Active Ageing: the EU Policy Response to the Challenge of Population Ageing

6. Critical Assessment to the Eu Policy Approach on Active Ageing

The main responsibility for the slow progress to deliver the Stockholm and Barcelona targets lie with the EU member states but even the EU approach has its important weaknesses which limits the efficiency to achieve the set objectives (Tailor and Walker, 2003).
Therefore, on the one hand, it is fair to say that, the implementation deficit lies in the relationship between the ‘European’ quest for integration and the member states protection of autonomy in sensitive policy fields like employment and social affairs. Therefore, what we get is a double standards game where governments endorse European targets, guidelines and recommendations in the Council as well as in the European Council but they fail to assume responsibilities back home (Jacobsson and Schmid, 2002). Therefore the active ageing at national level has had more rhetorical than practical value (Piekkola, 2004).
On the other hand, even the active ageing approach at EU level has many weaknesses and limits and a growing body of criticism surrounds it. In the following the paper will briefly show some of the weaknesses of the EU approach revealed by some of the scholars that take part in the debate. This critical review will be first a general critique of various aspects of the Active Ageing Strategy of the EU (Section 6.1) and then (in Sections 6.2 and 6.3) a special critique which concerns in particular the debate about two controversial issues, the mandatory retirement (MR) ages and the limits to the EU anti-discrimination law.

6.1 A General Critical Review to the Eu Policy on Active Ageing

The major weakness of the EU approach is that the EU considers the older workers only as a challenge to be met and not as an opportunity to be seized. The concepts and expressions also used by the EU to operationalise its approach fall into the trap of some traditional and long-standing misconceptions about the older people. This approach is questioned by many scholars. Walker questions the universal process whereby what should be welcome demographic change has been transformed into a crisis of the welfare state (Walker, 2003). This approach has the following implications:
• This ‘crisis of mentality’ threatens not only the living standards of future pensioners but also the European model of development (Walker, 2003).
• This also shows the lack of the strategic thinking of the EU in this field, since if the EU is able to do anything in this field is to devise strategies and to find ways to turn this challenge into an opportunity and to be again on the forefront of a new Bismarckian-style social polices and which has demonstrated ever since the global superiority of the EU’s social protection system (Walker, 2003). The EU member states can do it again. The EU is a unique context in several respects to respond to these challenges of population ageing. It is well placed — a comparatively rich region of the world, a regional block which embraces the world’s most extensive welfare sates (in terms of proportion of the GDP spent on public welfare), has an acute ageing, has the legacy of the Bismarckian model, is associated with the future of the welfare state and the European social market model — to respond to the challenges of population ageing (Walker, 2003).
• Using traditional connotations and expression (e.g. ageing society) is somewhat inappropriate and creates a misperception in the people’s minds (Liedke, 2005).
• This policy approach implies another risk: EU policies make the older workers a special group for whom special solutions need to be proposed. This is questionable in so far as this might contribute to stigmatize them and to reinforce the existing attitude and negative perception towards the older. Applying the measures to older workers alone will stigmatize them and may not have the expected effect, as they are not sufficient to keep older workers in the labour market. Take for example the case of France, where the pattern of obligatory lifelong learning of the older workers, sent the ‘wrong’ message, sometimes serving to strengthen the negative perception of the older workers’ skills (Jepsen and Hustsebaut, 2003).
• Therefore the EU policy of active ageing should be an overall and multidimensional approach and take on a lifelong basis not only for the over -55s. Many measures discussed in connection with the active ageing should actually apply to all workers (Jepsen and Hutsebaut, 2003). This approach has, among other things, the positive effect that it avoids stigmatization, offers a wide range of instruments for the older workers as usual workers and consider them as being fully part of the labour force and not as a ‘reserve army’ (Jepsen and Hutsebaut 2003).
Therefore the EU should first, put an end to the approach to consider the ageing only as a challenge. It must be remembered that increasing longevity is an indicator of social and economic progress: the triumph of science and public policy over many of the causes of the premature death which truncated lives in the earlier times. The EU should take pride in the fact that its model of development has allowed increasing number of citizens to reach an advanced old age. Second, we should not despair at the emergence of more balanced age structures but recognize that this unique phenomenon represents challenges to policy and practice in all sectors of society (Walker, 2005) and therefore most of the policies proposed for the older workers would be appropriate for the entire work force (Jepsen and Hutsebaut, 2003).
Another weakness of the EU approach so far has been that it is a top-down process. Until now the pressure for pension reform has come chiefly from the macro-policy level rather than from the recipients or the potential recipients themselves (Walker, 2003). All kinds of reforms are top-down responses to the budgetary pressure of EMU and to pre-empt the costs associated with population ageing (Walker, 2003) which in turn has the following consequences:
• In all this clamour for reform the voices of the current pensioners do not seem to be audible, and there are current generations of pensioners living in poverty in all countries.
• The EU approach has developed as a transgovernmental cooperation procedure which has largely been confined to interaction inside a network of national and European policy experts with an insufficient involvement of the relevant policy-making actors in the member states (Parliament, sub-national decision making bodies). Therefore, the EU approach has not been integrated in national policy-making structures.
• The EU guidelines and the NAPs (National Action Plans), from 2005 on NRFs (National Reform Programmes) are unknown to most actors on the levels below. Even though the social partners are consulted in the member states, wider sections of the civil society have not been mobilized. Media attention and public awareness of the process are very limited.
• More of a bottom-up approach to balance the present top-down process would improve the learning logic and probably also the quality of the proposals and their effective implementation, (Jacobsson and Schmid, 2002). The bottom-up approach must therefore be combined with the top-down one that has hitherto dominated so that the local resources are mobilised for developments which are not only local but also linked to national and European developments. Therefore, while the EU and the national governments will inevitably set the tone for a policy towards older workers in terms of incentives, structures, and employment policy, regional and local governments, social partners, and NGOs have a crucial role to play. In order to be credible and relevant, awareness-raising campaigns should be undertaken in collaboration with and through such bodies.
The World Bank also criticized the “Open Method of Coordination” or OMC. It concludes that, although useful, the process may be insufficient to produce a rapid, comprehensive European reform (World Bank, 2001). This approach may not lead to an early, comprehensive, and pan-European reform for the following reasons:
• the method is likely to be very slow. The method does not create pressure for reforms. If it comes at all, such pressure will have to come from domestic sources;
• the method is unlikely to lead to a comprehensive reform. That suggests the reform mood created will be parametric rather than paradigmatic;
• the method will not create a vision for a pan-European reform. Pension systems remain national agenda items (World Bank, 2001).
Another criticism to the EU approach is that it does not stress very much the ‘part-time work’ of older workers. Consistent evidence thus revealed the lack of practices aimed at including older workers and lack of flexible working arrangements (Leeson, 2006). So far, the policy responses to challenges created by the population ageing have been piecemeal and compartmentalized in traditional policy domains. The answer to pension system sustainability has been sought almost exclusively in the design and operation of the first, second and third ‘pillars’ (Walker, 2003; Redy-Mulvey, 2003) without reference to the forth, i.e. part-time work.
This had led to a tunnel vision that focuses on the micro-design features of the pension systems while overlooking other contributory elements to quality of life and well-being in old age (Walker, 2006).
Many pension schemes still assume a ‘linear approach’ i.e. a strict-life stages separation of education, work and retirement leisure (World Bank, 2001; Giarini and Liedtke, 2006). But a modern economy and the need for lifelong learning require a pension scheme that encourage rather than impedes a ‘cyclical approach’, i.e. the mixing of those three activities, for example going back to school after years of work, or taking up work again after retirement. Most current pension schemes discourage such flexibility (World Bank, 2001).
Scholars argues that the part-time work for older workers is feasible, given that we no longer live in an ‘industrial, manufacturing-based’ society, but one based on a ‘Service Economy’ where over 80 % of the all types of work are services, even within the traditionally manufacturing companies. This reduces the number of people required to perform physically and some times mentally painful jobs (Giarini, 2005).
Another critique is related to the ESF as the key financial instrument at EU level for modernizing the labour markets in line with the EES including active ageing.
The ESF projects, while important and valuable, tend to live a life of their own outside the regular labour market policy (Jacobsson and Schmid, 2002).
A last critique would also be the fact that, while the EU approach promotes the benchmarking of the EU member states (Finland, Denmark) it is also somehow closed to benchmarking coming from other non-EU member countries.
Therefore, the EU should step up the benchmark coming not only from its member states, notably Finland, but it should also draw on benchmarks and good examples coming from other non-EU countries, especially Switzerland (of Social Security and of high rate of the employment of older workers (Giarini, 2005; Piekkola 2004), Norway (for part-time work, Piekkola, 2004), Japan (for intra-firms and extra-firms mobility of older workers) or the USA as regards the employment among the over 65s as well as mandatory retirement (Meadows, 2003).
In particular, the EU should make use of the benchmarks coming from the most advanced age discrimination legislations in the world, i.e. the USA, Canada and Australia (COM, 2004).

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