With age(ing) comes wisdom: Shifting the debate on living longer

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

EU healthcare systems need to adapt to people living longer lives. [Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock]

Ministers and experts from more than 50 countries meet in Lisbon this week for a major conference on “realizing the potential of living longer”. Olga Algayerova explains why Europe must carefully review what living longer means for how we live and work together.

Olga Algayerova is Executive Secretary of UNECE (The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe).

The traditional “education, employment, retirement” model of life is starting to show its age under the strain of change. Living longer is something to celebrate, but as populations in Europe age, it is time for us to think carefully about what this means for how we live and work together.

Too often, these complex questions are hidden in media stories about constantly rising retirement age needed to cover growing pension, health and social protection costs. Inevitably, citizens of countries with ageing populations will have to remain in employment longer than previous generations.

However, when ministers and experts from over 50 countries in Europe and beyond meet in Lisbon this week for a major conference on “realising the potential of living longer”, comparing strategies on extending working lives will go far beyond simply extending the retirement age.

There is increasing recognition that working for longer is not enough and will require the right conditions for doing so. All sectors and age groups must play an active role in this process.

An important feature of this is encouraging flexible working possibilities to facilitate transitions between potentially simultaneous phases of employment, training, caring (both for and by older persons), leisure and rest.

Digital revolution forces rethink of labour and welfare

The transformation of jobs in the digital era will force governments to review their welfare systems and workers to constantly update their skills, senior European officials, experts and ministers agreed during a conference held in the Estonian capital Tallinn this week.

Naturally, employers have a particularly important role to play, for example by facilitating part-time and other flexible working conditions for older employees or by supporting staff who need to care for older relatives.

In addition, promoting lifelong learning opportunities will also play a key role, ensuring that skills remain aligned with evolving labour market demands over professional lifetimes.

Whilst there has been marked progress in recent years, notably in countries such as Denmark and Sweden, many EU countries are unlikely to achieve their target of 15% of persons aged 25-64 regularly participating in learning or training activities by 2020.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the labour market, but as countries seek to define plans and strategies adapted to specific national realities, we can learn from a wide range of enabling initiatives. These include tailored assistance for older jobseekers, financial incentives to recruit and retain older professionals and awareness-raising campaigns on the benefits of experienced older workers.

As we learn to change some of our preconceptions of ageing, we must also recognise the enormous, wide-ranging and often overlooked contributions made by older persons to our societies.

Take for example the unpaid childcare provided by many grandparents and older family members that compensates for inadequate or unaffordable public and private care provision—a trend particularly pronounced in southern Europe. In the wider community, the vibrant civil society landscape of charities, groups, clubs and associations benefit from the countless hours and energy volunteered by older persons.

Let us also consider the burgeoning “silver economy” in which older persons generate wealth as entrepreneurs and employees, and stimulate innovation and new niche markets as consumers in sectors as diverse as technology, travel and health.

These are only a few examples, but eliciting recognition for the contributions of older persons to societies is only a first step. There is significant, untapped—and so far unimagined—potential for building a truly sustainable society for all ages.

Before this potential can be realised, there are barriers to overcome. “Ageism” is now a familiar term to most of us, but one which lags way behind other discriminatory behaviours (racism, sexism) in terms of public attention and action. There are signs of major progress, including the widespread adoption of national legislation targeting age-based discrimination.

It is, however, harder to address the ingrained associations and stereotypes related to older persons, that give rise to “senior moment” jokes about forgetfulness, and pervasive assumptions about aversion to new technologies and inadaptability to innovation.

Despite evidence to the contrary, these habits are proving hard to kick.

Then there are the persistent taboos surrounding the abuse of older persons, including acts of physical, psychological, sexual and financial harm or distress. The WHO estimates that elder abuse affects nearly 16% of people 60 years and older worldwide. To ensure ageing with dignity, we need decisive action to prevent abuse and to support and empower victims.

In policy circles, there is a growing focus on improving quality of life in later years and enhancing the autonomy and self-determination of older people, enabling independent living, continued social participation and connectedness even as health declines.

Enhanced collaboration and coordinated action in creating more “age-friendly” environments, together with a better integration of health and social care services, are important steps in this direction.

Without any doubt, concepts of work and retirement will remain at the heart of the question of ageing, but the concepts will shift.

As we turn towards the challenges and opportunities ahead, we need to take a fresh look at the attitudes, practices and behaviours that really shape what living longer means and what it can offer to all of us. Let us start by taking inspiration from the current innovation, learning and experimentation that is redefining the world of ageing.

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