As a recent WHO policy brief (WHO, 2022) declared, ageing societies are a triumph of economic growth, health care, public health and social policy. However, population ageing is still viewed as creating an unsustainable fiscal burden, particularly due to increased demand for social security and health care provision.

It is argued, for example, that increasing elderly dependency ratios will lead to a slowing of GDP per capita growth lower investment, and a threat to the financing of health care systems in most G20 countries predicting that public debt burden will increase by an average of 180% of GDP in G20 advanced economies and 130% of GDP in G20 emerging economies over the next three decades (Rouzet et al., 2019). Similarly, are the predictions that there will be 95 million fewer working-age people in Europe in 2050 than in 2015, leading to fiscal stress and slower economic growth (Kenny & Yang, 2021), or even a complete meltdown of pension systems (IMF, 2011). In Asia it has been argued that Korea’s working-age population will halve by 2060, leading to significant fall in its economic potential. (West, 2018a, b).

However, as David Bloom, Ron Lee and Andrew Mason among others have long argued, awareness of lengthening lives and the need to finance those long lives, will drive increased savings by those in the labour market. As the average age of the working population increases, and a growing proportion of the work force faces retirement, there arises a powerful incentive to accumulate assets and whether these additional assets are invested domestically or abroad, national income will rise. (Bloom, et al. 2010; Lee and Mason (2006)). It is, for example, estimated that the US will see a 25% increase in national net worth per person by the middle of the century due to population ageing alone. Identified as the second demographic dividend - the growth rate of productivity due to the accumulation of wealth and human capital as individuals across all age groups raise their demand for wealth to support their consumption at older ages – this has now been joined by the concept of the third demographic dividend. Also referred to as the silver demographic dividend this is the increase in productivity arising from older healthier adults contributing directly to the productivity of the economy, through working longer (Ogawa et al., 2021). If supported by appropriate policy and labour market conditions, population ageing can actually create new opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship to thrive (Rouzet et al., 2019).

However, as Harper (2023) explores, it is not the changing demographics per se which are the challenge, rather the policies and institutions which frame the outcomes. Nearly 25 years after the Millennium many of our institutions are still defined by 20th century structures which are no longer effective for 21st century dynamics. And these institutions and public perceptions influence the behaviour of individuals within ageing societies. As we note the public outcry in France over the proposal to raise the pension age from 62 to 64, we can only recall the seminal work of US economists, Gruber and Wise (1999), who pointed out the significant role of pension incentives in inducing healthy active individuals to retire, with France having one of the highest retirement incentives within its pension systems of any OECD country. This is in a country with one of the highest life expectancies in the world. In 2022 life expectancy at birth in France reached 85.3 years for women and 79.4 for men. Indeed, there has been a rise in combined life expectancy of 5 years since Gruber and Wise published their seminal study – 78.68 (1999) to 83.13 (2023) with the UN projecting a French life expectancy of 86.5 by the middle of the century. Similarly, France has a Healthy Life Expectancy (HALE) at age 60 of another 20 years, making it one of the healthiest older populations in the world. Thus, while actual retirement in France – at around 64 - is not far from the EU average, it has one of the highest years in retirement, at 23.5 years for men and 27 for women.

It is, however, recognised that the normative perception of retirement in France is one of a social right for workers, a view widely, shared by all ages, that transitioning to retirement in ones early 60s is appropriate. As a result, French retirees are more likely to report that regaining freedom and control, experiencing a lower level of stress and responsibilities, and engaging in social activities significantly contribute to satisfaction (Apouey, 2022). Of interest in this study, there was no significant difference in the idea of retirement as a period of freedom between different socio-economic groups.

While cultural expectations have dominated the public perception of the French resistance to later retirement, two important questions stand out here. Why do French men and women wish to leave active economic employment relatively early in their lives? How can the significant financial contribution made by all older adults in terms of un-paid care and support be factored into the economic debate over later life contribution.

In terms of the first, our work in the UK revealed that growing awareness of age discriminatory practices by employers and fellow employees over a 20 year period was one of the main drivers of men moving out of full-time employment from age 50 onwards (Harper, 2022), while lack of training and development opportunities also figured highly as a driver of early retirement. Similarly, French research has suggested that older people’s working conditions have deteriorated over recent decades, (Khireddine-Medouni et al., 2016), with negative perceptions in the work place also increasing (Aouici, 2016). It has been argued that these factors have generated feelings of stress, job dissatisfaction, and burden in the workplace for older workers, contrasting with feelings of freedom and satisfaction in retirement (Apouey, 2022). It may thus be the case that it is not so much French distinctiveness that is leading to such negative perceptions of late life work, and thus positive views on the freedom retirement brings, but ageist practices in general across most European countries. Indeed, as Apouey (2022) points out, in the Fouquereau et al. (2005) study, British retirees had the same view of retirement and late life work as the French.

Equally important is to factor in the late life contribution of non-economically active older adults. In the UK, the value of unpaid care has been estimated at £530 million per day and £193 billion per year during the pandemic (Carers UK, Unseen and Undervalued, 2020). While for Europe as a whole, the total value of these activities ranged between 17% and 31.6% of the EU Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Giannelli et al., 2012). In particular is the huge financial contribution grandparents make to child care, thus releasing their adult children to undertake economic activity. In the broad discussion around shortening French retirement, the importance of older adults being able to give un-paid care and support to family members through elder care and grand-parenting, both in terms of economic support and importantly family well-being, was frequently mentioned.

UNFPA (2021) has recently identified a series of pathways for societies to thrive in a world of rapid demographic change, calling for comprehensive population and social policies aimed at ensuring prosperity and well-being for all. We argue that these should enable and support wellbeing and healthy active living to reduce chronic illness and health care costs and support active contributory life for as long as possible. This should also include longer working lives through life long training, education and skills updating, and the provision of appropriate working environments for older workers, including continual addressing of ageist practices which deter older adults from working longer.

However, it should also recognise that both the second and third demographic dividends will be achieved by the significant input to national economies by the un-paid and often un-recognised contribution of older adults through care and support to families, communities and wide society. Then ageing societies will indeed be a triumph of economic growth, health care, public health and social policy.