Shrinking societies: How do we deal with the impacts of demographic change?

One research project of the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI explored how Germany, China, Italy, Japan and Switzerland are dealing with the already perceptible and anticipated impacts of demographic change on their societies. Important questions concern not only the ageing of societies, but also their possible shrinking. The objective of the project that was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is to learn from the experiences of other countries also affected by demographic change. Recommendations and suggestions for future BMBF research projects are derived where the fields of “human-technology interaction“ and “demographic change“ intersect.

How well prepared are Germany and other shrinking societies to deal with demographic change? What measures are already being taken? And to what extent can immigration help to avoid or cushion the effects of a shrinking population? Together with the Japanese research partner RISTEX, Fraunhofer ISI addressed these and other questions – that became more and more pertinent over the course of the project.

A distinction was made between an ageing and a shrinking society (population decline due to deaths plus emigration outpacing births plus immigration). Both terms already apply to Germany and several other industrial nations: The ageing societies are simultaneously also those shrinking the most. “The high immigration numbers of last year do not really alter the fact that the ‘native population’ of Germany is ageing and shrinking at the same time“, says project leader Dr. Kerstin Cuhls. To find out more about the possible shrinking of society, the first step was to explore how other affected countries deal with this problem. With regard to immigration to Germany, the project team made different future assumptions for Germany and – compiled recommendations based on this for the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), which financed the study.

How will the demographic change affect societies?

The results that are presented in the publication “Schrumpfende Gesellschaften im Vergleich. Maßnahmen gegen die Folgen des demografischen Wandels" (A comparison of shrinking societies. Measures to counter the impacts of demographic change) start by addressing the impacts of demographic change that were analyzed using desk research: These will affect how we live together and how family structures will change in the future as much as gender issues at work. There will be impacts on the increasing shortage of skilled workers that may be particularly widespread in health care and nursing occupations and probably an increase in new disease patterns like mental illnesses or types of dementia. Demographic change also has positive implications, however: People are living longer, staying healthier and taking an active part in social life for longer than in earlier times.

But how can we effectively address the impacts of demographic change and what can research contribute here? Based on interviews conducted with experts, the study underlying the publication concludes there is a need for more research projects with a technology reference as well as for those with a stronger focus on societal aspects and that both have to be linked. For example, technical aids for healthcare or exoskeletons should be developed to help physically support humans and analyzed in real-life research studies, so that people can remain in their own homes for as long as possible. In addition, research projects are recommended that address the digitization of patients’ files for a more comprehensive representation of their medical history, or modified cancer research and treatment with stronger consideration of the ageing aspect.

Future studies dealing with demographic change need to take a closer look at the social structures of societies

In addition, the recommendations also suggest taking a closer look at the social structures of Germany and the other affected nations in future studies alongside purely technology-based research dealing with demographic change. For instance, new nursing and care infrastructures should be explored as well as sectoral currency systems for voluntary neighborhood care, a type of health care time credit system. Other projects should explore how older people who still want to work can remain better integrated into the labor market. Demographic change can also have a direct impact on the democratic and political processes in societies, for instance, if the interests of older people are disproportionately represented by politics in the future. Relevant research projects should take this into account and help to prevent generational conflicts.

The emerging problems and challenges cannot be solved with technology alone; in many areas, new thinking overarching concepts are required. These technical and societal solutions should then be tested under real-world conditions and can provide pointers on how the different generations can learn to cooperate and mutually support each other in the longer term.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.

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