Ageing can and should be a positive process, which the Conference on the Future of Europe should embrace.
Everyone wishes to live a fulfilled life. As the the World Health Organization puts it, the challenge is no longer to add years to life but ‘add life to years’.
We, members of the European Parliament, believe the Conference on the Future of Europe can be the turning point where we reinvent what it means to age and grow old in the European Union—so we are no longer scared of it.
As the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, recognised at its launch in May, ‘this conference is a real opportunity to bring Europeans together and to rally around a common ambition for our future, just as previous generations did’.
Generations have a lot in common. A 2017 survey showed that Europeans of different ages agree to a remarkable extent on priorities for policy-makers. More than half of the 10,000 respondents foregrounded addressing poverty and unemployment, as well as securing pensions and social care.
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But each generation is also incredibly diverse. Engaging with Europeans solely on the fashionable ground of the year in which they were born blinds us to the disparate realities faced by individuals due to where they live, their income, their health or minority status and so on. These shape our needs, hopes and expectations, as well as the ways we grow older.
Only democracy and citizens’ participation can help us grasp this diversity and see emerge the common ambition for our future which the commission president urged. Beyond the temporary citizens’ panels set in place for the conference, this implies that all EU decision-making processes should genuinely involve people of all ages as partners. Only in such a way will the enormous resources available under the NextGenerationEU recovery package make a positive difference for everyone.
Ageing and ageism
Regrettably, some inputs to the conference have revealed the persistence of an anti-ageing culture. Are we scared of growing old in Europe? And, if yes, why so?
Denying ageing fuels ageism—the unfair treatment of people on the basis of their age. In some cases, ageism may lead to violence and abuse against older people, a phenomenon which remains to a great extent hidden.
Anti-ageing discourses reflect a fear of dying. But ageing is not dying; ageing means living. We all age from the day we are born. Ageing is a cause for celebration—even more so with today’s longer and healthier life expectancies and increased opportunities for everyone to live to their full potential.
All human beings have equal intrinsic worth. We all have experiences and ideas which can benefit our communities. We all want to have our voices heard when we become older.
As shown by the recent United Nations report on ageism, embracing ageing, supporting people across their lifecourse and promoting age equality strengthen our health and wellbeing and our economies. Multigenerational workplaces benefit employers and workers alike. Investing in care is good for older people who need assistance, as well as for their caregivers and their families. Ageing is part of our shared humanity and we all have a stake in it.
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As the EU recovers from the pandemic, the conference is an unprecedented opportunity to sketch a new horizon, grounded in our shared desire to live full lives.
While Europe is likely to catch up on the life-expectancy drop occasioned by Covid-19, only concrete changes to what it means to be old in Europe will make our future desirable:
- We must implement the European Pillar of Social Rights. Member states have the competences to prevent and redress social inequalities affecting our daily lives. Inequalities are critical determinants of how we grow old. Tackling them across our lifespan is not only a matter of principle—it’s an investment for the future.
- We must draw lessons from the dramatic impact of the pandemic on people living in care institutions. We should rethink care and support services, the better to protect our health and to respect our dignity and ability to remain part of our communities.
- We must ask the commission to elaborate an Age Equality Strategy, providing policy options to achieve equal participation in society for all age groups, promote equal access to employment, enforce the right to adequate income and foster access to health and care—concerns of older and younger people alike.
- We must lead the global fight against ageism and rally in favour of a new UN convention to protect our rights as equals when we are older.
As MEPs we commit to supporting all efforts towards making Europe the continent where it feels good to grow old.