EESC conference on older persons: We need to combat ageism and promote a longevity society

Some 42% of Europe's older population report that age discrimination is prevalent in their country, with ageism peaking in the workplace. As the proportion of people over 65 is set to steadily rise in the coming decades, the EU is in dire need of a comprehensive strategy which will allow for a fundamental change, both in policies and in society's perception of older people

Active ageing, flexible labour market participation and sound policies on long-term care are among the main prerequisites for enabling people to remain productive beyond retirement and to continue participating in economic and social life.

However, the road to non-discrimination of Europe's senior citizens is still full of obstacles – with eliminating ageist behaviour, meeting health needs and bridging the digital divide topping the to-do list of EU and national policymakers, according to the conference Present and future policy for older persons held by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in Madrid on 29 November.

Although a number of EU measures have addressed the rights of older people, we need a more comprehensive policy on the matter. At the EESC we believe that such an instrument would help secure the inclusion of older people in society and tap into their social, economic and intellectual potential, which is often neglected, said EESC President Oliver Röpke in his opening remarks.

The conference brought together high-level representatives from the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Spanish government and civil society organisations advocating equal rights for older persons.

It was supported by the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU, which was represented by different speakers, including Alejandro Abellán García de Diego, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He announced that the Spanish Presidency was planning to adopt Council conclusions on ageing and demographic transition in the Council meeting on 14 and 15 December.

The EESC conference is set to provide content for a roadmap for a forthcoming EU policy for older people, along the same vein as the EESC's 2007 conference on the rights of people with disabilities, which was held during the previous Spanish Presidency and which helped shape the European Disability Strategy.

It is our hope and ambition that the conclusions and recommendations emerging from today's debates could reach the same objective. I assure you of our commitment to supporting and taking forward this agenda during the following months and the Commission's next term of office, Mr Röpke said.

The EESC called upon the Commission to draw up a European Strategy for Older Persons in an opinion adopted in July. The strategy, which should, among other things, address the employment, education and health and care needs of older people, should help change the current perception of older people as a burden and cost to society.

The Commission has already put in place a number of instruments addressing the rights and needs of the older population and earmarked significant funds for this purpose across sectors and policies. The latest addition in this respect is a demography toolbox which specifically addresses the rights of older people through a dynamic lens with the goal of empowering them to be productive members of society.

My main message to you today is the urgent need to make our population and our democratic institutions longevity-literate. This is not just a message for older people – life plans, education and lifelong learning, retirement and pensions are all affected by this longer life expectancy, said Dubravka Šuica, Commission Vice-President for Democracy and Demography.

Children born today can expect to live to be 95 or even 100, so we need to shift the narrative from an ageing society to a longevity economy and society, with the latter being the one that capitalises on the longevity dividend we have in our hands. It makes the best use of the additional 20 or 30 years we have left. It is vital that quality of life does not diminish with age, Ms Šuica said.

The EESC's calls for a new strategy have been endorsed by civil society organisations representing older people, such as AGE Platform Europe, which indirectly represents around 200 million older persons in Europe.

In order to utilise the great potential of older people, a comprehensive socio-political framework is required, which does justice to the dynamic process of ageing in all its diversity. This is why this strategy is so important for current and future policy. Now and in the future, older people would then be valued as equal citizens and individual personalities with their own needs, said the president of AGE Platform Europe, Dr Heidrun Mollenkopf.

However, according to Elena Weber, Vice-President of AGE Platform Europe, older people still face ageism on a daily basis and wherever they go. We must not turn our face away from that, we should fight it every time. This is why we are asking for a new strategy that can support this fight against ageism.

Despite the shrinking workforce and the fact that more people retire every year than are employed, ageism is strongest in the workplace.

Ageism in the labour market contributes to an increased risk of long-term unemployment among the over-50s, which is a major problem in Europe as a whole. Raising the retirement age has been a priority for individual Member States, but has not been accompanied by initiatives to improve the employability of older people, said Professor Jorge Calero, University of Barcelona.

Among the alternatives to full employment are staged retirement, part-time work and self-employment as well as long-term activation policies for older people which would enable them to maintain as independent a life as possible, while respecting their wishes on how to grow old.

We are fully convinced that the best way to include older people is through employment, and that's a challenge for this group, said Miriam Pinto Lomeña, Spanish Confederation of Business Organisations (CEOE).

Francesc Boya, Secretary-General for the Demographic Challenge in the Spanish government pointed to the territorial disparities, with some areas having older population which is at the same time highly dispersed, making it difficult to guarantee that the needs of older people are adequately met or to guarantee that they have access to social services.

We have to include ageing in a cross-sectional way in all the areas related to demographic challenge. This has an impact on all the elements that form the basis of the territorial cohesion. We have to guarantee equal access to basic services and at the same time, stimulate collaboration formulas to use the available resources in the best possible way, he said

Another challenge is loneliness, present not only in rural areas but also in cities, which not only takes a heavy emotional toll on an individual but also generates costs for the health sector. According to the R-UCLA Loneliness Scale, loneliness is reported by 44.3% of Europeans over 55. The number of lonely older individuals is highest in Slovakia (66.1%) and lowest in Denmark (22.5%).

As the world goes digital, those with limited computer literacy or without access to the internet will encounter ever more obstacles to using financial or administrative services, which makes it paramount to bridge the digital divide among generations.

On average, 72% of people aged between 55 and 74 used the internet in the EU in the course of last week, with significant differences between Member States: that figure was 96.4% in Denmark and 27.5% in Romania.

Participants in the conference agreed on the need for coordinated policies with a holistic and intersectional approach to ageing and with mainstreaming into other policy areas.

We need a strategy because we are not seeing the whole picture with regard to older people. We need policies that will bring about a cultural shift and make older people more visible and more empowered. It will have an impact on different generations as it will be based on respect and solidarity between generations, the rapporteur of the EESC opinion, Miguel Ángel Cabra de Luna, said.

Legislation is the entry point to a holistic approach to ageing and we look at today's event as a game changer: we would like it to be a concrete step towards drafting a new strategy, said Maciej Kucharczyk, Secretary-General of AGE Platform Europe. We are convinced that the EU is in a unique position to set a high level of ambition and a positive tone on ageing and older people, in order to inspire and support the initiatives carried out by Member States.

Age discrimination and ageism remain impediments to building an inclusive society. Our ultimate goal should be a Convention on the Rights of Older Persons, said MEP Milan Brglez.

Closing the conference, Rosa Martínez Rodríguez, Spanish State Secretary for Social Rights and the 2030 Agenda, said that the Spanish government was improving its caregiving model and placing emphasis on community-based life, moving away from previous institutionalisation practices which often prevented older people from living in their own homes.

This is a paradigm shift that will take time but we are sure there is no going back. We have to ensure that ageing is a part of our life, we have to have a cohesive society and continue working in that direction, she said.