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

8. Summary and Conclusions

This paper has examined the ‘active ageing’, as the EU policy response to the challenge posed by population ageing. The challenges that the EU is facing due to population ageing are, inter alia, the shrinking of the work force and the sustainability of the pension systems. to respond to these challenges, the EU has launched the active ageing policy which aims at achieving greater correspondence between and possibly harmonization of the member states political and legal approaches towards the older workers at EU level. At EU level, active ageing is expressed by two complementary targets that the EU has set for itself to be met by 2010: first, to increase the employment rate of the older workers by 50% (Stockholm target) as well as to increase by five years the effective average exit age from the labour market (Barcelona target).
While some progress have been achieved in meeting these objectives it is argued that there is an implementation deficit between what is pursued at EU level and the results achieved both at EU and national level. What is more the slow progress towards meeting the targets is likely to continue even for the remaining three years before the 2010 target, since many member states in their announced future actions for active ageing expressed in the NRPs (National Reform Programmes) give little attention to address the targets and their national targets are not consistent with the outcome expected at EU level.
On the one hand, the main responsibility for the ‘large gap’ between ambition and ‘realization’ lies with the member states, since words are not turned into results and the gap cannot be “bridged by the actions announced” by the member states in their NRPs. But on the other hand, the paper revealed to what extent even the EU approach on active ageing has limits and weaknesses.
A first weakness is that ‘ageing’ is approached only as a challenge and as a result the current EU approach makes the older workers a special group for whom special solutions need to be proposed. It was argued that this approach is questionable in so far as this might stigmatize them and send ‘wrong messages’ that contribute to reinforce the existing negative perception towards the older workers. Another consequence of this weakness is that this ‘crisis of mentality’ on the EU part also threatens not only the living standards of the future pensioners but also the European model of development. 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 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 (Walker, 2003).
A second shortfall of the EU approach is that so far it has been a top-down process which in turn causes the European Employment Guidelines to be unknown to most actors on the levels below while wider sections of civil society have not been mobilised. Therefore, while the EU and the national governments will inevitably set the tone for policy towards older workers regional and local government, social partners and NGOs have a crucial role to play.
A third defect of the approach is the fact that the EU approach to pension systems so far has been a parametric rather than paradigmatic-style of reform. Therefore the EU approach tries to downsize the PAYG pillar by increasing the exit age from the labour market (Barcelona target), but still permits MR ages at EU level. But the paper argued that the MR should be abolished because first, it discriminates against asset-poor employees, second, it is outdated in a society where people live longer, third, it undermines equality (it denies the older worker equal treatment under law), and democracy (it is rejected by the majority of the worldwide population), and fourth it weakens our economy.
A fourth weakness is related to the major legal instrument of EU age equality i.e. Directive (2000/78/EC). It is argued that EU law on age discrimination is a half-hearted approach and has opaque and vague provisions which results in legal uncertainty and lack of effective remedies for victims of such discrimination. The EU legal framework also has too many exemptions which tend to discredit the anti-discrimination laws.
These weaknesses of the EU approach call for the EU to rethink its current approach and to update it along new policy and legal lines. Thus, the route to a successful active ageing policy is the formulation of a new multidimensional policy approach on active ageing which both enables and motivates the older workers to stay involved in social and working life.
To come to the general conclusions, any EU reform agenda to the ‘ageing’ population should first consider population trends — increased life expectancy — as positive; second, convert the process of population and work force ageing into an opportunity for society and older workers themselves and third, devise ways of enabling the EU ‘ageing’ population to make a valid economic and social contribution to the functioning of the EU service economies over the decades to come. Some directions of this new approach can be, inter alia, to abolish the mandatory retirement at EU level, to improve the EU law on age discrimination in employment, and to encourage the gradual retirement and to promote the part time work for older workers. The thinking behind this new approach is perfectly expressed in the WHO dictum ‘years have been added to life now we must add life to years’.

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