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By Giulia Vallese

Older people were a small minority only a few decades ago, but driven by increasing life expectancy and low fertility rates, their share of the population has been rising significantly. Today, one in five Europeans is 65 years or older. By 2050, it will be close to 30 per cent. 

The rapid population ageing Europe is experiencing is a seminal demographic shift that is affecting virtually all spheres of society. It raises questions that many people are concerned about. How will social systems survive when an ever-smaller share of working-age people needs to support an ever-larger share of older people? Are infrastructures prepared to cater for the needs of a rapidly ageing society? What does the increase in older voters mean for the future of democracy and political decisions on climate change and other pressing challenges affecting future generations?   

The ageing of societies is still widely seen through a negative lens: a threat to the welfare state, a burden for the young. But as Stuart Gietel-Basten, a leading demographer, told a group of UN leaders recently, there is nothing intrinsically negative about population ageing. It only becomes a problem when institutions do not prepare and adjust.

Indeed, the fact that people live longer, and generally healthier, lives is first and foremost a reason to celebrate. It is the result of medical progress, better living and working conditions, increased welfare, and improvements in public health. 

Moreover, and in large part thanks to these advances, being old today is not the same as it used to be. With average life expectancy inching closer towards, or even surpassing, the 80-year mark, being old can mean many years of good life ahead. With older people being more likely to be in good health and well educated, being old can mean many years of continued active engagement at work, in family and community, and in public life. 

The age group that we traditionally define as “old” has never been more diverse. This has prompted a rethinking of how we define and measure “old.” And it is clear that in this new – more diverse, more dynamic – world of older people, there is no place for rigid age categories or pension age thresholds, no place for stereotypes and discrimination based on ageism. 

Population ageing is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, and governments in Europe generally recognize how important it is to undertake the necessary reforms to create more age-inclusive societies. But as governments are coming together this week in Rome to review the progress they have made in implementing the landmark Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing they adopted 20 years ago, it is important to acknowledge that despite much progress, a lot remains to be done to achieve the goal of creating societies for all ages. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on the inequalities older generations still face. Many older people experience neglect, poverty, social exclusion and isolation – a recent United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) survey in Eastern Europe found that eight in ten older people, or 79 per cent, say they are moderately or extremely lonely. Equally concerning is the way public discourse tells older people, more or less subtly and through myriads of cultural clues, that because of their age they are a burden, less valuable, even expendable. Rampant ageism, a recent UN report found, robs millions of older people in Europe of opportunities to fulfil their potential. And the war in Ukraine has shown how older people, most of whom are women, are particularly hard hit by humanitarian crises.  

The exclusion of older people is not only a human tragedy, human rights crisis and moral failure. It also hurts countries – economically and socially. In a rapidly ageing Europe, countries simply cannot afford to push to the margins a quarter of the population with all their skills, talents and other contributions. 

For countries to be able to strengthen their resilience in the face of demographic change more broadly, making sure older people can stay healthy, active and engaged is of paramount importance.  

At UNFPA, we support countries in managing the demographic shifts they are experiencing. And we help put in place policies and programmes that allow societies to reap the benefits of population ageing. 

There are huge potential gains when people have access to education and health care throughout their entire life course and enter old age with useful skills and in good health. When older people are not pushed aside once they hit pension age but remain active participants in the economy and society. When older people become the engines of an ever-growing “silver economy” developing around their needs and choices.

Based on our experience, three steps are essential for governments to make this happen:

  • Hear the voices of older people. As we respond to the COVID-19 crisis and develop policies for the future, we must listen to what older people have to say. Engaging with community representatives is vital for avoiding bias and being able to come up with solutions that respond to actual needs.           
  • Counter ageism in public discourse and practice. There must be no tolerance for the rampant age discrimination and negative stereotyping that has surfaced even more during the pandemic. Promoting a counter-narrative centred on intergenerational solidarity and the agency and valuable contributions of older people will be key for shifting social norms and attitudes.
  • Revisit legal and policy frameworks and budgets through an age lens. Now is the time to review what needs to change in sectors like health, education, employment and social welfare so that countries are in a better position to cope with the effects of demographic change while ensuring the rights and choices of an ageing population throughout the life course.

Older people are important pillars of our societies. They are leaders and creators, teachers and mentors, carers and volunteers, storytellers and conveyors of culture, and fighters for rights that we sometimes take for granted. Nurturing these contributions, and making sure older people’s rights and dignity are respected at all times, is not only a moral imperative. It also helps countries get future-fit, build resilience and thrive in a world of rapid demographic change. 

Giulia Vallese is Director a.i. of UNFPA’s Regional Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.