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West Europe

Living Arrangements, Employment And Retirement, Economic Status, Health Care, Long-term Care

The population of western Europe—presently most of the countries of western Europe are part of the European Union (EU)—grew strongly during the twentieth century, with the last major growth period occurring during the post war era and lasting into the 1960s. Following these years, fertility declined while life expectancy continued to rise. As elsewhere, the aging population of western Europe is the result of these two factors: a declining fertility and rising life expectancy. In fact, during the last decades of the twentieth century the fertility in western Europe declined to the lowest level on earth: 1.5 children per woman. Nevertheless, differences exist between these countries. In 1998, northern countries such as Iceland and Norway, with their high levels of female representation in the labor market and well-established provision for childcare, had higher levels of fertility (around 2.0) than southern countries like Spain and Italy (around 1.2).

By 2000 life expectancy became more equalized in western Europe than it had been in 1970. Especially in the countries of southern Europe, life expectancy for women had been much lower than in the northern countries. Between 1950 and 1993 more than fourteen years were added to the life expectancy of Portugese men, whereas in Sweden male life expectancy increased by little more than four years. In most western European countries life expectancy for women averages around eighty years, with the highest in France (81.5) and Spain (81), and the lowest in Denmark and Portugal (77.8). For men the average life expectancy at birth is around 74 years, with the highest found in Sweden and Greece (75.5 years), and the lowest in Portugal (70.6). But even within countries there are regional variations. For instance, in areas where older types of industrial production has prevailed for a long time, such as central England, northern France, and the Ruhr region of Germany, greater unemployment, poverty, environmental pollution, and unhealthy lifestyles have resulted in higher levels of morbidity, especially among men.

In most scenarios the proportion of older Europeans will grow considerably. In 2000, for every one hundred people between the ages of twenty and sixty there were anywhere from thirty to forty people age sixty or older, although that number is expected to rise to sixty or more persons over age sixty in the coming years, especially in the southern countries. However, the ratio of younger to older populations may be impacted by greater participation among older adults in the labor force, as a consequence of better health. Moreover, the results of immigration (immigration from outside Europe by relatively young people who participate in the labor force), which gained momentum in the last decades of the twentieth century, may have influenced the An elderly farm couple stands along a rural road in Normandy in France. (Corbis photo by Peter Turnley.) overall picture. While changes in dependency rates are statistically important, such information is often overly simplified, adding alarm to the complex debate about population aging.

One important phenomenon is the so-called feminization of old age in western Europe. On average, the category of oldest old (those age ninety-five or older) includes three women for every man; in some countries (France, Austria, Finland, Denmark, and the United Kingdom) there are five women for every man in this group. This phenomenon has important consequences for the financial security of European women in old age.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 4