Henning Scherf
served as Mayor of Bremen from 1995 to 2005 and is also a patron of the aid organization HelpAge Deutschland

»I Appreciate the Anger of Older People«

Are the old stealing the future from the young? Are elections decided by those whose time will soon be up? Henning Scherf a young-at-heart proponent of senior citizens’ rights, rejects these premises

Mr. Scherf, you will soon be 79 and you’re constantly busy as an author and speaker. That doesn’t sound like retirement.

This topic really annoys me. The government makes political decisions about when we should retire. The government wants to decide what’s good and not good for people. That’s terrible, and it’s also something that never works. And although my trade union friends and Social Democratic Party comrades criticize me for this, I still say that everyone should decide this for themselves. Those who want to work longer should be able to do so. I know 90-year-old architects and attorneys who still work. These people aren’t incurable workaholics. On the contrary, their work keeps them active and in the midst of things.

That may be true for self-employed people such as architects or lawyers, but can that kind of flexibility also work with most employees?

Transitions out of the active workforce can be man- aged very intelligently. Successful models have in fact been developed and implemented by major German companies in cooperation with works councils. Union offcials need to listen to works council members and understand that many employees now have a new and different attitude and would truly like to work longer.

Can you give us an example of this?

Groups of three employees were established at Deutsche Telekom, for example. Each group consisted of a young entry-level employee, a worker who is also a parent, and an employee who could actually retire. The three of them shared two full-time jobs. When the employee with a family needed to stay home with a sick child, the senior took over, for example. Such models fascinate me. They represent outstanding solutions based on close relationships, understanding, and good organization.

In the past, older employees were encouraged to take early retirement to make room for the next generation.

That was in the 1980s and 1990s. Those days are long gone. In the future, young people in Germany will have no problem finding a job. On the contrary, the number of skilled workers will be much too low to ll all available positions, so young people will be happy when older employees work longer. Ideally, older workers will serve as role models and expert advisors who will help prepare younger employees for future management tasks.

That sounds nice, but the demographic problem cannot be solved with encouragement and voluntary action alone. Won’t we need some type of legal compulsion a er all?

We need to do several different things. First of all, and here we’ve only gotten half the job done, women need to be fully integrated into employment structures that allow them to have children without having to worry about losing their job or forfeiting professional development opportunities. Secondly, we need large-scale immigration. There used to be a preconception here that only illiterate immigrants from poor regions of Turkey came to Germany. Today we know that a lot of educated people want to come here — and that others us a huge opportunity. Germany has become a country that many people want to live in, and these people often take great risks to come here. We have to give these people work as soon as possible. The third aspect here involves keeping the elderly in the workforce.

Henning Scherf also believes in making use of alternatives in his own life. He and his wife, Luise, live together with other seniors in a house-sharing community

Who is responsible for ensuring the successful integration of immigrants?

You can’t just leave that to the government employment offices. The people who work there are nice enough, but it’s the companies themselves that need to figure out how to integrate the many young immigrants who are coming here. The global labor market is somewhat lopsided. We would benefit greatly if we could carefully bring it into balance.

So you think companies need to do more?

Yes, definitely. It’s up to them now. If they can’t find enough people in Germany, then they need to get their employees from somewhere else. There are more than enough people in eastern and southern Europe, for example.

Are you saying German industry should lure skilled workers from other EU countries?

I know someone who runs a civil engineering company in Bremen who recruited skilled workers in Spain and brought them to Germany, where they were very quickly integrated. One of them now even wants to study in Germany.

Things like that won’t be enough to save the state pension system. The number of retirees per worker keeps on rising.

What you’re saying is just pure polemic! The state pension system isn’t financed solely by worker contributions — more and more tax revenue is being pumped into the system. Whether or not the system continues to function properly in the future therefore depends heavily on future economic growth and productivity gains. If things go nearly as well as they have over the last few years, the pension system will be able to accumulate billions in reserves.

So it’s all just scare tactics?

Some people act as if we’re heading for disaster. at’s not how I see it. In any event, most of the elderly are sensible people who can deal with pension cuts if nec- essary. at was the case in the 1990s, when pensions declined in real terms. There was a pensioner party back then that tried to organize a protest but was unable to do so. Retirees themselves know that we can only distribute what we have — but this distribution must be fair.

Why should retirees accept pension cuts?

Many retirees are parents and grandparents who worry about their children and grandchildren and want them to be well off. This type of concern has its own value — it’s the basis of society.

Matthias Ruch (left) and Jörg Wagner in discussion with Henning Scherf

»Most of the elderly are sensible people who can deal with pension cuts if necessary«

The late newspaper publisher Frank Schirrmacher once warned about a “war between the generations.”

I’m not in favor of playing generations off against one another, especially since such an approach has absolutely no relation to our social reality. I also don’t see anyone out there today who believes the generations are about to go to war with one another

Older people have life experience, and some are even considered wise. At the same time, people in many countries now vote for young and relatively inexperienced politicians — like Barack Obama in the USA in 2008, Justin Trudeau in Canada in 2015, and, just recently, Emmanuel Macron in France. Christian Lindner from the Free Democratic Party in Germany is also under 40. What do you conclude from that?

Von Trudeau und Macron bin ich begeistert, das sind echte Hoffnungsträger. Sie stehen für Zukunft und Optimismus, und sie wurden ja keinesfalls nur von den jungen Wählern gewählt. Und beide Staatschefs sind klug genug, Erfahrung und Kompetenz in ihre Kabinette zu holen. I like Trudeau and Macron. Both are politicians you can really pin your hopes on. ey stand for the future and for optimism, and they didn’t just attract young voters. Both have also shown they are smart enough to pick experienced and competent individuals to join their cabinets.

Are older voters excited about young politicians?

It works the other way around as well. Do you know who the best-known person in the world is?

Who are you referring to?

Pope Francis. He’s over 80 and he spreads hope around the world. I’m a Protestant, but I think he’s great. Nelson Mandela had a similar effect before he died.

Mr. Scherf, you’re doing a lot yourself. But some retirees simply want to enjoy their retirement a er working for 30 or 40 years, rather than continue working. They want to relax, travel, maybe take a cruise...

Horrible! I once did a lecture on one of those music cruise ships, and I hope never to set foot on one again.

The political parties can’t talk like that — after all, these people constitute a major voting bloc. In the future, it will be impossible to win an election with a program that runs counter to their interests.

There are already more than 20 million people who fall in the category of “elderly” in Germany today; in ten years there will be 30 million. However, not all of these people are the same — there are all different types in this age group. You have to o er them comprehensive political solutions. Most older people definitely have no desire to be bought o with something like “give me your vote and I’ll increase your pension.”

Many people become more conservative when they get older. They want to hold on to good things and are adverse to change and reforms.

Things aren’t that simple. I myself got into politics when I was young and received a lot of votes from older people especially — as a “Social Democratic pied piper.” As a child, I thought old people were eternal reactionaries who had marched with the Nazis and then pre- tended to have been against them. Today, I appreciate the anger of older people who want to have a voice and are therefore politically active and vote. Their social engagement others great opportunities for society. And as far as reforms are concerned, Germany is a very stable and successful country. Sometimes change takes a little longer here, but that’s a result of success, which tends to make things less dynamic.

Aren’t there big differences between the political issues that interest the younger and older generations today?

I’m not so sure about that. I know a lot of old people who are more worried about the future than young people are. Take the issue of a military buildup, for example: The older generation, which experienced the war or the postwar era, still takes this danger very seriously. I’ve also noticed that many older people think in a very European way. This is extremely important these days because the most important issues that we will face in the future can no longer be addressed on the national level.

With regard to the interests of the next generation, the Social Democratic Party is thinking about lowering the voting age to 16 — for federal elections as well. What’s your position on this?

I’m skeptical. Experience with a voting age of 16 has shown that most of the younger people who vote choose the same parties or candidates that their parents vote for. Moreover, the voting participation rate for people that young is terrible. Anyone who can be tried as an adult here or, in the past, was eligible to be drafted should have the right to vote. However, they don’t need to have that right before then, in my opinion.

In order to protect the interests of the generation a er the next, some scholars have developed a model that would give parents one additional vote per minor child. That would offset the power of the elderly in the election process in the future. Is such a suggestion realistic or is it more like academic nonsense?

It’s academic nonsense.