Baby-boomer blues for lost welfare state

An astonishing range of politicians and pundits packed a downtown Athens cafe on Tuesday as left-wing politician and author Mimis Androulakis presented his new book on what he described as a looming clash of generations generated by «the most predictable crisis in human history:» the collapse of the social security funds as the baby boomers start hitting retirement age about 10 years from now. «Vampires and Cannibals: The risk of a new clash of generations» constitutes Androulakis’s take on what is expected to become the most contentious domestic policy issue in coming decades: the fate of Europe’s much-cherished welfare state as declining birthrates in Europe mean that a smaller number of workers have to shoulder the cost of sustaining a greater number of retirees. Proposals or measures to remedy the problem have already threatened to cause economic and social turmoil. «Only the societies that find a timely and comprehensive answer to the demographic challenge of the century will be able to advance,» Androulakis told the audience. Social security reform is a political hot potato in Greece, where successive governments have shelved their plans to streamline strained pension funds in the face of strong popular opposition or for fear of political cost. Greece is not the only country to be grappling with a graying society. Germany and Italy have promoted sweeping reforms to salvage the core of the welfare state while France and other countries are mulling similar initiatives. The debate about restructuring social security and Medicare has also gained intensity in the United States. The demographic time bomb is ticking, warns Androulakis. «In 10 years, around 2015, some hundreds of millions of people of my age around the world will turn up at pension funds, with some embarrassment and trepidation, to submit our applications for a pension. This seemingly insignificant event will be the milestone of the 21st century, the greatest social challenge and, in all certainty, the most predictable major economic and social crisis in human history,» Androulakis, a former member of the Communist Party and of Synaspismos Left Coalition, writes in his book that was published by Kastaniotis. The Communists see attempts to reform the state pension funds as an attack on the welfare state and workers’ interests. In an interview with Mega television channel on Tuesday night, Androulakis, who defected to George Papandreou’s Socialists on the eve of the March elections, said he expected little from Greece’s political parties. «The parties are unable to react. They are bulwarks of the status quo and bulwarks of a particular age group,» he said. Speaking at the presentation, conservative Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis said that Androulakis’s book «manages to stir things up at a time whose key note is managerial consensus and silence on big issues.» Suggestions before the 2004 national vote that New Democracy intended to resume its social security reform blueprint first implemented during its short-lived 1990-93 tenure if elected to power were exploited by the then-ruling PASOK, forcing the conservatives to back down on the issue. Reforms have been on the back burner ever since. Bakoyannis warned that political expediency and short-termism are taking their toll on the well-being of the country’s future generations and called for emergency adjustments. «We are the only society in Europe which shuns dialogue on all the big issues which are set to surface in the future. Indeed, we may be the only society which refuses to face reality. Perhaps we believe that if we pass the buck on to the next generation, we won’t have to suffer the consequences of it ourselves,» Bakoyannis said. Among those who attended the event at a Kolonaki hotspot – a somewhat odd choice for the leftist figure – were Socialist opposition leader Papandreou, honorary New Democracy President Constantinos Mitsotakis, former Parliament Speaker Apostolos Kaklamanis and a large number of deputies and pundits from across the left-right spectrum. Nikos Constantopoulos, outgoing leader of the Synaspismos Left Coalition and would-be president of the Republic, cautioned youth against dropping its guard and blind conformism. «The danger,» he said, «is that the younger generation will be drawn into a Minotaur of a political system which lives off its own flesh.»