How “Ageing” has found its place on European policy agendas


This short paper provides some selected information on how the phenomenon of population ageing came into the focus of policy debates and policy making in Europe – starting with international developments and then concentrating on regional processes. Considering the complexity of the topic it is evidently not possible to present in this brief overview a comprehensive account of all the decisions, events and activities. However, the paper might help to better understand the dynamics that help to insure that such an important issue makes its way in the political arena.

Population ageing as an global issue got its first international attention by the draft of a declaration on the rights of elderly proposed by Argentine to the General Assembly of the United Nations back in 1948. As this initiative created some interest but did not find a majority in the UN General Assembly the Economic and Social Council got mandate to pursue the issue further. A report on “Welfare of the Aged: Old Age Rights” was then tabled in 1950 by the office of the Secretary-General of the UN but did not lead to any immediate concrete action. However it had the effect that the focus on “Welfare of the Aged” oriented the international debate over the following three decades. Due to a proposal of the government of Malta in 1969 the issue of “Ageing” became a topic of concern on the United Nations permanent agenda where it stayed, with growing concern, until today.

Several suggestions from UN member states during the 1970s resulted in the decision to hold the very first World Assembly on Ageing in Vienna/Austria in 1982. It was preceded by technical regional pre-conferences to prepare input according to the situation and the perception of population changes in the different parts of the globe. The Vienna World Assembly on Ageing brought together more than 1.000 participants from 124 member states, from international governmental bodies and from civil society organisations. It concluded by the adoption of the first ever “International Plan of Action on Ageing”. This ground-braking instrument highlighted the economic and social consequences of population ageing and emphasized the specific needs of older persons themselves. Understanding the life-long nature of ageing it oriented towards an age-integrated society. In this perspective it contained recommendations to member states in seven specific domains: health, housing, the family, social welfare, employment and income security, education and research/training. It also suggested three areas of international cooperation considered as key in the development of policies, strategies and programmes on ageing, namely: data collection and analysis, training and education, as well as research.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted this “International Plan of Action on Ageing” later in 1982 and thus it became the leading international document and the basis for the design and development of national policies, strategies and action on ageing. It also initiated and promoted international cooperation among member states and lead to more specific international policy documents. The most important of these is certainly the “United Nations Principles for Older Persons”, adopted by the General Assembly in 1991. It fully recognises the progress made in prolonging life expectancy worldwide and stands under the motto “add life to the years that have been added to life”. By promoting a common understanding of ageing and by defining areas most important for older persons – like dignity, independence, participation, self-fulfilment and care – the “Principles” have largely influenced legislation and programmes at national level.

One year later, in 1992, the United Nations proclaimed “Global Targets on Ageing for the Year 2001: A Practical Strategy” in order to encourage and speed up the implementation of the 1982 Vienna “International Plan of Action on Ageing” during its second decade. Based on the seven central domains specified in the “International Plan” the “Global Targets” suggested thirty-eight specific objectives to national governments to work for. It also proposed eight areas for intensified international cooperation. In 1995 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights emphasized in a document called “General Comment No. 6” the fact that also older persons are entitled to enjoy all the rights contained in the “International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights”. This document provides, until today, guidance to member states on how to implement the rights deriving from the “International Covenant”.

Already in 1992 the United Nations had decided to observe the year 1999 as the „International Year of Older Persons“ under the motto “A Society for All Ages”, „in recognition of humanity’s demographic coming of age and the promise it holds for maturing attitudes and capabilities in social, economic, cultural and spiritual undertakings, not least for global peace and development in the next century“ – as the text of the GA Resolution words it. Together with considerations of the World Summit on Social Development four dimensions particularly significant for society as well as for the living situation of older persons were in the focus of the International Year: population ageing, issues of social development, multigenerational relationships, and individual development throughout the life course. The International Year triggered off a very intensive debate on population changes, the ensuing consequences for society and the situation of the ageing individuals. It also helped to develop more understanding of specific and particularly underprivileged groups of older persons – like older women, migrants, the very old, etcetera – and to better address their needs.

Such growing awareness of the complexity of ageing and the concept of “a society for all ages” motivated the UN General Assembly to ask for an overall revision of the Vienna “International Plan of Action on Ageing” of 1982 by a second World Assembly on Ageing to be held in 2002 at the twentieth anniversary of the Vienna event. The task of his Second World Assembly on Ageing, that finally took place in Madrid in April 2002, was to conceive – on the grounds of the experiences and understanding gained over two decades – more sophisticated policies and actions that respond better to the demographic, social, cultural and economic conditions in the twenty-first century.

Also the European Union decided in 1999 to adopt “active ageing” as a new supranational policy design with the objective to achieve greater correspondence – and possibly even harmonisation – between public policies of the member states towards older workers at EU level. Thus the European Union defined two important objectives to be reached by common effort: the “Stockholm Target” of 2001 on the increase of the employment rate of older workers and the “Barcelona Target” of 2002 on the delay of the age at which older workers stop working. But at that time the EU’s “active ageing” approach still considered ageing as a challenge and not yet as an extraordinary achievement of society and as an opportunity to benefit from – as the World Health Organisation had emphasised.

Various expert meetings prepared the Second World Assembly on Ageing, among them an expert seminar on “Economic Security and Sustainable Growth in an Ageing World” in Burgos/Spain in September 2001 and an expert seminar on “Age Integration, the Changing Life Course and International Solidarity” in Vienna in October 2001.

The Madrid Second World Assembly on Ageing in April 2002 adopted a “Political Declaration” and the “Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing” (MIPAA). This Plan of Action argues for significant changes in attitudes, policies, strategies and practices to respond positively to the important challenges created by population change during the coming decades. It comprises 130 concerns, concepts and action points addressing the changes and the needs of ageing societies and older persons and calls for action that gives more importance to older persons in societal development, that advance health and well-being into old age, and that ensure enabling and supportive environments. In its para 19 it stresses that “a society for all ages encompasses the goal of providing older persons with the opportunity to continue contributing to society. To work towards this goal, it is necessary to remove whatever excludes or discriminates against them.”

With the intention to base action in the region on a more specific approach the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) decided to set up a “Regional Implementation Strategy” (RIS) for the International Action Plan on Ageing. Already in September 2002 the representatives of the UNECE member states met at a Ministerial Conference in Berlin/Germany and adopted this “Regional Implementation Strategy” (RIS) together with the “Berlin Ministerial Declaration” committing the respective governments to implement this comprehensive strategy. The Regional Implementation Strategy encompasses 10 key commitments with a total of 100 specific points.

After having already dealt with various issues of the ageing European population and based on the decision of the European Committee for Social Cohesion (CDCS) in 1998 to examine the situation of the elderly in society, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe created in 1998 in the framework of the CDCS a Group of Specialists on “improving the quality of life of elderly dependent persons”. In September 2002 it presented to the CDCS a catalogue of 10 recommendations mainly on care issues but also with the strong statement that “the prevention of loss of autonomy and of dependency for elderly people should be a central tenet of health, social care and environmental policy throughout life”.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe then passed an important Recommendation in 2003 on “Challenges of Social Policy in Europe’s Ageing Society” that updated and completed earlier recommendations like the one on “The Future of Senior Citizens: Protection, Participation and Promotion” of 1999 and on “Medical and Welfare Rights of the Elderly: Ethics and Policies” of 1994. In this Recommendation the Council of Europe subscribed the outcome of the Madrid Second World Assembly on Ageing and the commitments of the Berlin Regional Implementation Strategy. It also acknowledges in this context all the positive efforts, the guidance and the coordination of the International Labour Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the European Union.

During the following years and until 2007 the UNECE “Regional Implementation Strategy” was supported by a Task Force on Ageing composed by experts on ageing matters from government administrations, from science and research, as well as from non-governmental organisations. In 2008 this Task Force was replaced by a Working Group on Ageing the secretariat of which is located in the Population Activities Unit of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, UNECE. It is composed by delegates from the 56 member states of the UNECE – normally coming from the national Focal Point on Ageing – a representative of the UN affiliated European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research as well as a representative of civil society organisations in consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The Working Group on Ageing concentrates, among others, on cooperation in the framework of the “Regional Implementation Strategy”, on exchange of good practice, on indicator development and on capacity building. It publishes regularly comprehensive “Policy Briefs” on important issues related to population ageing, the living situation and needs of older persons and societal attitudes towards ageing.

The Vienna based European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research supports the UNECE “Regional Implementation Strategy” by research and documentation activities. It started with building up a special unit named “Mainstreaming Ageing: Indicators to Monitor Implementation” (MA:IMI). Today it manages the “Active Ageing Index” (AAI), a tool to measure the untapped potential of older people for active and healthy ageing across countries. By 22 individual indicators that are grouped into four distinct domains it measures the level to which older people live independent lives, participate in paid employment and social activities as well as their capacity to actively age.

Together with other partners, like the Spanish IMSERSO, various technical workshops have been organised after the Madrid World Assembly and the Berlin Ministerial Conference, namely: “Sustainable Ageing Societies: Indicators for Effective Policy-Making” in April 2004, “The Contribution of Older Persons to Social and Economic Development” in November 2004, “Care Provision in Ageing: What are the Policy Challenges and How to Address Them” in May 2005, “Madrid Indicators” in February 2006, “The Situation of Ageing 2005 until 2006. Challenges and Good Practices in Numbers” in May 2006 – just to mention some illustrative examples.

In October 2005 Heads of States and Governments in the European Union stressed in their informal Summit in Hampton Court that demographic ageing is one of the main challenges that the European Union will have to face in the years to come. This opinion resulted from the European Commission’s Communication to the Council on “European Values in the Globalised World” and the Commission’s Green Paper on “Confronting Demographic Change: A New Solidarity Between the Generations”, both of 2005. This new approach examined the possibilities for Europeans to confront the demographic challenge and underlined how the European Union can support its member states by a long-term strategy.

In order to monitor, to appreciate and to support the implementation of MIPAA and RIS in the region, the UNECE holds a regional Ministerial Conference every five years on specific action areas defined in the Berlin RIS. In November 2007 the Ministerial Conference on Ageing in León/Spain took stock of the progress made since 2002 and raised challenges to be met urgently under the topic “A society for all ages: challenges and opportunities”. It ended with the adoption of a strong “Ministerial Political Declaration” which confirmed previous engagements and traced new lines of measures. A Civil Society Forum and a Forum of Researchers connected with the conference came up with statements, both critical and supportive, on the achievements and future strategies.

In 2008 the Secretary-General of the United Nations submitted to the UN Commission for Social Development the “First Review and Appraisal of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing” as a preliminary assessment of what had been achieved so far. The report was based on contributions from member states as well as on documentation and analysis provided by the different UN regions. It focused in particular on ageing-specific policies, on efforts to mainstream aging concerns and on a participatory bottom-up evaluation of the implementation of the Madrid Plan of Action. In addition, salient trends and responses to challenges and opportunities of ageing were described and analysed. It also contained a final chapter “Planning for the Future: Conclusions and Recommendations”. Such review and appraisal reports are considered as important elements of the implementation of the Madrid Plan of Action and have to be presented, according to a resolution of the Economic and Social Council in 2003, every five years.

In February 2007 the Council of the European Union had adopted a Resolution on “The Opportunities and Challenges of Demographic Change in Europe: The Contribution of Older People to Economic and Social Development”. This was followed by the Council’s Conclusions in June 2009 on “Equal Opportunities for Women and Men: Active and Dignified Ageing” and the Conclusions of November 2009 on “Health and Dignified Ageing”.

The European Commission emphasised in its Communication of March 2010 on “Europe 2020 – A Strategy for Smart, Sustainable and Inclusive Growth” the importance of promoting a healthy and actively ageing population in the interest of social cohesion and higher productivity. The Council, on its side, adopted in June 2010 Conclusions on “Active Ageing” encouraging the Commission to pursue the initiative for a “European Year for Active Ageing” in 2012 with the aim of emphasizing the advantages of active ageing and its contribution to solidarity between the generations and to publicise good practices of active ageing at all levels. This was then complemented by a Resolution of the European Parliament of November 2010 on “Demographic Challenge and Solidarity Between the Generations” that suggested to member states to make active ageing a priority for the coming years, pointing out that older persons can make significant contributions to society and can promote opportunities to strengthen solidarity, cooperation and understanding between generations and foster cooperation between younger and older people.

In July 2009 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe passed a Recommendation on “Ageing and Persons with Disabilities” to member states, with its recommendations aiming at promoting autonomy and an independent life of ageing people with disabilities, through better living arrangements, the application of the concept of life-long learning, the improvement of the quality of services through the involvement of the users in the process of designing, implementing and evaluating services and, also importantly, guaranteeing equal access to those services.

In September 2011 the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union took the joint decision to declare 2012 as the “European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations”. In doing so it referred, among others, to article 25 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in which “the Union recognises and respects the rights of the elderly to lead a life of dignity and independence and to participate in social and cultural life” and stated that “ageing is undoubtedly a challenge for the whole of society and for all generations in Europe, and is also a matter of intergenerational solidarity and for the family”.

In September 2012 the third Ministerial Conference on Ageing of the United Nations Commission for Europe (UNECE) dealing with the regional implementation of the “Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing” of 2002 was held in Vienna/Austria under the title “Ensuring a society for all ages: promoting quality of life and active ageing”. High government representatives of almost all the 56 member states of the UNECE region, including the European countries, North America and countries from West and Central Asia – and thus stretching literally “from Vladivostok to Vancouver” – attended this important conference. In addition, many observers from other regions of the United Nations, representatives of the European Union, as well as many scientists, researchers and representatives of non-governmental organisations interested in ageing issues were among the participants.

The UNECE Ministerial Conference on Ageing in Vienna ended with the adoption of a “Ministerial Political Declaration” containing, in particular, a catalogue of measures the member states commit themselves to implement which address the following core areas identified for enhanced action:

  • Longer working life and ability to work
  • Participation, non-discrimination and social inclusion of older persons
  • Dignity, health and independence in older age
  • Intergenerational solidarity

A one-day Civil Society Forum preceded the Ministerial Conference. It had two distinctive parts: the “Forum of Non-governmental Organisations” (NGOs) and the “Research Forum”. Both Fora came up with substantial position papers that deal with the main issues raised in the “Ministerial Political Declaration” – the “Vienna Research Forum Statement” and the “NGO Political Declaration”.

In December 2012 the Council of the European Union adopted its Declaration on the outcome of “The European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity Between the Generations: The Way Forward” in which it stated that the European Year 2012 had contributed to creating political momentum leading to a stage where all stakeholders “are ready to join forces and take a step forward in tackling the challenges and seizing the various opportunities of ageing populations”. Together with its agreement on seven key political messages the Council also supported the “Guiding Principles for Active Ageing and Solidarity Between Generations” as adopted jointly by the Employment Committee and the Social Protection Committee. This was well in line with the European Commissions now prevailing position that active and healthy ageing constitutes a major societal challenge common to all European countries and that it presents a considerable opportunity for Europe to lead the world in providing innovative responses to this challenge.

Dirk Jarré

President of EURAG