We live in a society that would be unrecognizable to a visitor traveling forward from the early twentieth century. The visitor would notice many great technological wonders, but he would surely notice something unprecedented about humans: increasing numbers are living longer than ever before, are healthier, and can look positively to the prospect of an active life long into old age. This is the outcome of extraordinary developments in technology, medicine, and public hygiene, but equally important are adjustments to lifestyles (such as adopting a healthy diet and undertaking regular exercise throughout the life course) and the provisions of public policies and welfare state institutions. For citizens of European and North American countries, a full and active life in old age is no longer an idea, but it is already a reality for some and a genuine possibility for many others!
While we celebrate living longer, in better health, and with increasing security, there is a broad social and societal responsibility to question how such benefits can be sustained and spread to other regions around the globe and to be participated in and shared by wider segments of our societies. The challenges can be summarized as follows: to identify and promote strategies at all levels that stimulate and sustain the activity, health, independence, and security of older people. The strategies that have come to the fore over the past decade, and that are linked with improving the well-being of older people, are referred to collectively as “active aging.”(1)
Active aging strategies draw on the insight that successful measures enable older people to increasingly participate in the labor market, social and family activities, and live independent, secure, and healthy lives. The rationale is that setting in place the conditions to empower older people to live active lives with degrees of independence and security is the catalyst for sustainable aging societies. The multifaceted design of a comprehensive active aging policy discourse allows the setting of policy goals to maintain, and even raise, the well-being of older individuals. It also strengthens social cohesion in the society and solidarity between generations, and improves financial sustainability of public welfare systems. Under such conditions, care for the elderly is seen as a positive—much less a burden—and a source to empower older people to free themselves from dependency and social isolation.
A key prerequisite to the formulation of any successful and sustainable strategy is good data. Advancements in data collection allow accuracy in the measurement and assessment of the baseline position, as well as for the measurement of progress and the evaluation of the impact of policies, institutions, and behavioral changes. For instance, access to high-quality data allows us to draw a full picture of active aging outcomes for the current generation of older people across different domains of their lives. That said, some caution may be in order: the evidence generated on active aging can only be as good as the data it is built on, and there is an ongoing need to improve the quality of survey data to make issues of aging, gender, and socioeconomic class visible. The insights required are the ability to highlight how aging experience at the individual level are combined with higher levels of activities (paid and unpaid), improved health (physical and mental), and a greater degree of autonomy and self-reliance.
The 2012 European Year (EY2012) carries a special significance in this respect, as it has put a renewed focus on the potential of active aging as a policy strategy.(2) Most notably, in the framework of activities of EY2012, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the European Commission's Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion and the European Centre Vienna jointly undertook a major research project to collect evidence on active aging outcomes across 27 European Union (EU) countries by constructing the composite quantitative measure called the Active Aging Index (AAI).(3)
The AAI was produced for the United States by AARP researchers (in close consultation with the author). The AAI for the United States followed the same methodology as used to calculate the AAI for EU countries. Because of data consistency issues that exist between Europe and the United States, it was necessary for some indicators to be replaced with the closest available proxy. Overall, the international comparability of the indicators between EU countries and the United States can be termed as satisfactory.
The AAI offers a wide range of users (policy makers, researchers, students, and businesses) a flexible framework that helps to depict the contribution of older people, and to draw out lessons from policies, programs, and institutional differences across EU member states and the United States. In its design, the AAI draws from the definition offered by the World Health Organization (WHO) during the Second World Assembly on Ageing, bases itself on the strands of the EY2012, and uses a methodology similar to the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme.
One of the major benefits is that the AAI enables credible comparisons between EU countries and the United States and quantifies the differential extent to which older people have realized and can further realize their potential in the multiple domains that determine their active aging experiences. In this pursuit, the AAI also offers a transversal breakdown by gender in order to highlight the specific public policy goals of reducing gender disparity in positive experiences of successful aging.
Domains and Indicators of the Active Aging Index
The definition of active aging encompasses many facets. Most importantly, it includes participation in the labor market as well as other unpaid productive activities, and also the ability to live healthy, independent, and secure lives. Clearly, the data needed to capture these domains of living is multifarious and complex. The indicators needed to construct the AAI must capture the employment experience of older people, before and after retirement age, but also their unpaid activities toward care provision to family members and volunteering. Other data required relates to the physical, social, and financial security of older people; their access to health and dental care; education, training, and access to information and communication technology (ICT); and information on those aspects that determine the enabling age-friendly environments of a country. The strength of the AAI analytical toolkit is that it brings together all these perspectives, offering policy makers a sound base to devise evidence-based strategies to manage the challenges of population aging.
Framed by these considerations, the AAI used the following four domains: employment; participation in society; independent, healthy, and secure living; and capacity and enabling environment for active aging. Figure 1 (page 19) displays the hierarchy for systematically deriving a quantitative overall index for active aging, starting by using 22 indicators placed under four domains.
Although the first three domains are traditional subjects of measurement of active aging, the fourth domain (capacity and enabling environment) is innovative. It looks beyond the actual active aging experiences and takes stock of the health and human capital of older people within their cultural, economic, and social setting. It recognizes the importance of the individual capacities of older people as well as the quality of the age-friendly environment in which they live in determining their diverse experience of aging.
Key Findings of the AAI
Using the overall index, Sweden and Denmark are neck and neck with the United States in the top three places, with three western European nations (Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands) next, followed by Finland. With the exception of the Czech Republic, the current position of the central and eastern European countries is at the bottom of the ranking; these countries are found to show a clear potential for further improvements with respect to active aging.
Obviously, the figures provided by the AAI do not tell a complete story. But they do allow a basis for a cross-country comparison, an analysis of differences across active aging dimensions, and the means for identifying, on a country and regional basis, the policy priorities for future progress. Notwithstanding this, what the index values for these countries do show is that even the top performing countries, with a value of 44 percent, must aim for further improvements. In contrast, the four countries at the bottom of the ranking—Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland—have a larger gap (in excess of 70 percent), and thus require greater policy and coordination efforts to promote active and healthy aging experience of their old age population.
It is important to understand that although the numerical values of the overall index look similar, they nonetheless reflect different experiences across the four domains within a country. For example, the joint top position of the United States (with Sweden) in the overall AAI ranking can be explained, in part, by the high index value the United States achieved for the first domain (employment) and also for its top position in terms of the capacity and enabling environment for active aging. Ireland, in contrast, scores the top ranking only in the second domain (participation in society), but does not feature even in the top 10 countries in the employment domain. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has a high ranking in employment but do not feature among the top ten with respect to participation in society. Such differences across countries offer mutual learning in terms of good policies and programs that promote active and healthy aging in different contexts.
The index also reports separately the active aging experience of men and women, which allows a strong focus to be brought to an evaluation of differential aging experiences by gender. The AAI, when viewed for gender differences within a country, indicates a clearly higher untapped potential for women in almost all countries. This is particularly so in the two southern European countries (Cyprus and Malta), but also (surprisingly) in the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
The AAI provides an opportunity for an assessment of and goal setting for activity, participation, independent living, and enabling age-friendly environments for older people. Policy makers, researchers, students, businesses, and civil society partners now have access to a flexible framework that can be used to highlight the important contributions older people are making to their communities, and to draw lessons from the experiences of older men and women in diverse policy and institutional contexts of countries. This work offers advancement over previous work in several ways: it takes into account consideration of the human capabilities required to experience active aging. It also highlights the multidimensional characteristics of the active aging phenomenon, by including market and nonmarket contributions of older people in a single measure. Finally, it provides internationally comparable quantitative evidence on the relative position of EU countries and the United States with respect to the untapped potential of older people in various aspects of active aging. Although to date the AAI has focused on the current generation of older people, there are only good reasons for extending such analyses to other age groups—and so look to incorporate the life-course perspective in the numerical assessment of active aging. People’s well-being and their empowerment at all ages must remain the focus of all active aging strategies.
The point about the usefulness of internationally comparable evidence is of crucial future importance. The AAI allows the development of benchmarking of country performance, and this (it is hoped) will incentivize countries to look at policies and programs that other countries have adopted, and learn from those experiences — both positive and otherwise. In the same vein, AARP should look to capture active aging experiences within the United States by constructing an AAI for its individual states. Such an index will feed more targeted responses to experiences of active aging within each state, as well as inform strategic plans at the federal level. The index provides a snapshot of the aging landscape across Europe and the United States and so it is a power tool to inform decision making at, not just the national level, but also at regional levels, while giving abundant opportunities for reflection from the evidence collected — for collaboration, sharing best practices, and learning policy lessons.
(1) For more discussion, see World Health Organisation, "Active Ageing - A Policy Framework", A contribution of the World Health Organization to the Second United Nations World Assembly on Ageing, Madrid, Spain, April 2002; A. Walker, “Commentary: The Emergence and Application of Active Ageing in Europe,” Journal of Ageing and Social Policy, 21(1) (2009), pp. 75–93; and A. Walker and T. Maltby, “Active Ageing: A Strategic Policy Solution to Demographic Ageing in the European Union,” International Journal of Social Welfare 21 (2012), pp. 117–130.
(2) Council of the European Union,“Council Declaration on the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations (2012): The Way Forward,” 17468/12, SOC 992, SAN 322, Council of the European Union, Brussels, 7 December 2012.
(3) For a detailed description of the Active Aging Index and its findings, see A. Zaidi, K. Gasior, M. M . Hofmarcher, O. Lelkes, B. Marin, R. Rodrigues, A. Schmidt, P. Vanhuysse, and E. Zolyomi, “Active Ageing Index 2012: Concept, Methodology and Final Results,” (2013), Methodology Report Submitted to European Commission’s DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, and to Population Unit, UNECE, for the project: “Active Ageing Index (AAI),” UNECE Grant No: ECE/GC/2012/003, Geneva, the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research, Vienna, March 2013.
The results reported in this article for 27 EU countries are derived from the methodology report of the Active Ageing Index project, submitted to European Commission’s Directorate-General Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, and to Population Unit, UNECE, for the project: “Active Ageing Index” (AAI), UNECE Grant No: CE/GC/2012/003, Geneva, European Centre Vienna. The work reported here also benefited greatly from the input and advice of members of the UNECE Active Ageing Expert Group during the two meetings in May 2012 and October 2012. Comments received from Ralf Jacob and Kasia Jurczak (both from Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, European Commission) and Vitalija Gaucaite Wittich and Evita Sisene (both from Population Unit, UNECE) at various stages of the project had been extremely valuable and are also acknowledged here. Thanks also go to Sean Terry, Oxford Brookes University, for his comments and suggestions. The views expressed in the article are those of the author and not necessarily shared by the European Commission, the UNECE, or AARP.
about the author
Asghar Zaidi is Professor of International Social Policy, University of Southampton. He is also Senior Advisor at European Centre Vienna; Visiting Senior Fellow at CASE (London School of Economics); and Research Affiliate at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin). Previously, he was Senior Economist (OECD, Paris); Economic Adviser (Department for Work and Pensions, London) and research officer (London School of Economics and University of Oxford). His recent research interests span active aging, well-being of older people and issues linked with financial and social sustainability of European public welfare systems. Within the framework of the 2012 European Year, he coordinated Active Aging Index Project. During 2013, arising out of collaboration with HelpAge International and a group of international experts, he developed the first ever index to measure the well-being of older people on a worldwide scale, called Global AgeWatch Index. His recent academic publications include books on aging, pensions and health in Europe; on mainstreaming aging; on microsimulation modeling and on the well-being of older people.