Commissioner: Whole life-cycle approach needed to turn challenges of ageing into opportunities

Vice-President of the European Commission for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Suica. [EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK]

This article is part of our special report Golden years: Opportunities for Europe’s ageing population.

Intergenerational solidarity and fairness need to be the cornerstones and guiding lights for us as a society, particularly for decision-makers, says Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica to EURACTIV.

This must be ensured if we want an increasingly older population to benefit from relations between generations, said the Croatian Commissioner in charge of democracy and demography.

The average age of Europeans is increasing as 155 million people are expected to be over 65 by 2040. For Šuica, this means we need an approach to recognising everyone’s experience and value in society.

“I believe that this is best done by creating conditions where older people actively contribute to societal life, and through this active collaboration, relations between generations will be enhanced,” she said.

According to a new report based on a survey of 12,850 European citizens released by Edwards Lifesciences on Tuesday (21 June), the senior population provides great support in societies by volunteering, participating in local democracy or helping their family with daily tasks.

The survey shows that 71% of over 65s provide financial support to younger people, while four out of five respondents aged 18-40 say that support provided by older generations is essential.

Despite the clear benefits, the ageing population is often referred to as a ‘demographic challenge’ the report reads, even though their own survey suggests “no such conflict between generations, but a strong desire for more intergenerational interactions.”

“The study suggests that intergenerational interactions are both present in society and valued by all age groups. It’s important that policies and strategies are developed that help maintain and strengthen these relations going forward,” George Leeson, professor at the University of Oxford, says in the report.

According to the Commissioner, Europe should look at the whole life-cycle and address all ages to best turn ageing populations’ challenges into opportunities.

This includes promoting healthy ageing, gearing for greater demand for healthcare, sustaining social protection systems, boosting productivity and supporting increasing labour market participation.

“Tackling these issues is essential to maintain prosperity and to ensure solidarity and fairness among generations, and contribute to more cohesive societies,” Šuica said.

“We are working from a strong position, but we are working against the clock, so additional efforts in all of these areas are needed now, not later,” she added.

Healthy ageing and education key to managing ageing populations

Policy changes are needed to manage our ageing populations properly, reflecting the diversity of the elderly with more focus on disease prevention and education.

Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic

From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic it became clear that everyone was affected by it in one way or another.

Older people were more vulnerable to the virus, and in many places, they experienced a higher rate of isolation as communities went into lockdown or grappled with tough restrictions and soaring case numbers.

According to the report, this had a negative impact on intergenerational interactions, as there were limited opportunities to meet family members and friends during particularly challenging times.

The pandemic appeared to be the main cause of the barriers preventing further interactions between generations for 38% of the respondents, and 40% of those surveyed said the amount of time they spend with people of a different generation to theirs has decreased since the pandemic.

“The coronavirus pandemic exposed many vulnerabilities and showed a lot of our strengths,” Šuica commented, referring to the last two and a half years.

According to her, during the pandemic, Europeans have worked together unprecedentedly to protect and support the most vulnerable in our communities.

This emphasised the importance of and the benefits to the whole of society of strong intergenerational solidarity, Šuica added, and the importance of working together when facing significant challenges.

Despite the adverse effects, the report points to some opportunities to increase the number of options to meet across generations, including suggestions for more physical spaces to meet, higher presence of older people on social media, and intergenerational housing.

“There’s a real need to create some physical spaces where all the generations can interact together physically, especially after the pandemic with everyone being isolated from each other for so long,” explained Guillame Fowler, a student at Sciences Po Paris, at the launch event of the report.

For Anna Wanka from the Goethe Institute, the report also shows that intergenerational relations must be incorporated into policy.

The study shows that we clearly need a mainstreaming of the
facilitation of intergenerational relations in many fields of policy,
from landscape planning to digitalisation.”

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Alice Taylor]

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