by Koos Richelle
Today, Europeans citizens are living longer and healthier than ever before. Since 1960, life expectancy has risen by eight years, and demographic projections foresee a further five-year increase over the next five decades. This is a historic achievement. It also means, however, that the European Union is experiencing significant population ageing. By 2060 there would be only two European people of working age (15-64) for every person aged over 65, compared to a ratio of four to one today.
This changing balance between age groups is often perceived as a threat to our prosperity and welfare systems. The growing number of older people is potentially seen as a burden on younger people. Some fear that the growing proportion of older people in the electorate will result in reduced investments in the future of younger people. Others fear an impoverishment of older people – or increasing tensions and conflict between the generations.
These fears neglect that older people have valuable skills and experience that allow them to make a significant contribution to society, from which young people can strongly benefit. They also neglect that people have strong personal ties across generations and that old and young care for each other. People may also project into the future when they will be regarded as old themselves.
Opportunities for Active Ageing
European citizens tend to be not overly concerned about ageing, unlike many experts. This is one of the findings of a Eurobarometer survey, carried out ahead of the European Year. Only around one in ten Europeans say that they are very concerned about ageing. The Eurobarometer also showed that most Europeans want opportunities for active ageing and are ready to stay longer on the labour marker, if they are offered the right chances to do so.
I am confident that the challenges of ageing societies can be tackled if we create more opportunities in the labour market for older workers, if older people can preserve their health for longer, if they are able to remain active members of the community and if they can live in an environment where growing old does not mean becoming dependent on others. In short, if ‘Active Ageing’ becomes a reality for all and if we can remain in charge of our own lives much longer than today.
Making active ageing happen is complex, though. It will not happen by decree. It requires all levels of government, businesses and social partners, civil society, the media and individual citizens to adapt and to play their part in remodelling society for an older population.
The Objectives of the European Year 2012
The 2012 European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations seeks to encourage and mobilise policymakers and stakeholders at all levels to contribute to this common endeavour and to help create better opportunities for active ageing and strengthening the solidarity between generations. The European year is a framework for action on the three dimensions of active ageing: the participation of older people in employment, in the society and their independent living. It is a major effort in communicating and raising awareness, in mobilising action in this area. We will run a communication campaign aimed at journalists, policy makers, stakeholders and the general public, with the European Year website as its central hub.
The role of the EU with regard to active ageing is, however, not limited to creating a framework for concerted efforts.The EU deals with a wide range of policy areas, including employment, public health, information society, transport and social protection, which all have to contribute to active ageing. But without the involvement of other actors, our outreach can be only limited. This is why what we would like to achieve through the European Year is that different players commit themselves to specific actions and goals during this year, so that we will see older people’s opportunities improve tangibly. The European Year must go beyond awareness raising. It should become a year of commitments, when all actors think about what they can do to make active ageing a reality and to strengthen solidarity between generations. The website of the European Year, that we run, is the place where such commitments can be made public and where inspiration can be found from what is happening elsewhere.
The commitments that can be made can range from legislative reform (e.g. remove obstacles that prevent older people from staying in employment), to analysis or public debates to raise awareness, or identifying priorities for action. For instance, cities can join the age-friendly cities programme of the World Health Organisation; companies can improve the working conditions for older workers; civil society organisations can foster senior volunteering.
Active Ageing of older migrants
The European Year should make a major contribution to building more cohesive societies based on strong solidarity between generations. Often, this also means building bridges between people of different origins; today a significant proportion of children and young people have a migration background. Their success in our societies will be a major determinant of our ability to cater for the needs of an increasing number of older people. Helping immigrants, their children and grandchildren prosper in our societies could become an area where older volunteers can play a major role in building a better society for people of all ages and all backgrounds.
Another migration-related challenge that we should take up during the European Year is the situation of older migrants. They still represent a small but fast-growing proportion of older people. Active and dignified ageing for them also means overcoming language and cultural barriers. The Commission-supported AAMEE project brought together people from different countries who work for better conditions for older migrants. This is a good start – but a lot more remains to be done, and I hope that the European Year will be an opportunity to start many new initiatives.
Koos Richelle is Director General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion at the European Commission in Brussels.