, in the media and in political discourse.
Second, member states will need to invest in the education and employment of the Roma community, which would help reduce unemployment and poverty within the communities and provide much-needed skills and talent to the local and national labour market.
Third, we need a bottom-up approach to funding programmes. One of the reasons for the lack of success of some EU funding programmes is the application of a top-down approach that does not consider the realities and voices of Roma at the grassroots level and comes with a heavy administrative burden. A genuine and systemic consultation and inclusion of Roma representatives when integration measures are being planned, implemented and monitored are still lacking. Participation is limited to formal public consultations at the latest stage. Many of the shortcomings identified by the Court of Auditors in its special 2016 audit report are still relevant.
In addition, policymakers need to support training initiatives, so Roma are not left with low-paid jobs that are vulnerable to exploitation.
The Roma Education Fund (REF) has helped more than 6,000 people secure jobs in a range of sectors from construction and carpentry to nursing, hairstyling, coding and working in a tax office. REF made this happen by providing them with qualifications and skills in professions to fill the gap in the job market. Soft skills such as writing CVs, helping with job interview preparation, navigating the job application process and improving digital literacy made a big difference. What the success of this five-year programme shows is that with the right support, Roma can overcome societal and economic barriers to access education and jobs. Without support, survival becomes their objective and not necessarily development.
Last month, while addressing Roma Week 2023, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said Roma in the EU still struggle when they look for employment and housing. She’s right. This must change. According to a 2022 report from the Fundamental Rights Agency, the poverty levels of Roma have not changed since 2016. Four out of five Roma are at risk of poverty. Only two out of five Roma aged 20 to 64 are in paid work, including part-time, ad hoc jobs, self-employment or occasional work. Employment is much rarer for young Roma and women. While there is some improvement in housing compared with 2016, half of Europe’s Roma still live in a state of housing deprivation – in damp, dark dwellings or housing without proper sanitation facilities. One out of five Roma households do not have access to tap water inside their dwelling.
That’s why the European Year of Skills initiative, which was launched on Europe Day on May 9, offers a great opportunity for national governments to include measures for education and training programmes for Roma – for example, expanding preschool coverage for Roma children, providing scholarships and mentoring support, offering catch-up programmes or back-to-school initiatives (as 70 percent of Roma youth leave school early) and including Roma history and literature in the curricula. All this will help incentivise employers to hire Roma individuals to build a just and inclusive society and lessen the exclusion of Roma from the labour market.
Europe needs to face the demographic time bomb coming down the track and also maintain its position as a global voice championing the values of democracy. Including Roma communities will help the EU drive its economy and be a champion of human rights.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.