Nordics ignore demographic bark, to suffer its bite

Nordics ignore demographic bark, to suffer its bite

Among Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries, perhaps the most famous line is: “The dog that didn’t bark.” Until Holmes arrived at the scene of the murder, no one could figure out how the murderer got past the estate’s guard dog to carry out the evil deed. No bark. Alas, Holmes concluded the culprit killer must have known the dog. This “non-clue” solved the mystery.

The analogy is a stretch, but at a summit continuing today in Stockholm the overlooked “non-clue” will be 30 million young Turks, the demographic that should be barking. Or perhaps the aging of the Nordic population is so acute that we could attribute this to faulty hearing.

This is a little-discussed Feb. 8-9 summit, even in the eight countries whose leaders are attending: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden plus the honorary Nordic United Kingdom. British Prime Minister David Cameron launched this “Northern Future Forum” last year. The summit has two agenda items; the need to get more women in senior positions in the workforce is one. I would think that the country in Europe with the highest percentage of women CEOs and members of corporate boards of directors might be worth summoning. No doubt the fact that this is Turkey would be a surprise in Stockholm.

But that is merely an aside. The more critical topic the Baltic and Nordic leaders will discuss is the aging workforce and the need to keep elders in the workforce longer.

What caught my attention were comments made to daily Dagens Nyheter by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt in the run-up to this summit. He complained that the current retirement age of 65 is too low and suggested that Swedes should work until 75 to preserve the country’s living standards.
“The pensions scheme isn’t based on magic,” he said according to a translation. “It is a welfare ambition based on large-scale re-distribution and citizens’ own work. If people think that we can live longer and shorten our work life, then pensions will get lower.”

You have to hand it to the Swedes that Reinfeldt could even make the comment. Calling for retirement at even Sweden’s existing 65 would be treated as sedition in Turkey or Greece. But a more thoughtful summit agenda might have included a broader look at regional demography.

Today, Turkey’s median age is 29, and the youngest in Europe. According to Euromonitor, Turkey’s population will grow a bit more than 8 percent by 2020, when Turkey overtakes Germany to be Europe’s most populous country. Turkey is aging too, of course, but will still have the highest birthrates and the youngest population. Italy, meanwhile, at current “replacement rates” and without immigration, will cease to exist in about a hundred years.

We know reinvention of the “gastarbeiter” idea of the early 1960s is a non-starter. But there remains much the Scandinavian elders might ponder, particularly since Turkey is already in the EU for trade purposes via a customs union. Twin plants? Technology transfer? Collaboration with Turkish universities to recruit scientists and engineers?

There are lots of ways Turkey might help Sweden keep going in her golden years. But this demographic dog will not be barking. Too bad Sherlock wasn’t Swedish.