Friday, 1 November 2013


The last two rounds of elections in Greece were, more than anything else, about one of my favourate subjects: age and the battle of generations. 

Older voters, with their pensions to protect, came out in force for the former major parties, fearing that more radical choices would put our bailout at risk; younger voters, many of them unemployed and with little to look forward to anyway, came out in force for the (occasionally radical) left and some even for the far right. 

The cut-off point used by most media outlets to illustrate this was the age of 50 or 55. That, to me, is a happy coincidence.

You see, in January 2012, the Eurobarometer wonks published a survey of European attitudes towards ageing, which asked people, among other things, at what age they thought a person ceases to be ‘young’ and at what age they thought a person begins to be ‘old’.  

Greece was, as it often is, an extreme case: on average, Greeks considered people to be ‘young’ up to the age of 50.5. We were beaten only by Cyprus on this account.

While youth seems eternal in Greece, old age is not particularly long. The threshold for ‘old’ age was 65.7, which is quite typical within Europe – and it suggests an expected 14.4 years between the threshold of ‘old age’ and the average Greek’s life expectancy - also close to the average. 

Between these periods of ‘youth’ and ‘old age’ is an implied 'middle age' – and due to our long period of ‘youth’ in Greece it lasts for just 15.4 years. Only the Hungarians, who count people as old from the age of 58 onwards, had a shorter middle age.

I tried to calculate one last crucial interval: the average duration of retirement in middle age. This measures the amount of time that people can expect to spend in retirement while still not being considered old. I suspect this is an implied target in industrial relations – in a perfect world, one would retire still young enough to not be held back by ill health or a weakened body.

Germany is unique in this regard in that the Germans are the only Europeans to work into what they perceive as old age - about two and a half years of old age. Only the Turks and Hungarians come close, but both nations tend to retire before reaching their subjective 'old age' threshold. The Netherlands, France and Belgium are at the other extreme, with new pensioners looking forward to at least 11 years of ‘middle age’ left. Greece is more in line with accession countries in the Baltics in this regard, with workers looking forward to only about 4 years of middle age after retirement.

I need to explain at this point that this is not a core versus periphery narrative. The longest implied middle age in Europe occurs in fellow PIIG Portugal, and at 31.1 years it lasts twice as long as Greece’s. Sweden follows with 29.7, while the typical German has about 22 years’ worth of middle age to look forward to – not far from the European average. Even middle age in retirement, which sounds like a political choice, is not a clear cut core/periphery issue.

I do, however, think that culture matters, so I ran a quick test using Hofstede's cultural dimensions and any other data I could get my hands on. The Eurobarometer study hinted that a country's median age might matter when defining the thresholds of middle and old age: growing old makes people more lenient when it comes to defining youth and old age. 

My tests revealed this to be true with regards to the old age threshold but not the middle-age one. Still, every year added to a country's median age pushes the threshold of old age further out by just over 10 months. On the other hand, it is the expected  duration of a working life that makes the difference to the middle-age threshold - short expected working lives prolong perceived youth by delaying emancipation, and this time there are no diminishing returns. In fact, every year of lost working life delays the onset of subjective middle age by a year and half. 

Just as interestingly, more 'macho' or masculine cultures tended to be associated with shorter periods of youth and an earlier onset of subjective old age. To avoid confusion, Hofstede defines 'masculinity' as
a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material reward for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.
By celebrating 'heroic' and assertive attitudes, as well as the ability to provide for one's family, masculine cultures tend to shove people into middle age and old age quicker.

In the case of Greece, a combination of very delayed emancipation and a persistent masculine culture leads to a shrinking middle age - which would be just a curiosity among many except for what I think is a significant cultural and psychological effect. Middle age is the time when one has no excuses and expects no one to clean up after them. For countries, a shrinking middle age may be a shrinking field of accountability.

Worse, I think the pressure one is subjected to when forced to cope with delayed emancipation and macho expectations at once is a breeding ground for monsters. The link between cultural masculinity and violence is echoed in studies of family killers and 'honour' killings. It could even explain why Greece's increase in suicide ideation has been mostly among men, especially married ones.  But I hope to return to this point at a later date. 

Notes on the data

The Eurostat study does not provide life expectancy or working life expectancy estimates, or indeed cultural attitude estimates. I have I used median age and life expectancy data from the UN, here, extrapolating the figure for 2012 from the estimates for 2010 and 2015. I’ve also got average retirement ages from here and Hofstede culture dimensions data from here.

As for average working lives, I’m using expected working life durations at 15 and there are two sets of recent estimates to choose from. (Economix 2009) was commissioned by the EC and can be seen here. Hytti & Valaste (2009) can be seen here. I’ve gone for Hytti & Valaste but Economix is about two years more up to date. Either way, differences between the two are small.

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