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Without radical changes in the workplace, some developed nations may wind up with more retirees than employees within 30 years, according to a U.N. report.

Throughout the world, people are living longer and birth rates generally are declining, especially in industrialized nations.As a result, when workers reach their golden years, there are fewer and fewer people to replace them in the work force, said the report released Tuesday by the International Labor Organization, the U.N. labor agency.

The report says the situation is aggravated because older workers, facing discrimination and pushed into early retirement, are disappearing from the workplace at an alarming rate.

Hardest hit are the welfare states of western Europe, where birth rates also are among the lowest. If trends persist, western Europe will have one person retired for every 1.5 employed by 2025, the report said. In the Netherlands, the ratio would be about 1-to-1.

"By 2025 in some developed countries pensioners may outnumber workers, resulting in tremendous social burden on a dwindling working population," said Gisela Schneider, a senior ILO researcher and author of the report.

Companies can cope by retaining workers longer and investing in them, for example with new training, flexible working hours and better working conditions, the ILO report suggested.

Older workers in jobs requiring good reflexes, strength and sharp vision will need to be moved to areas where they can best make use of their maturity and long experience, such as sales and teaching, it said.

"We will have to learn to think more flexibly than our present rigid tri-partite system of education, work and retirement," said Schneider.

"One possibility is for workers to move in and out of the workplace at different times of their life, allowing them to take time off to raise children, travel, or concentrate on a hobby while claiming unemployment benefits, she said.

Due to improved health, many industrialized countries will have more than a quarter of their population aged over 60 years by the turn of the century, according to the report.

Meanwhile, the birth rate for the total world population dropped from 38 to 27 births for every 1,000 people between 1950 and 1990, with rates as low as 15 in developed regions.

At the same time working life has become shorter: young people study longer while older people often bear the brunt of rising unemployment with early retirements and layoffs.