Equality & participation in older age: AGE Annual Conference looks at the role of social protection and education


‘As I grow older, perceptions of me in society are changing. And I’ve had to confront my own ageist perceptions of myself and my future’.

This is how Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, who had just turned 60, set the scene at AGE Annual Conference on 13 June in Brussels.

The event brought together 106 organisations of and/or working for older people, delegates of AGE Platform Europe’s members from 24 countries. Shortly after the European elections last May, our members together with external experts and EU officials reflected on the rights of older persons including their equal participation in society. We explored what advocacy actions should be taken during the next European legislature to enhance access to adequate social protection and education in old age.

Fighting ageism in promoting rights

AnnualConference2019-Ebbe&Johan The term ageism was first coined 50 years ago to refer to a preconceived negative perception of old age”, recalled Ebbe Johanssen, President of AGE Platform Europe. Still prevalent today, ageism remains a major obstacle to social inclusion and participation in older age”.

Pursuing in his video message, Mr O’Flaherty explained how different treatment in older age is a violation of human rights. He pointed out ageism as “a lazy construct”, an “ill thought-through set of prejudices” imposed on us, and which can be combatted using human rights spectacles. For FRA Director, these are a “valuable toolbox” that sets the discrimination faced by older persons in a legal frame. It is an issue of rights and therefore of law”.

This rights-based approach is also adopted by the European Commission to address ageing issues, as Johan ten Geuzendam, Adviser at the European Commission DG Justice and Consumers, explained, referring to a number of relevant EU and international initiatives to promote active ageing, older persons’ rights and age diversity.(1)

Social protection in old age – for all?

AnnualConference2019-Michel_Huisman Another way of fighting for one’s rights in older age is civic disobedience through strong non-violent activism. This is the way adopted by the Belgian citizen movement ‘Le Gang des vieux en colère’ (the ‘Gang of Angry Old’) to denounce undignified treatment in older age, in particular with regards to pension reforms. The movement has a clear intergenerational dimension: “For us this is too late, we are fighting for the pensions of future pensioners“, stated Michel Huisman invited to speak at the panel on social protection. Mr Huisman seized the opportunity to launch a call for cooperation with similar movements across Europe.

This panel showed how complex the issue of ensuring access to adequate social protection is, yet vital for the sustainability of our ageing societies and individual dignity. Examples of social realities in Greece, Belgium and Sweden demonstrated that pension reforms have multiple social and economic consequences, including in the most socially and economically developed countries. Despite different social protection systems among EU member states, key social challenges and older people’s needs are similar everywhere.


We cannot address challenges of our pensions systems without looking at what happens before retirement”, recalled Ettore Marchetti, Policy Officer on Pensions and Active Ageing in the European Commission. Gender and age inequalities, discrimination in the labour market make it difficult to build adequate pension rights. For Mr Marchetti, fighting ageism, fostering access to education and vocational training, supporting work-life balance are all crucial to maintain older people in employment. As an answer, the European Commission proposed a non-binding recommendation on social protection so that all have the chance to build a right to social protection, including pensions. To help those in needs, the services provided to older people are key, added Mr Marchetti. Yet they must be available, affordable, with standards of quality that are suitable for older people.

Learning in later life: key for inclusion, participation and well-being!

The right to learning is the first right included in the EU Pillar of Social Rights, yet, as Martina Ni-Chellaigh, Senior Expert at the European Commission (DG Employment and Social Affairs) acknowledged, adult education, is the “poor child” of EU education policies.

Many attempts were made, for example by introducing the Skills Guarantee which did not get member states’ support”, she explained, “but the only one that gained member states’ support is the EU Recommendation on Upskilling Pathways”, focusing on providing basic –including digital – skills to all citizens, with an emphasis on inactive people.


While older adults are the most forgotten group in education policies, this is the group that benefits the most from life-long learning, underlined Ciaran McKinney from Age & Opportunity, Ireland. Learning brings a reduction in social isolation and improves health and well-being in increasing self-confidence and giving a sense of purpose. And it empowers older people to participate in society and bring social changes.

The effect of adult learning on health was also emphasized by Alana Officer from the World Health Organisation (WHO). In a video message, she insisted on the close link between literacy and health and on the critical importance of financial and health literacy in decision making and participation in older age.

“Providing rights to adult education is not enough if learning opportunities are lacking”, points out Gina Ebner of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA). Many older people would like to learn but often access is not provided. Despite valuable projects about informal learning and adult education, those tend to be projects, which do not last. We need to move away from the approach on the monetary return on investment in adult education, because it restricts educational opportunities to working age”, Mrs Ebner insisted.

AnnualConference2019-floor-mix-small2 The long struggle to have adult education recognised as an important policy, was stressed by participating AGE members, as this was already a topic in the 60s. They regret that in some member states, very few resources are available for adult education, while some skills like digital skills are increasingly needed, e.g. for administrative tasks.

Interaction with the floor also highlighted the “internal ageism” that holds people back from engaging in education – Many older persons consider themselves too old to learn” – and further raised the importance of education to build the awareness of rights and discrimination, taking the example of women’s movements.

Some more available EU instruments

Some existing EU initiatives address the issues of the gender pension gap and age discrimination in employment, as outlined by Katarina Ivanković-Knežević, Director for Social Affairs at the European Commission, stresses. Those focus in particular on work-life balance, more flexible working conditions, education upskilling, and the development of assistive technology for older persons with a disability.

Humbert de Biolley, from the EU Liaison office of the Council of Europe reminds of the European Social Charter and its specific article on social protection of older persons: the Art 23. As of today, only 11 EU countries have accepted to be bound to the article, complying them to enable older people to remain independent. Mr de Biolley encouraged AGE members to call on their government to adhere to Art 23.


Consciousness raising is the key!

The various topics covered and highlighted during the conference demonstrated the wide scope of measures needed to improve access to and adequacy of social security and support to learning in later life. They can bring social and economic benefits for individuals and whole societies.

Active ageing is not only about promoting longer working lives. It encompasses equally equality in employment, access to health care and social services, inclusion or well-being, which are all crucial to enhance older people’s equal participation in society and strengthen cohesion across the whole life span. If we want our societies to be sustainable, fair and inclusive, we all – policy makers, researchers, civil societies and individuals – need to be aware of this scope and take our share of responsibility.

Useful links

Further resources

The key issues and challenges faced by older persons in social protection and adult learning in Europe were outlined in AGE contribution to the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) in April. Read our article here


(1) Relevant EU and international instruments:

  • The Employment Equality Directive which will have its 20th anniversary in 2020;
  • The Charter of Fundamental Rights, which includes specific articles in relation to non-discrimination and the rights of older persons;
  • Some voluntary initiatives, such as Diversity Charters, which seek to encourage employers to pursue inclusive human resources policies;
  • The draft Equal Treatment Directive, proposed by the European Commission in 2008, but since then blocked within the Council of the EU;
  • The Work-Life Balance Directive;
  • the European Accessibility Act;
  • The Active Ageing Index coming to an end in August 2019, which assesses EU countries’ policies to support active ageing.

On the international level, major relevant policy frameworks are:

  • the 2002 Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA) as all EU countries have signed up to it,
  • the Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing that has been exploring on the protection gaps in the existing national and international legal frameworks protecting human rights in old age.

Related news

Skip to content