Ill and indifferent, Estonia’s educated elderly keep on working

PHOTO: SCANPIX

Compared to European peers, elderly Estonians work longer and are better educated while their income is low, the health poor and participation in society meagre. 

In light of European Commission/UN active aging index published in mid-April, Estonia is doing both good and bad. «At front of the table there march the Nordics and Holland, as is the usual in social aspects,» said think-tank Praxis labour and social policy programme manager Reelika Leetmaa. As a positive, she pointed to Estonia ranking 10th among the EU 28.

«Estonia and the Czech Republic are the only Eastern-European nations in the middle group, so to speak,» said Ms Leetmaa. The group includes countries like Austria, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Croatia. The rest of the new members dominate the bottom of the pack, falling below EU average. As does Greece, the last in the list.

«Active ageing index measures the broader activity of the elderly in society, culture and everyday life, not just at work,» explained Ms Leetmaa, underlining the difference regarding other research on the elderly.

Hardest-working in Europe

Undergirding Estonia’s high ranking is firstly the employment level of those 55–74 years of age; by the indicator, Estonia is a whopping second after Sweden. «Compared to other European nations, we have very many elderly employed,» commented Ms Leetmaa, while pointing out a controversy.

As a positive, she noted the Estonian pension system since second half of 1995 allowing for drawing the pension while one keeps on working. While most of European nations are headed that way, there still are some where the pension is diminished if the person continues working. For instance, this is the practice in Belgium, Denmark, and Iceland, if the salary becomes very big.

«But, on the negative side, the bad news is the reason people keep on working – largely, this is to secure the family has sufficient income,» observed the analyst. At that, the figures are vivid. According to 2012 labour research, close to 80 percent of those aged 50–69 kept working as pensioners to guarantee sufficient income. Only eight percent did it for non-financial reasons, including being satisfied with their work.

«Only in Greece and Romania this was higher yet,» said Ms Leetmaa. Contrastingly, in Sweden only 14 percent of the retired keep on working due to desire to ensure that the family has enough; 65 percent do it for non-financial reasons.

As observed by the report, Estonia comes second but last when it comes to comparing income of the working-aged to that of the elderly.

Meanwhile, as also evidenced in earlier research: while in other European nations the dominant reason for quitting work is pension rights, in Estonia the elderly mainly go that way due to poor health or losing their job. «Therefore, we have rather high costs regarding work incapacity and premature old age pensions,» observed Ms Leetmaa.

As pointed out by senior Praxis analyst Andres Võrk, there’s is a controversy regarding higher activity of the elderly supposedly showing stronger satisfaction. «We can’t claim that the Estonian elderly are satisfied that they, in age groups 65–69 and 70–74, must work the hardest in Europe,» said Mr Võrk.

No interest in participation

A weighty aspect observed in the index is participation of the elderly in social life. At that, the index considers involvement in voluntary activity, care for children grandchildren or other grown-ups, or engagement in political life.

«In this area Estonia is at its lowest position – fourth, counting from the bottom,» said Reelika Leetmaa. Herein, political activeness was the worst, especially among women. Voluntarism is low as well – especially among men.

When it comes to caring for kids, grandkids and other elderly, we are quite the EU average. Regarding the latter, Estonian men do stand a bit above average. Statistical Office data says, however, that only 41 percent of the elderly have everyday communication with their children.

With a few organisations involved at offering the elderly options to engage in social life, the Praxis analysts underlined that the low level of social engagement is mainly due to health issues and going to work.

Treatment and security problems

In third subdivision of the index, independent coping of the elderly was assessed. Among other things, this involves health condition, security sensed, and participation in lifelong learning.  

Regarding health condition and availability of health care services, Estonians continue in the Eastern-European company with Bulgaria, Latvia, Romania and Poland – a rather significant percentage of the elderly complaining over accessibility of health and dental care. In Estonia, statistics say accessibility of the latter is in steady decline in 2010–2013.  

«The sports-related activity of Estonian elderly is slightly above European average, but then the definition may differ there,» says Mr Võrk. In some of the Nordics, like Finland and Sweden, it’s basically every second elderly that is involved in sports, said he.

A thing deeply troubling the elderly in Estonia is their physical safety – only 58 percent feel secure while walking about in the dark, at home. «But the Greeks say it is worse over there, and so say the Latvians and Lithuanians,» said Mr Võrk.

Poor health, good education

The final and fourth sub-index viewed support of surrounding environment towards active aging. Here, Estonia does badly (like rest of Eastern Europe) in two issues – overall physical condition and mental health. It is especially bad in Estonia regarding years lived healthy at age 55 – only Slovakia is worse.

This, according to analysts, is chiefly due to chronic sicknesses and accidents at work. The roots go to Soviet-time working conditions, as well as consumption of alcohol. 

When it comes to mental health indicators, this is firstly to show how optimistic the people are. Again, as underlined by Mr Võrk, Latvia and Lithuania are even worse off than Estonia regarding the issue.  

On the sunny side, analysts at Praxis are happy to report that Estonians aged 55–74 are better educated as compared to the rest of European elderly – 82 have at least graduated from a Gymnasium. «Here, we are as high as second after Czech Republic,» said Mr Võrk.

An aspect where Estonia strikes the eye is gender inequality. While basically in all other EU nations, the inequality is tilted to the benefit of men, in Estonia the aged ladies rule in most of indicators. At that, this is mainly due to them significantly outliving male peers.

The EU/UN active aging index dates back to 2012 as the EU celebrated its active aging and gender solidarity year. For the second analysis in 2014, data from 2012 was utilised.

Estonian Statistical Office data says close to half of Estonian population and of the working-aged will be over 50 by 2040. In 2014, over 50 year olds amounted to 38 percent of Estonians, and 39 percent of those in working age.

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