Pieter Hilhorst: 'We have to make much better use of the hidden power of vital elderly'

Published on: 28 October 2020



Keep working till you are 67 and then enjoy your old age. Or could it be different? A search for Plan P: updated ideas and alternative scenarios for organizing your life, your work and your retirement. A shift in thinking for and by young and old.

Pieter Hilhorst advocates for using younger seniors in society  “Use the hidden power of the vitalos”


We’ve been familiar with the “older young person” since Van Kooten & De Bie: those Koos Koets types, like over-age hippies. Now we’re also seeing the “younger senior”. Description: Roughly between age 65 and 80, often still fit and living independently, socially active as volunteers (average 7.4 hours/week), caregiver (12.5 hours/week), babysitting grandchildren, or even gainfully employed (225,000 people). Vitalos is the name readers of the daily newspaper Trouw came up with for this group, in a competition.

Extra phase of life bonus

The vitalos are in the “third Phase of life”: after their youth and their career, and before the start of the fourth phase of life, from age 80 upwards, where health becomes increasingly fragile and the need for care and support increases. And they are increasing in numbers: from 2.4 million in 2018, to 3.2 million in 2040. That third phase of life is a “bonus” thanks our increased life expectancy: for 65-year old men another 19 years (and 12 years on good health), for women as much as 21.5 years (and 12.6 healthy years). ‘The bonus of the century’, according to the Raad voor Volksgezondheid & Samenleving (RVS)(Council of Health and Society), provided similar advice at the beginning of this year. Pieter Hilhorst – whose roles include former alderman of Amsterdam – spoke to many vitalos, as a council member and project group chair. “Each of those conversations was inspiring.”

Vulnerable senior versus passionate pensioner

Those extra years of vitality are not only a bonus for the young seniors themselves, but also for society, the RVS advice states. We are struggling with scarcity in the job market, stagnation in the housing market and an increasing pressure on care costs and capacity. Voluntarily staying employed longer, forms of shared housing and shard care and financing during the third phase of life, could be a solution to that. The vitalos themselves often want to stay active, Hilhorst says. He feels the current image of seniors is too black-and-white and somewhat of a cliche: on the one hand the vulnerable and dependent elders and on the other hand the hedonistic (early) pensioners.

Choose for yourself and matter

In reality, the group of (young) seniors is more diverse in nature, says Hilhorst. Some of them just want peace and quiet and some of them still want to contribute to society. “People in the third phase of life care about autonomy and connection and they want to matter: making their own choices, having contact with others and remaining meaningful. We’d be insane as a society not to use that potential. We should use that hidden power better, only our systems are not set up for it.” The government, pension funds, housing corporations, care institutions and companies: they should all facilitate more flexibility and remove obstacles. What needs to change?


1. Keep working, but differently
Current typical career path: a full-time job, followed by abrupt full-time retirement. Hilhorst thinks we should change that: “The choice between working or not working should be extended to the option to keep working more or less, even after retirement.” For example, in a bridging job, where older employees can keep doing similar work: at a lower rate, but with flexible work hours. Hilhorst: “Employers should offer more flexible contracts, so that seniors can alternate a period of working with, for example, traveling.” Another idea is senior internship: hiring seniors on a temporary basis at companies, or volunteer organizations, so they can transfer their experience or when there are capacity problems. During the corona crisis, for example, hospitals and care homes put out a call to retired care professionals.


2. A different pension plan
To make the vitalo job market possible, pension funds (and tax authorities) should have a more flexible approach, Hilhorst believes. He cites the example of a 79-year-old teacher who previous had fully retired, but then changed his mind: “However, it was not possible to undo it. When he started working again anyway, it cost him a lot of pension assets. We shouldn’t punish people for working longer; we should stimulate them to keep working longer.” Hilhorst says that would require more flexible pension plans, which seniors can switch on or off, if they stop working after they’re 67 or if they want to stop temporarily: sometimes you earn more and need less of a pension, and sometimes it’s the other way around.

3. Different housing
90 Percent of the vitalos has a single-family dwelling with three rooms or more, a million of these people are single. Loneliness lurks and on your own it is harder to keep living independently. That requires new forms of housing, where seniors can live together, either in a “Knarrenhof” situation, with peers, or with other generations. “Co-housing can lead to new contacts and people can take care of each other,” Hilhorst says. That can decrease loneliness and save on care costs. Plus, it would free up housing for starters and families sooner. Housing corporations therefore need to create more options for age-proof co-housing, according to Hilhorst. He sees a role for pension funds too: “Financing these types of shared complexes is often difficult. Pension funds, for example, could provide mortgages to participants that want to live in shared accommodations.”


4. Providing care differently
Civic initiatives, such as care coops, can also facilitate seniors living independently for longer, in their own homes or towns. The vitalos often work as volunteers and could use that support themselves down the road. The growing and aging groups of self-employed people are increasingly taking care of each other, for example, through Broodfondsen (bread funds): when members are sick, they get paid from the joint savings. Self-employed people often do not have a pension and have to keep working longer. Once they are eligible for Old Age Pension, they can still stay on as members of the bread fund Hilhorst co-founded ten years ago. “That certainly was cause for some discussions among the younger members at first. But if people keep working, they should also be able to continue their disability and sick leave insure. So, we adjusted our rules. This is a nice illustration of the social change we are currently seeing and the new way of thinking that was needed in the Netherlands.”

“Nothing is mandatory”

Don’t the young seniors experience all those recommendations for working longer and taking care of each other as patronizing and extra pressure? They are already the first generation that can’t retire before age 67 and now they’re being asked to do even more? “It is absolutely not intended to force people to work longer or to take a social role,” Hilhorst responds. “We only want to make it easier for people who want to. Nothing is mandatory and hopefully, there will soon be more options.”