The Need for Age-Neutral Training in the ‘Silver Society’


With the ageing of society, pension reforms loom over the policy agenda of industrial countries. A core element of most pension reform packages is the increase of the pension age. Both policy makers and enterprises are, thus, aware that lifelong learning and the need to retain older workers in employment takes on ever more importance.
Adults who are remaining in the active population longer need (re-)training in their fifties and sixties in order to maintain their productivity. Companies will increasingly have to rely on the experience of older workers. However, the incidence of vocational training tends to decline with age. This paper analyses the European Employment Strategy, the concept of ‘active ageing’ and later examines the question whether the productive potential of older people does not appear to be substantially impaired by ageing per se. The implementation and success of vocational training programmes rely on the involvement in particular of the social partners at European, national and sectoral level. The article analyses therefore the role of the social partners with regard to the possible benefits of vocational training. The traditional mind-set about older workers is challenged. Instead, the paper advocates an age-neutral approach to vocational training: learning must become a habit for all ages aiming at delivering a base of competences and skills relevant to all stages of the working life.

1. Recent Labour Market Changes in Europe

1.1 Main Employment Policy Developments Across the EU

Within the European Union, the labour markets are experiencing substantial and rapid change. Key drivers include high-tech technology and innovation, which facilitate the tradability of services to an ever-increasing extent. The revised European Employment Strategy has taken these developments into account and foresees a significant increase in the employment rate of workers. Increasing the employment rates of all workers, in particular women and older people, is a key element in the EU strategy for making social security systems sustainable at the height of population ageing.
While the need to boost employment participation is an urgent issue of common European interest, employment policies — including vocational training programmes — come within the exclusive competence of the Member States and national social partners. For this reason employment policies at European level remain rather vague about how to promote training programmes. With the Open Method of Coordination,1 the European Commission certainly encourages Member States to engage in close cooperation on social policy issues. However, training practices in companies and training institutions differ widely from one country to another. Countries in northern Europe, make a rather high use of training. In Scandinavian countries adult education is particularly well developed and institutionalised for a large proportion of the population. In Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, flexible working practices — such as gradual retirement schemes – are a frequently used feature of age management. Southern European countries, by contrast, are typified by limited resources to training. This great variety reflects different training cultures and concepts among Member States. Julien Machado argues that less developed training attitudes in Greece and Portugal, for instance, may be partly explained by lower levels of technological sophistication of their production infrastructure, which is known to be a crucial factor in the use of training.2
According to the European Employment Guidelines, European Member States should provide incentives for employees to retire later and in a more gradual way and incentives for employers to retain older workers, i.e. workers aged 55-64.3 The Guidelines lay out different but complementary approaches: employment policies should promote training, lifelong learning strategies and active labour market policy measures for everyone regardless of their age.
The focus of the European Employment Strategy is on raising employment and not just on reducing unemployment. Increased employment of older workers is seen as a lever to ease the burden of societal ageing and demographic change in Europe.4 The two largest groups considered were women and older workers. But while promoting employment opportunities for women has ranked high on the European Employment Strategy agenda from the very beginning, this has not been the case with the employment of older workers.5 Since 2002, the European Employment Guidelines contain two quantitative targets in respect of older workers, which were both introduced as part of the Lisbon strategy: the first is to raise the employment rate of older workers in the EU to 50% on average by 2010; the second target is to increase by 2010 the effective average retirement age from the labour market by five years. The EU average employment rate was 59.9 years in 2001; the total employment rate should be increased to 70% by 2010.
In line with its objective of becoming the most competitive knowledge-based powerhouse by 2010, the renewed Lisbon Strategy prioritises national ‘ownership’ and reform commitments: the strategy stresses the need for concrete structural labour market reforms combining market flexibility and security of working conditions.6 In its Annual Progress Report on the Lisbon Strategy of 2007, the European Commission acknowledged that progress on growth is still uneven and the spotlight is now moving to delivery of results. The Commission has redefined investment in education and research as the first of four priority areas, which should be stepped up to 2% of the growth domestic product (GDP) from the current 1.28% by 2010. Improving the adaptability of workers covers a broad range of action, supported by the EU through legislation and Community funds.7
A new programming period for the European Structural Funds started in 2007 for all Member States: a new set of regulations governing the Funds brings some of the biggest changes in over a decade. The European Social Fund (ESF) should contribute to achieving the objectives of the ‘Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs’. The new regulatory framework is more focused than the current one: the ESF will be a significant funding and policy tool for the promotion of human capital and workers’ skills development.
As an important part of the EU’s Social Agenda 2005-2010, the European Commission had launched in 2006 and 2007 a consultation process on the need to review current labour law systems. One of the policy questions of the “Green Paper on Modernising labour law to meet the challenges of the 21st century”8 concerned the role national labour law and collective agreements might play in promoting access to training over the course of a fully active working life. Further to this consultation process the European Commission has presented the ‘Flexicurity Concept’, a rather broad strategy to combine and at the same time enhance both flexibility and security for workers and companies. This initiative has the merit of having launched a large policy debate which boosts a benchmarking process between the rather different national labour market policies. The Flexicurity concept also deserves credit with regard to one of its four outlined policy components: “lifelong learning strategies to ensure the continual adaptability and employability of workers”. However, it lies within the responsibility of the Member States to implement country-specific reform measures. For the time being, only the highly-developed welfare states which can afford generous social security benefits seem to find the right balance between rights and obligations, security and flexibility.

1.2 The Active Ageing Concept

Demographic changes in the 21st century are confronting European countries with a substantial challenge. These developments are part of a wider trend: all parts of the world are witnessing or will witness demographic ageing over this century. Age has by its nature an impact on the ability to work. According to research provided by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, individual differences in work ability — a sum of individual and work-related factors — are more pronounced after the age of 55 years. With regard to physically demanding work, work ability tends to decrease between 51 and 62 years. While a decline may occur in physical work capacity, mental work performance are maintained and cognitive and social skills may even be enhanced. The research findings underline the need for individual solutions to work when people are getting older.9 Proper training programmes and individual training incentives would also fit with the increased heterogeneity of the older labour force at a higher age. New forms of so-called end-of-career management must take these differences into account so as to avoid resistance from parts of the working community and the costly strikes that European countries have already experienced for example by truck drivers, craftsmen and firemen.
The concept of ‘active ageing’ was originally developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and launched at the Second Assembly on Ageing in Madrid in April 2002. The WHO defines active ageing as “the process of optimising opportunities for health, participation and security in order to embrace quality of life as people age”.10 The WHO underlines the very close link between activity and health. The concept suggests how important it is to enhance the quality of life far into old age by maintaining mental and physical well-being throughout the life cycle. It is a preventive concept which means involving all age groups in the process of ageing actively during the entire course of life. The focus is on enablement — restoring function and expanding the participation of older people — instead of disablement, the increasing needs of the elderly and the risk of dependence.
Since 1999, the European institutions have also taken the active ageing strategy on board. In its active ageing strategy the European Commission emphasises a participatory approach giving citizens adequate opportunities to develop their own forms of activity. The focus is shifted from the elderly as a separate group and directed at all citizens, since everybody is ageing all the time. From 2001 onwards, ‘active ageing’ was given more prominence by making it a separate guideline. The 2001 Guidelines stress the need for “in-depth changes in the prevailing social attitudes towards older workers (…) to raise employers’ awareness of the potential of older workers”, as well as a revision of tax-benefit systems in order to reduce disincentives and make it more attractive for older workers to continue participating in the labour market”. The report of the Employment Taskforce “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: Creating More Employment in Europe” of 2003 paved the way for active ageing to become a top priority for the EU. It remains to be seen if the active ageing approach will gradually help to replace today’s glorification of youth with values of solidarity and a more age-neutral approach in employment and human resources practices. To recapitulate, the European Commission’s orientation towards active ageing policies, i.e. the strategy of mobilising the full potential of people of all ages, seems to be the right policy for the future.

Roger Hessel: The author is Lecturer at EIPA-CEFASS, the Italian Antenna of the European Institute of Public Administration (EIPA); he is external expert for the ILO and Visiting Professor at the Polytechnic University of Milan.
1 The Open Method of Coordination was laid down at the Lisbon Council meeting in 2000. The summit proposed that this method should facilitate work on social protection “as a means of spreading best practice and achieving greater convergence towards the main EU goals” in areas where Community powers are limited. See also: Philippe Pochet (2001): “Social Benchmarking, Policy Making and New Governance in the EU”, Journal of European Social Policy 2001: pp. 291-307.
2 Julien Machado (2008): “CNRS Aix-en-Provence, Forms of Continuing Training in the Workplace: A Result of Social Meanings?”, European Journal of Vocational Training, No. 22, 2008, Edit.: European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training CEDEFOP, Greece.
3 “Some 79.7 million older workers had a job or a business activity in the EU-25 according to a Eurostat survey of 2004”, News Release 112/2005, 8 September 2005.
4 European Commission Communication Increasing the Employment Rate of Older Workers and Delaying the Exit from the Labour Market, COM (2004) 146, March 2004.
5 The first Employment Guidelines for 1998 virtually did not refer to them.
6 Jean Pisani-Ferry, André Sapir (2006): “Last Exit to Lisbon”, BRUEGEL Policy Brief, issue 06/02, March,; Alexander Heichlinger, Seppo Mättää, Good Governance in Delivering Sustainable Growth: Regions and Municipalities as the Promoters of the Lisbon Strategy, EIPA Background Paper for the Finnish EU Presidency, September 2006.
7 The New European Structural Programme 2007-2013.
8 See the EU Commission website:
9 Prof. Juhanni Ilmarinen, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Helsinki, in: Juhanni Ilmarinen, Ageing Workers in Finland and in the European Union: Their Situation and the Promotion of their Working Ability, Employability and Employment, Geneva Papers on Risk and Insurance, Vol. 2, No. 4., October, pp. 623-641.
10 Website of the WHO:

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