AGE Barometer 2021: More effort is needed to support older people’s participation


Photo by Tyler Farmer on Unsplash

This month, AGE will publish the third edition of its Barometer with a focus on participation. While our Barometer highlights many good examples, it also underlines that, too often, older persons are not part of decisions concerning them directly.

Our assessment of older people’s situations across Europe echoes our recent call for governments and policy makers to ‘lead with us’, older people as we recover from the pandemic.

For the 2021 edition of AGE Barometer, we surveyed our members about the national public policies in three policy areas that are essential to fully participate in society: life-long learning and education, volunteering as well as political participation and citizenship. While we are still finalizing the Barometer, we can already give a preview of some of the main results.

Active citizens’ engagement despite unsupportive policies

By and large, older persons participate more than other age groups in elections (with some national exceptions), showing their interest and responsibility towards the society they live in. Just as for society at large, the political affiliations of older persons have also become more diverse than in the past.

Many express their desire to build a world for all ages by actively participating and promoting citizens’ initiatives in social and environmental areas, and even in the consolidation of our democracy. But this activism is often not supported by public policies. In many Member States, persons with disabilities or persons living in long-term care settings are facing physical or geographical barriers to participate in elections.

If we look at the age diversity of key high-profile positions, we see that very few people are beyond labour market age. This bias is even stronger against younger persons.

Consultation of older persons on policy areas that directly affects them is not anchored in structured dialogue or procedures on law-making, but rather relying on personal contacts and on the activism of older persons’ organisations. This also means that in Member States with no public support in terms of capacity and funding for older persons’ representative organisations, many voices are left unheard.

Good practices which break these general observations can luckily be found, as for example:

  • in Denmark and in some parts of Germany, municipalities and regions are statutorily required to have an older persons’ consultative council;
  • in a municipality of Portugal, there is a participatory budget for older persons;
  • several Member States ensure financial support for umbrella organisations whose task it is to aggregate and voice the concerns of older persons in national policies;
  • in Slovenia, older persons’ organisations and youth organisations are organising a policy dialogue on their own, independently from public support.

These examples show that supporting the political participation of older persons is not necessarily costly. Yet, they are an investment into a more harmonious society.

Life-long learning: crucial, but too often left to the older person’s own initiative

The importance of life-long learning is often underlined as a mantra for overcoming many of the challenges linked to ageing – and rightly so! Learning allows persons of all ages to adapt to the changes in society, to maintain social relationships and improve mental and physical health. Sound life-long learning policies reduce inequalities, which is in itself a factor of economic growth.

More importantly, the urge to learn and the process of learning gives many persons self-confidence and a sense of purpose, particularly in later life. It should therefore be self-evident for public policies to support and encourage participation in life-long learning in the labour market, but also beyond labour-market age!

Again, by and large, it is older persons’ organisations themselves who step in and fill the gap by organising study circles, third-age universities and educational offers, responding to the learning needs of older persons – with the limitations inherent in voluntary activities. It is too often mentioned by AGE members that learning opportunities are mainly taken up by persons who already have high educational achievement levels. It takes extra financing, capacity-building and support for quality learning by the public sector to enable these. Persons with disabilities are also left out of the pictures, as learning opportunities are often not accessible for them, or do not reach persons with mobility issues.

The picture is a little bit better for employment-related training. Some promising examples of individual learning accounts exist, where employers fund a persona learning budget. The current reflections on individual learning accounts at EU level show that the potential of this approach is perceived.

However, it is important to draw lessons from existing systems: although the right to training exists, employees too often do not redeem their learning rights, employers might be reluctant to grant leave for training and sometimes there are no adequate offers for training available.

An EU initiative should aim to avoid these pitfalls. It should be mentioned that the transition into retirement must also be supported by learning opportunities, as they can be determinant for young retirees to engage in a path of active ageing. Still, examples collected show that there are only learning opportunities offered by some large employers or sometimes pension funds or health insurers. There is scope for fostering active ageing in this area as well.

Volunteering: older persons’ contribution holds society together – but is largely invisible!

Volunteering is an important area of engagement for many older persons, particularly beyond working age. Many respondents underline that large social charities are mainly relying on older volunteers with their specific skills and experience, and conversely, older persons appreciate the activity, social network and sense of purpose that volunteering provides.

While older persons seem to be active in all kinds of sectors, the care sector is especially reliant on older volunteers. Beyond the estimated 80% of care performed by informal carers, volunteers pay visits to isolated older persons or older persons who are unable to leave their care setting and engage in organising activities for other older persons.

In general-purpose charities (such as environmental), volunteering is a fertile ground for intergenerational exchanges and improves the understanding of different generations for each other’s issues. Intergenerational exchange is also part of what motivates older volunteers.

Again, the sector is not sufficiently supported by public policies. Despite a few counter-examples including awards or other awareness-raising actions, volunteering is often not supported by incentives, such as insurance coverage during volunteer activities or tax deductions related to volunteering. In a more systematic way, public actors could support volunteering by orienting new pensioners towards available opportunities, foster exchanges of good practices between volunteering organisations or providing financial support for the administrative tasks of volunteering organisations.

In conclusion…

The results of our members’ survey show that older persons are an active, vibrant and diverse part of society. However, to fulfil the promises of the 2002 Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, which is to be reviewed next year for the European region, and not least of the Sustainable Development Goals, there is still a long way to go.

As AGE turns 20 this year, we celebrate connection: how older people’s organisations connect within our network, but also how older people connect to the world around them. While our societies are becoming more and more age-diverse as life expectancy increases, we should all engage into nurturing our connections with people of different ages. These ties are the bottom lines to everyone’s participation.

By Philippe Seidel

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