Official Journal of the European Union

C 11/16

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘The involvement and participation of older people in society’ (own-initiative opinion)

2013/C 11/04

Rapporteur: Ms O'NEILL

On 19 January 2012, the European Economic and Social Committee, acting under Rule 29(2) of its Rules of Procedure, decided to draw up an own-initiative opinion on

The involvement and participation of older people in society

(Own-initiative opinion).

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 23 October 2012.

At its 484th plenary session, held on 14 and 15 November 2012 (meeting of 14 November 2012), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 144 votes, with 3 abstentions.

1.   Conclusion and recommendation

1.1   Conclusion

1.2   Older people are dynamic, capable and vital members of our society. They pass on knowledge, skills and experience to the next generations. As individuals and collectively they contribute to our economy, to our neighbourhoods and to carrying our history. As family members older people are responsible for encouraging cohesion and solidarity in our society.

1.3   Recommendations


The EESC recommends that:

the focus be put on the capacity and contribution of older people and not on their chronological age, and that governments, NGOs and the media highlight these elements in positive statements;

support be given for the active participation of all age groups in society and to greater solidarity and cooperation between and within generations;

governments and statutory agencies make a positive commitment to the active participation of older people in decision-making and to their role in communities;

governments work with appropriate partners to eliminate any barriers that prevent older people from fully participating in society;

all stakeholders continue to develop an approach that emphasises life-long learning for individual older people, employers and communities;

governments ensure the digital inclusion and training of older people;

older people stand for election, vote and take part as board members in companies, public authorities and NGOs;

the contribution of informal care givers and recipients be recognised and their respective rights and responsibilities properly supported;

older people be encouraged to volunteer in accordance with good practice guidelines;

it be made possible for older workers to stay in employment until the statutory retirement age and beyond, if they so wish;

employers adapt the working environment and find contractual arrangements to meet the needs of older workers; and that

older people be recognised as consumers and that businesses be encouraged to produce goods and services that respond to the needs of an ageing society.

2.   Introduction


The vision of active and healthy ageing set out by the EU Commission Steering Group on Active Ageing states: " ‧Active and healthy ageing‧ is a process of optimising opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance the quality of life as people age. It applies to both individuals and population groups. ‧Health‧ refers to physical, mental and social well-being. ‧Active‧ refers to continuing participation in social, economic, cultural, spiritual and civic affairs, not just the ability to be physically active or to participate in the labour force (1)".


The aim of this opinion is to highlight the current active participation of older people in Europe, consider the barriers to enabling more people to be engaged, and emphasise that such participation continues throughout person's lifetime. Building an age friendly (2) Europe starts at birth and requires the long view. This opinion builds on previous EESC opinions on older people and ageing (3).


There are currently 85 million people over the age of 65 in Europe and this will rise to 151 million by 2060. It is important not to just focus on chronological age but to recognise and build capacity to participate at all ages and to appreciate that even if older people (defined for the purposes of this opinion as over 65) experience health limitations it does not necessarily prevent them from being engaged.


"Active social, cultural, economic and political participation of older people relies on a correct image of age (4)". We must discourage the use of overly dramatic language by the media and governments to describe an ageing society.


Ageist attitudes must be eliminated as they damage the perception of older people and discourage them from participating. This incurs the loss of vital contributions and increases tensions between generations. We should celebrate living healthier for longer, which has resulted from better education and nutrition, as well as from an emphasis on the social contract between generations.


The negative attitudes that relate to older people ignore their role as workers, consumers, participants in community projects and carers for others. Negative perceptions of older people are damaging as discrimination undermines self-esteem and acts as a barrier to greater engagement and to their contribution to the economy. Life expectancy has increased because of new developments in medicine, pharmacology and technology, together with increased health consciousness and education. "Research has shown that the self-reported quality of life of very old people is often much better than is generally recognised. We need to change attitudes to ageing, which much too often are dominated by negative misconception and prejudice" (5).


Demographic change offers opportunities to grow the "silver economy" as older people are consumers in many sectors and contributors through employment.


Tackling age discrimination through legislation, leadership and building a new dynamic in policy making should therefore be a priority in promoting active ageing and releasing the potential of the older population to play a full role in the development of the social and economic capital of the country.


We should challenge the view that at 65 we become receivers of services and not contributors. Age barriers should be abolished. Older people do not become a homogenous group because of their age, but retain their different views, energies, experiences, prejudices, needs and desires. We are all ageing and meeting expectations in 2060 will require constant adaptation.


Statistical data in relation to older people must be used with caution to avoid assuming that health conditions, participation rates etc. are the same for those between 65 and 100, as needs and capacities vary. We should avoid making assumptions based on age and creating silos.


It is impossible to consider the dignity and well-being of older people in isolation from strategies concerned with income, health and social care and the preservation of local social networks and community initiatives. These issues are highlighted in relation to the barriers to participation which could be created. The ability to access services and actively participate significantly depends upon having sufficient income, and this must be integral to pension reform.

3.   Civic affairs


The recent report "Gold Age Pensioners" (6) describes older people as "social glue". It emphasises their contribution to family and communities through volunteering and participation in democratic institutions.


Older people have a higher record of voting in all elections. The Eurostat Report (7) reported that 50 % of citizens over the age of 55 voted and that there is a stronger interest in politics at an older age. The growing number of older people in our society brings considerable political influence, known as "grey power" in the USA. This influence is exercised.


The median age of elected members in the European Parliament is 54 and the oldest is 84. This is reflected in other government institutions and in the EESC, which highlights that age should not be a barrier to participation at any level.


Many older people bring the experience and expertise gained throughout their working lives to the boards of NGOs, public authorities and companies.

4.   Participating in decision-making


Given the extent to which older people contribute to society in different ways, assumptions might be made about the social inclusion of older people and their involvement in decision-making processes. However, older people often feel "left out" in relation to decisions made about their own welfare or about the community in which they live. Individuals need personal encouragement and organisations need to evolve mechanisms that are inclusive of the views of older people.


The European Older People's Platform published a report in 2010 (8) which illustrated the methods that had been developed in different Member States and which included national and local senior councils and public consultations. It is a fundamental condition of the European process of social inclusion that stakeholders participate in the development of solutions for the problems they face. Taking part is crucial, but so too is being actively listened to, so that changes result.


Those who face social exclusion as a result of ill health, disability or poverty must be assisted and individuals must be empowered. The Scottish Dementia Working Group is a shining example of people with a diagnosis of dementia determined to maintain choice and control over their lives. It has established an impressive national and international reputation for enthusiastic and fearless campaigning to improve understanding of dementia and for lobbying for improved services. People with dementia run the organisation and are key speakers at conferences or in advocating to government (9).


Effective participation requires welcoming structures and a commitment from government bodies and NGOs, employers and other institutions that they are serious in listening to older people as stakeholders; it means that the language is jargon free, meeting spaces are accessible and people can afford to attend and are able to use transport. Older people must be aware of their rights and obligations and have had an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the issues to be discussed, so training, including in ICT, is an essential ingredient (10).


There is a growing emphasis on co-production, which is about "individuals, communities and organisations which have the skills, knowledge and ability to work together creating opportunities and solving problems" (11). The principles involved are those which underlie all participatory activities and can be applied at individual level in designing a care package, through to the level of national government, where they can be applied in policy development.

5.   Research


The EESC welcomed the European Commission's support for joint programming initiatives and for the development of road maps for future research activities in the field of ageing and demographic change, which is integral to "Horizon 2020 – Road maps for ageing" (12).


Continued research into all aspects of life for older people is important in order to ensure appropriate policy decisions affecting health, social care, education, income and participation. Older people should be involved in identifying issues and participating in the research. It is particularly important to undertake appropriate clinical drug trials with older people.

6.   Caring


As the population ages, caring responsibilities will fall on an increasing number of older women and could pose financial challenges due to lost salary and reduced pension entitlements. Older people make a significant contribution as informal carers to older, frailer relatives, which constitutes a considerable saving for state welfare budgets. Recognition must be given to the experience and skills of informal carers and to the need to provide training opportunities.


In addition, many grandparents care for grandchildren out of necessity in families experiencing difficulties, or to enable their children to work and thus be economically active.


There is room for social innovation in the field of informal care and Member States should make greater efforts to address the increasing challenges and responsibilities that face informal carers in the context of shrinking or inadequate care services.

7.   Volunteering


"There is a remarkable range of voluntary activities by older people which go far beyond the traditional age related topics such as support to frail or sick older people" (13). Their voluntary activities embrace welfare and health, leisure, the environment, religious organisations, culture and politics.


Older people volunteer because this enables them to retain and develop their skills and social contacts and to prevent social isolation and exclusion and serve their community. Volunteering brings mutual benefit. A survey carried out in 2009 found that 78 % of the EU-27 population were of the opinion that older people made a major contribution as volunteers in charitable and community organisations (14).


In the absence of, or cuts, in statutory services it should be appreciated that older people volunteer to fill these gaps, but they need to be supported.


It should be noted that the recognition and range of volunteering activities varies considerably across the Member States, and those people who volunteer in older age tend to have volunteered throughout their lives. There is scope to encourage and enable individuals throughout the course of their lives to be involved in volunteering, which has benefits in older age in the form of preventing isolation and social exclusion, and stimulating contacts and friendships.

8.   Economic contribution


In addition to consumption, the contribution made by older people to the economy can be measured through the payment of taxes on income and purchases; the provision of informal care to relatives, which constitutes a saving to the state; the care of grandchildren, which enables children to return to the labour market; and, the value of volunteering and remaining in the workforce. In addition, there are asset transfers to younger family members to assist them with major financial commitments (15).


Growing recognition of an ageing population should increase the potential for companies and other entities to develop and market goods and services that serve this part of the population in the context of an ageing society and therefore stimulate growth in production and employment (16).


There is insufficient recognition of older people as consumers, which sustains negative attitudes to older age. Stereotypical views of older people tend to generate assumptions that older people do not need or want different opportunities or services and that the "youth market" is much more important (17).

9.   Employment


"Nearly 60 % of workers believe they will be able to carry out their job at the age of 60" (18).


Given increased longevity, it is important that older people are able and can choose to remain in the workforce until the statutory retirement age and, if they choose, beyond. This requires recognition of an older person's capacity, adaptation of the working environment and hours (which is also advantageous across the life cycle), the ability to participate in training to keep pace with changing methods, and efforts to combat ageism in the work place. The EESC recently adopted an opinion which proposed a package of specific measures to encompass these requirements and stressed the importance of the social partners playing a key role to ensure appropriate policies and adaptations (19).


It must be acknowledged that there is a difference between people who work over their pension age because they want to, and those who have to, because their retirement income is inadequate.


Older people bring a wealth of experience and skills to the work place, which is essential at a time of skills shortage and ensures a continuing contribution to the economy. Businesses must be encouraged to develop best practice in age management strategies.


There is potential for older people to become self-employed and entrepreneurial, giving them increased autonomy and control over their working conditions. The contribution made by older people in this sphere is growing. The Eurostat figures for 2010 showed that 50 % of the workforce aged over 65 were self-employed (20). The stimulus for new projects and services which reflect the changing demography can come through older people themselves being in business, and individuals need to be encouraged to pursue these opportunities (21).

10.   Lifelong learning


The EESC has stressed over a number of years the importance of lifelong learning as a key condition for social inclusion, remaining in the work place, personal development and the ability to participate effectively (22).


An increasing number of older people participate in educational opportunities, but this is uneven among Member States (23). The involvement of older people in community groups and NGOs provides a significant source of informal learning.

11.   The role of ICT


The use of ICT is of growing importance for all citizens. The use of the internet and email can enable older people to keep in touch with affairs outside their home and to retain regular communication with family members who do not live close by. This can be enhanced by the use of Skype or similar media to have visual contact. The use of chat rooms which are supervised can assist older people, who are homebound, to contact others with like interests, which helps to alleviate isolation.


There are significant benefits to be achieved through eHealth in relation to monitoring conditions and responding to emergency situations. Such methods should not replace regular contact with people on a "face to face" basis and eHealth systems must embrace the need for real relationships with individuals.


More controversial ICT applications involve personal monitoring systems in "smart" homes, in personal safety or in monitoring devices for individuals with dementia. The intention is to safely enable continuing autonomy and choice over activity. The use of such methods must be based on ethical decisions and practice and clearly be to the advantage of the older person, and not used as a control mechanism or a way of reducing staff support.


The use of the internet to shop on-line clearly has advantages for those with mobility issues, but again has to be tempered by their need to meet people and to move outside their home. Data protection and privacy must be guaranteed.


The use of ICT requires training and support as well as access to equipment. These issues have been highlighted in the EESC opinion on Enhancing digital literacy, e-skills and e-inclusion (24).

12.   Barriers to participation


Whilst the involvement of older people in a range of activities with an impact on social and economic life has been stressed, there still remain significant barriers for many older people which prevent them from participating.


Chronological age is only one of the multiple characteristics that define a person. The knowledge, skills and experience held by different age groups is a vital resource in society. An inclusive society for all ages requires the collective responsibility of decision makers, relevant stakeholders and citizens themselves in formulating policies and practices that ensure equity and inclusion irrespective of age.

Brussels, 14 November 2012.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee


(1)  "Strategic Implementation Plan for the European Innovation Partnership", European Commission, 7.11.2011.

(2)  "Stakeholder Manifesto for an Age Friendly European Union by 2020", Age Platform Europe, 2011.

(3)  OJ C 228, 22.9.2009, p. 24; OJ C 51, 17.2.2011, p. 55; OJ C 181, 21.6.2012, p. 150.

(4)  6th Report on the situation of older generation in the Federal Republic of Germany.

(5)  Kirkwood, T et al: "New Ways of Looking at Age", Blackstaff Press 2011.

(6)  "Gold Age Pensioners", WRVS 2011.

(7)  "Active Ageing and solidarity between the generations", Eurostat 2012.

(8)  "Guide for Civil Dialogue on Promoting Older People's Social Inclusion", Age Platform Europe 2010.

(9)  "Perspectives on ageing with dementia", Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2012.

(10)  See footnote 8.

(11)  "A guide to co-production with older people", NDTI.

(12)  Cf. EESC opinion on the "Horizon 2020: Road maps for ageing" adopted on 23 May 2012, OJ C 229, 31.07.2012, p. 13.

(13)  "Volunteering by Older People in the EU", Eurofound 2011.

(14)  See footnote 6.

(15)  "Gold Age Pensioners", WRVS 2011.

(16)  OJ C 44, 11.2.2011, p. 10.

(17)  "The Golden Economy", AGE UK 2011.

(18)  "Living Longer Working Better", Eurofound 2011.

(19)  OJ C 318, 29.10.2011, p. 1.

(20)  "Active Ageing and Solidarity between the generations", Eurostat 2011.

(21)  "Golden opportunities", UnLtd 2012.

(22)  OJ C 161, 13.7.2007, p. 1; OJ C 204, 9.8.2008, p. 89; OJ C 228, 22.9.2009, p. 24; OJ C 77, 31.3.2009, p. 115; OJ C 51, 17.2.2011, p. 55.

(23)  See footnote 20.

(24)  OJ C 318, 29.10.2011, p. 9.