“You are only as old as you feel,” so the saying goes. And indeed, our perception and experience of age is changing rapidly. While 200 years ago a few lucky persons lived to the age of 70, today most people in Europe live well beyond that age—and in much better health. In 1889, when Otto von Bismarck introduced the old age pension insurance in Germany, pensions were paid from age 70, while the average life expectancy was 45 years. Today, it exceeds 82 years for women and 77 years for men, and most people can enjoy many years of retirement in good health.
These are significant changes in our population’s age structure. We will have to adapt our employment policies, our workplace practices, as well as our social security and health care systems to this new demographic reality. And we must be prepared to adapt our own lifestyles. The key to tackling the challenges of an increasing proportion of older people in our societies is “active aging”: encouraging older people to remain active by working longer and retiring later, by engaging in volunteer work after retirement, and by leading healthy and autonomous lives.
In this article I will focus mainly on the first strand of active aging—employment—for it is in employment that we are faced with the greatest urgency, as the baby boom cohorts approach retirement. In this area we can also draw on the success of the last 10 years: in the European Union, the proportion of people aged 55–64 in employment has increased from 36.9 percent in 2000 to 46 percent in 2009.
2012: European Year for Active Ageing
The challenge we face is well understood and calls for action at all levels of government, employers and trade unions—the social partners, as we call them—as well as civil society. To facilitate and trigger such action, the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, has proposed to designate 2012 as European Year for Active Ageing. European Years are very useful to create awareness of particular policy issues—for example, in 2009 the focus was on creativity and innovation, in 2010 on combating poverty and social exclusion, and in 2011 it will be on volunteering. But they are really successful only if they bring about lasting changes in attitudes and policies. So during the year-long campaign in 2012, we will seek to encourage policy makers and stakeholders, including companies, to engage in initiatives to promote active, healthy, and autonomous aging.
Policy Coordination for Employment and Social Protection
The European Year should also enhance the effectiveness of EU-level policy cooperation. The governments of the Member States share their experiences relating to employment in the European Employment Strategy through an open method of coordination that relies on soft-law instruments such as guidelines and indicators, benchmarking, and sharing of best practices. The same tools are applied to social protection policies. Reforming and modernizing social security schemes (e.g., disability, unemployment, sickness) and pensions is often necessary to encourage those who are fit to stay longer in the labor market. In an aging society, this is also critical to tackling poverty among the elderly. In 2008, 19 percent of persons aged 65+ in the European Union were at risk of poverty, compared to 17 percent for the population in general. A longer working life can help alleviate poverty by providing more income and higher pensions, but we must not forget that this option is not available to everyone, be it for health reasons or due to the labor market situation. Solidarity remains an essential feature of pension systems. This is also one reason why this past summer, together with my colleagues Commissioners Rehn and Barnier, I presented a Green Paper on pensions to facilitate debate and determine what action is necessary. 1
With longer careers, training and retraining become ever more important as obsolete skills often lead to premature retirement. However, the participation of older workers in training is still very low. In the EU, fewer than 5 percent of workers from 55- to 64-years old took part in training in 2008. The EU supports various initiatives that help workers consistently update their skills, both through funding and the sharing of best practices, for example by promoting comprehensive lifelong learning strategies and competence-based approaches to human resource management.
Research on Best Practices at Government and Company Levels
The European Commission can also rely on various agencies to promote mutual learning on policies and best practices that contribute to active aging. For example, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), 2 based in Dublin, Ireland, has developed a number of measures for an aging workforce relating to active labor market policies, lifelong learning, age awareness in management, and more flexible working time and leave arrangements. Another agency, based in Bilbao, Spain, provides information on how to improve health and safety at the workplace. And a third agency, based in Thessaloniki, Greece, promotes the development of vocational education and training in the European Union. Through these agencies, the European Union can tap into a wealth of interesting initiatives, including from private companies.
Financial Support for Active Aging Projects
The EU also provides financial support to projects that contribute to active aging. This is done mainly through the European Social Fund, the EU’s main financial vehicle for supporting employment. Out of this fund, older workers can benefit from active labor market measures that represent about €29 billion for the current programming period, 2007–13.
Fighting Age Discrimination
We also need to fight negative stereotypes of older people and age discrimination. Discrimination based on age in employment is prohibited under EU law. But age discrimination also often occurs in accessing goods and services, such as insurance products and health care. With this in mind, the European Commission has proposed a new law to prohibit discrimination outside employment. If adopted, it will ban discrimination based on age in social protection, education, and access to goods and services. Moreover, it will also seek to ensure a balance between the needs of older people and the risks related to age, particularly with regard to financial services.
Active Aging through Volunteering
Active aging must not stop when people leave the labor market. In a survey carried out in 2008, almost three-quarters of Europeans who had not yet retired said that they would consider participating in community or volunteer work. Among the retired, 34 percent said that they had engaged in volunteering and another 10 percent said they were planning to do so. There is a vast potential for senior volunteering in the European Union. The European Union’s Grundtvig program for adult education makes a small contribution to this by financing projects supporting senior volunteering. Another important initiative is the decision to designate 2011 as European Year of Voluntary Activities Promoting Active Citizenship, which will also aim to promote volunteerism among older people.
It is high time to scrap the idea that people become a burden on others as they turn 60. Older people today are healthier than ever and can expect to live longer. They can play an active part in the economy and society and look after themselves for much longer than before, especially if they benefit from an environment and technologies adapted to their needs.
Active aging is good for society and for older people themselves, as it contributes to their physical, mental, and social wellbeing. Active aging helps prevent older people from experiencing old age as a time of marginalization.
We can make active aging a positive reality if policy makers, employers, employees, and non- governmental organizations work together. European companies that are developing age management strategies and promoting active aging through various measures are making an important contribution.
This is why I very much welcome AARP’s International Innovative Employer Award. Much of the life of employees is decided on the company level. This is where changes can have the biggest impact. Promoting good practices at this level is crucial, and I am very happy that European companies are being selected for this award. I do hope that this will inspire many more employers to realize the value of older employees and the potential of active aging.
1 European Commission (2010). Green paper towards adequate, sustainable and safe European pension systems. SEC(2010)830.
László Andor is the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. He previously served as member of the board of directors of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and as advisor in the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office. He holds degrees from the George Washington University, Washington, DC, University of Manchester, UK, and the University of Economic Sciences in Budapest.