Age Power for the Regions! The Finnish Network's Initiative for Managing the Change in Age Structure

By Antti Korkka

Greater attention has been paid to the change in age structure in Europe and Finland since the end of the 1990s. At the moment, the change is unprecedented: while in 2011 18 % of the Finnish population were over 65 years of age, it is estimated that in 2030 as much as 26 % of the population will be over 65. It is predicted that the rate of growth will slow down after the 2030s. The DEMO network, which operated in Finland from 2010 to 2012, has worked with age structure and the associated change in attitudes.

In Finland it is important to comprehensively discuss the change in age structure, its impacts on society and preparation for the changes. Political discussion has been dominated by the effects of the phenomenon on the state and municipal economies and on organising of welfare services. Ageing must also be seen as an asset and as an opportunity. The labour input and knowledge capital of older workers will be required substantially more over the coming years. At the same time, the incentives for youth employment and entrepreneurship must be promoted in municipalities.

The network's initiative focusing on the heart of the change

The change in age structure requires comprehensive approach in regional development. In the beginning of 2010 the DEMO theme network, supported by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy, was launched to consider the impacts of the changes in age structure and to provide solutions to the management of these at a regional and municipal level. The DEMO network name symbolises the three central features of the network: it refers to the demographic change that is affecting the regions; secondly, it highlights democratic regional development; thirdly, the name symbolises the network as a promoter of new working practices and methods and as a pioneer.

The network operated for three years and during that period the collaboration involved 17 different areas and regions, which between them comprised 97 municipalities (almost 30 % of all of Finland's municipalities). The Upper Tampere Region representing regional operators was responsible for coordination of the network, in collaboration with the Ministry of Employment and the Economy, Regional Department. The Council of Tampere Region operated as the funding authority. The network steering group consisted of 20 different expert members from research and expert organisations, ministries, provincial federations and network regions.

The changes in the age structure affect regions and municipalities of all sizes. Even though, relatively speaking, there are often fewer aged people in large cities than in small municipalities, there are far more of them in absolute terms, which represents a challenge for the organisation of services also in larger cities. Also, the opportunities for the municipalities to address the change in age structure vary depending on the regional structure: the challenges in organising services in municipalities covering great distances are different from those faced in densely populated areas, and the opportunities to utilise private services vary by municipality.

The participating regions have particularly sought synergistic benefits from the network through joint projects, sharing of information and learning new management, design and development skills. The regions have been interested in the production of demographic models and service structures at the municipal level. Of the individual themes relating to age-structure change, the new welfare and service solutions, service technologies and new solutions for the employment of young and elderly people and for the promotion of entrepreneurship have been of interest. There has been international collaboration on different themes with Nordregio and the OECD, in particular.

The operational strength of the network has been to detect regional differences. At the same time, regions and municipalities of different sizes have been able to learn from each other's regional development practices and methods of organising services. Within the network, region-led research and development projects have been launched, and regional and municipal developers have been trained in the management of age-structure changes. The pilot projects launched in the municipalities include e.g. the development of technological solutions for home living for the aged, research and planning for community living and cohousing, development of entrepreneurship and career paths for seniors and young people, and analysis of population and service structures based on geographic information. The network has operated as a starter motor for service development in the municipalities.

Photo: Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org

Photo: Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org

A good example and benefit of the network's work is given, for instance, by the community-living and cohousing development project Monikko, in which both training and new research was used to support planning in the municipalities. Existing and new information were brought together from community residential and business environments and from various community models and forms of implementation. As a result of the work, a residential site plan based on independent initiative and community spirit was drawn up for six municipalities in the DEMO network. The plans promoted social durability in ageing municipalities and provided new tools for the planning of housing and services linked to these.

Attitude and regional perspective towards development

It is also important to stress that the change in age structure affects all age classes. Changes will happen in the age groups of the elderly, the working aged, and for young people and children. Differences between regions will be emphasized because of migration. This is a challenge especially for rural areas: when young people and working aged move away from the area, the effects of the age-structure change are multiplied. The changes will happen over a long time period, thus requiring long-term regional development work.

Besides anticipating and implementing policy measures relating to age-structure change, the regions must promote a change in attitude towards ageing. During the network's initiative, almost 50 innovative project methods and working practices across four themes were collated for the use of the regions and municipalities:

  • Housing: examples of development of housing for the aged and of promotion of welfare and sense of community among different age groups.
  • Work: solutions for encouraging entrepreneurship and business activity, developing entrepreneurship and employment of young people, and promoting occupational welfare among older workers and helping people endure longer in the workplace.
  • Services: working practices for the development of new forms of service; for building partnerships in the municipal, private and third sectors, and for development of customer orientation.
  • Participation and strategic work: new models for regional attractiveness and for the development of planning, for promoting engagement of the aged, and for implementation of age strategies.

Good practices that have developed in the network areas have been brought together in the joint publication Age power for the regions! (see www.demoverkosto.fi).

Experiences from the project

The network operated well as a training network for service development and new information for the municipalities. During the operating period of just under three years, functional pilot projects were quickly put into practice, and the regions and municipalities were made very aware of the importance and challenges of the change in age structure. The national network initiative has also been underpinned by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy's innovative regional development programme KOKO, whose support to the network collaboration was particularly important.

Training events targeted directly at the regions and pilot projects that directly promoted the creation or development of regional services were regarded most successful by the municipalities. On the other hand, the wide operational scope and short duration of the network created a challenge for regional operations. A lot had to be achieved in a very short period of time. Wide-ranging network operations of this type demand significantly more time for implementation. The creation and promotion of municipal and regional collaboration would require at least 5-6 years of long-term network work.

Common national objectives

During the network initiative, it has been found that the age-structure change is a diverse and perhaps abstract issue that poses a challenge in the municipalities and regions. The change affects the organisation of social and health services, public finances, housing and employment and working life. Thus, there is a need to manage the administrative areas at a high level instead of using sector-specific solutions. Collaboration that is closer to the various areas of business is required at the municipal, regional and ministerial levels.

As a basis for future network initiatives, closer collaboration between the ministries must be sought above all, along with clearer national responsibility for implementation. Until now, policy and programme measures have been implemented with too little collaboration between the different ministries. The expert members that have been involved in the network initiative stress that the network should be a joint project between several ministries, which also has joint funding, rather than involving one individual ministry. In this case, the different ministries would all commit to the joint objectives, and the network would receive support from diverse working practices for the implementation of regional pilot schemes.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 3, 2013