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European Commissioner responsible for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
Active ageing – a challenge for the individual and for society
Conference on "Ageing and Social Innovation" organised by the Gulbenkian Foundation / Lisbon
19 November 2012
Let me start by paying tribute to our hosts today, the Gulbenkian Foundation, for their contribution to the European Year.
Apart from organising this conference, the Foundation has sponsored various projects in Portugal and the United Kingdom — such as a research project on grandparenting in Europe.
I must also congratulate Minister Pedro Mota Soares and his team on the way Portugal has helped make the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations such a success.
And Ms Joaquina Madeira, the national coordinator for the European Year in Portugal, deserves our special thanks.
Today I want to explain how active ageing is a challenge for both the individual and for society.
And how it can contribute to the well-being of both older and younger people, and to economic recovery, in Portugal and across the EU.
I will also present some highlights of the European Year and consider how they have contributed to meeting our policy goals.
First, a few words on why active ageing is more important than ever.
Today, Europe is at a demographic turning-point. As the baby-boom generation retires, the number of people aged 60 or older is rising by about two million a year — roughly twice as fast as before.
Meanwhile, the number of younger people entering the labour market is falling. So the working-age population will soon be declining fast.
An older population presents various challenges — to our job market, to our health systems and to our living standards after we retire.
Many fear that providing pensions, healthcare and social services for the growing older population will become too heavy a burden on a dwindling younger population.
Some even foresee an out-and-out confrontation between the generations, with older people defending their social benefits to the detriment of younger people’s needs and interests.
For my part, I am convinced that the interests of younger and older people are not incompatible.
Older people depend on younger people for social protection and social services, so it is in their interest to invest in the future of young people.
And younger people care about their elders and want to be treated with respect and dignity when they grow old too.
So we can and must avoid a confrontation between generations. That demands we develop a positive approach to tackling the challenge of ageing — an approach that focuses on creating better opportunities for people of all ages to lead active and fulfilling lives.
The answer is what we call “active ageing” — which means ensuring that, as people grow older, they can continue to contribute to the economy and society, and look after themselves for as long as possible.
Active ageing means we need not fear for the future as our society ages, provided:
Creating an environment that is rich in opportunities, where growing old does not necessarily mean we become dependent on others — that is the European Year’s key message.
The European Year promotes active ageing in three areas — employment, participation in society, and living independently.
In practice it means fostering an active-ageing culture that includes older people, rather than excluding them — a culture that develops their potential rather than focusing on their weaknesses, that empowers instead of patronising them.
The European Year seeks to change attitudes to ageing, and to challenge the understanding of what it means "to be old" and "to grow old".
It also shows how individuals and society can address the challenges related to ageing.
Let me give some examples of activities started during this Year to overcome negative stereotypes and foster positive relations between generations.
generations@schools is an initiative that brought together older people and pupils in their schools to recount their experiences and share their understanding of what it means to be old or young.
The participants told us they learned a lot from each another and really enjoyed the experience.
I am pleased to say that Portugal was among the countries with the highest rates of school participation.
We hope schools can repeat the experience next year or make arrangements for working with the older generation on a more regular basis.
On 13th November I handed out the prizes to the winners of the European Awards Scheme.
We were looking for activities and examples of good practice that facilitate participation by older people and support intergenerational solidarity.
We were looking:
Through the Life Story Challenge, we paid tribute to the most impressive active-agers, who shared their stories with us. Let me tell you about three of the award-winners.
First prize in the individual life-time achievement category went to Bruno Poder from Estonia. Bruno continued working as a surgeon until he was 80 and never lost his positive outlook or his desire to contribute to society.
The award in the social entrepreneur category went to Typhaine de Penfentenyo from France.
Her organisation — Ensemble2générations, which means “two generations together” — is a success story involving different generations sharing housing. Students stay in an older person’s home for free or at a moderate rent in exchange for help and company.
This addresses three major issues: older people’s isolation, the shortage of affordable student housing, and the rift between the generations. Over 900 student-elderly partnerships have been set up, and over 15 regional branches have opened in France since 2006.
The Danish municipality of Fredericia won the award in the age-friendly environment category.
Their Life-Long Living project is an example of a new model for interaction between elderly citizens and social services. It focuses on empowering and rehabilitation rather than just delivering care to passive recipients.
Fredericia does this by seeing how individuals' resources can be mobilised so they can cope by themselves. It has brought benefits to the care recipients and has reduced the cost of assistance by €70 000 a month. It is a great example of a win-win strategy!
These two projects — intergenerational housing and life-long living — illustrate the power of social innovation. We need new ideas to adapt to population ageing, as well as capable and highly committed individuals to turn them into reality.
Many committed individuals are older people who are ready to work for their communities as volunteers. We thought we should pay tribute to them — and get more of them involved — so we organised what we called Seniorforce Days across Europe.
These were events held around International Day of Older People to highlight the potential of older people engaged as volunteers in all sorts of cultural, political and social activities.
The Seniorforce Days drew over 11 000 participants and received widespread support from all over Europe.
On 6 October around 800 people attended a Seniorforce Day in Portugal under the banner Generations in Movement. People of all ages took part in a wide-ranging sports, health promotion, and wellness programme.
Europe 2020 and ESF
Active ageing is good for the individual as we grow older, and it is crucial to the success of the Europe 2020 Strategy, our strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
Europe 2020 has a small number of ambitious targets, including a 75% employment rate for people aged 20 to 64 and lifting 20 million people out of poverty and social exclusion by 2020.
Active ageing policy is critical to meeting those targets in the Member States, and one of its essential points is pension reform.
Pension reform is a thorny issue. Many people feel that the reforms being implemented across Europe deprive them of rights they have worked very hard for.
But we have to come to terms with the fact that rising life expectancy and a shrinking working-age population demand some adjustment.
It could involve slashing pensions, or raising the contribution rate significantly. Or it could involve adjusting the retirement age in line with the rise in life expectancy.
Only striking a sound balance between the years we spend working and those we spend in retirement can ensure we have decent pensions at a reasonable cost.
But, of course, that depends on good jobs being available, and people having the right skills and staying healthy enough to do them.
The Commission presented its thinking on pension reform in a White Paper in February this year. The general thrust has been translated into specific recommendations addressed to many Member States.
In most cases, these involve raising the retirement age in line with the rise in life expectancy, restricting access to early retirement schemes and increasing incentives to work longer.
Many countries have already implemented such reforms or are in the process of doing so.
And such reforms work. Even before the current economic crisis took grip, the trend to early retirement in the European Union had had been reversed.
As a result, older workers have actually done rather well during the current recession, and their employment rates have improved slightly.
But there is still scope to do more. Across the European Union, the percentage of those employed in the 55-to-64 age group ranges from only around 30% in Malta and Slovenia to 70% in Sweden.
In the EU as a whole, fewer than 50% are employed in the 55-to-64 age group.
But meeting the Europe 2020 employment rate target means almost 18 million more people need to be in employment by 2020, and the employment rate — especially for women — in the 55-to-64 age bracket needs raising.
Extending people’s working lives is crucial to meeting the Europe 2020 employment rate target and balancing budgets in the long run. But it means encouraging people to stay on the labour market longer and — most of all — enabling them to do so by improving their employability.
We also need to combat youth unemployment and make it easier for young people to get into the labour market. The European Social Fund is a very useful instrument here, and life-long learning is critical.
In 2007 to 2013, one third of the overall Social Fund budget for Portugal will have been spent on measures relating to life-long learning.
To meet the demands of the knowledge-based economy, we also need to look again at our social protection systems to make sure they support investment in human capital, through lifelong learning and up-skilling.
And our social protection systems need to allow people to make the best possible use of their human capital, regardless of their age, gender or ethnic origin.
This social investment approach recognises that social policy is a productive factor, and is necessary to economic development and employment growth.
Tackling challenges like population ageing calls for innovative policy and practice.
Social innovation needs to be promoted and tested at local level. But successful innovations must also find their way into the broader policy framework at national and European level too.
Many social innovations promoting active ageing are already being tried and tested across the EU. The challenge is to scale them up.
We in the Commission can help by identifying good practice and bringing it to the attention of policy-makers and stakeholders across Europe, so that they can improve their policies and systems.
The European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing is a good illustration. It brings key stakeholders together with a view to overcoming potential barriers to innovation and aims to increase the average individual’s healthy lifespan by two years by 2020.
Thanks to Progress, the EU's employment and social solidarity programme, the Commission can provide financial support for the testing of new ideas through social policy experiments.
These bridge the gap between grassroots projects and public policy, between improving our knowledge and putting it into action.
The Commission has proposed increasing support for social innovation and social policy experimentation under the Multiannual Financial Framework for the post-2013 programming period.
Once it has been adopted, the new regulation on the European Social Fund will promote social innovation in all areas within its scope "in particular with the aim of testing and scaling up innovative solutions to address social needs".
I have great confidence in society’s capacity to solve problems. We need to think outside the box and open our minds to new approaches for the good of all.
Following up on the European Year
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are now well into the last quarter of the European Year. Clearly, it is too early to assess its impact on policy developments in the Member States, particularly at local and regional level.
But the Year has certainly mobilised a wide range of stakeholders and showcased many new initiatives to promote active ageing and strengthen solidarity between generations. It has elicited commitments for further action from the Member States.
We need to build on the political momentum generated by the European Year, here in Portugal and throughout Europe, and ensure there is proper follow-up.
The Commission is keen to support the Member States and stakeholders through various initiatives.
First, together with the Member States, we have finalised a set of guiding principles for active ageing. They will offer a general framework for improving the conditions and opportunities for active ageing.
Those guiding principles will be endorsed by the Social Affairs Ministers in December under the Cypriot Presidency.
Secondly, to measure progress in active ageing, we also are working with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research in Vienna on the development of an active ageing index.
It should give us an indication of the untapped active-ageing potential of both women and men in each country.
Tomorrow morning you will hear more about the work under way on the index. But we will have to wait until the EU closing conference in Cyprus in December to hear the results.
Thirdly, the European Commission plans to issue an open call for proposals in 2013 to support the Member States in developing comprehensive active-ageing strategies.
At our conference in June on "Good governance for active and healthy ageing", there was broad agreement on the need for public authorities at various levels and across different policy areas to work closely together on designing effective, comprehensive strategies for active and healthy ageing.
We will be happy to support this and ensure that countries can benefit from each other's experience with such integrated policy-making for active ageing.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Past European Years have allowed the European Union to put the public spotlight on people and their needs.
There was European Year against Poverty in 2010 and European Year of Volunteering in 2011. And next year will be European Year of Citizens.
European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations has encouraged the Member States to step up their efforts to promote active ageing. They have come up with actions and entered into commitments.
I want to thank the Portuguese Government, the Gulbenkian Foundation and all the organisations represented here today for their vital contribution to the success of this Year.
I trust you will keep up your good work.