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UNECE identifies strategies to help realize the potential of living longer

The latest in UNECE’s series of policy briefs on ageing focuses on the potentials of living longer. The brief, released on 14 September 2017 ahead of the 4th UNECE Ministerial Conference on Ageing in Lisbon (20-22 September), challenges the traditional policy approach to ageing populations – which has centred around adapting pension, care and social protection systems - in favour of strategies to enhance and harness the potential of living longer, for individuals and for society at large.

To date, a strong focus of policy reforms has been to adapt to the anticipated negative implications of population ageing. These include growing pension and health care expenditures fueled by a growing number of older persons. In this scenario, population ageing represents a threat to the financial sustainability of the welfare state and to intergenerational solidarity as younger working generations bear a large proportion of the costs. Policy responses have included extending working lives by increasing statutory pension ages and discouraging early retirement.

What has received less attention is the potential that living longer holds for individuals, economies and societies at large. Often overlooked is also the growing diversity of older persons in terms of life experience, skills, interests and health conditions. The sequential life course model in which phases of education, employment and retirement succeed each other and are broadly defined by chronological age, places older people over retirement age at the receiving end. Longer life years extend the retirement phase and are therefore perceived as a potential drain on resources.

The policy brief draws attention to four 'potentials' of living longer that are not yet fully realized. The first potential is to live the additional years gained in good health; the second potential is an extended working life; the third potential is the Silver Economy, and the fourth potential refers to the 'unpaid' contributions older people make to their families and communities in terms of volunteering and care.

Each of these potentials calls for specific strategies that are already being designed and implemented. Increasing healthy live years, for instance, calls for enhanced health promotion across the life course, rehabilitation at all ages and supportive environments that help compensate declines in functional ability, thus enabling a good quality of life and independence as long as possible.

Extending working lives goes beyond measures that formally increase the number of years people are expected to work and financially contribute to social security systems. What is needed is to enable and prepare persons of all ages for a longer working life that might contain several career changes, and the need for regular training and education to ensure that skills remain relevant. It is necessary to adapt labour markets and workplaces to the diverse and evolving needs of an ageing workforce. There are strategies that facilitate caregiving and volunteering, for both men and women, throughout the life course.

The policy brief goes on to argue that these tailored interventions, while important and visionary, are not sufficient. In light of increasing longevity, the sequential life course model that still shapes institutions and expectations is no longer fit for purpose. This is not a new idea, but in the face of demographic change and ongoing transformations in the world of work, it is more pertinent than ever.

Decoupling the key elements of education, working, and retirement from chronological age can also go a long way in tackling age-based stereotypes. People are never too old to learn, and to contribute, and may need periods of 'retirement' from work throughout the life course, to dedicate time to education, health, volunteering or caring for children, sick or disabled relatives - when the need and opportunity arises rather than when a certain age is reached.

Research has shown that people are more likely to volunteer in older age if they have done so before. They are more likely to exercise and live healthily if they adopt healthy habits early on. In other words, the interventions needed to unleash the potential of living longer are not age-specific. "Ageing" policies – from health promotion to encouraging lifelong learning and volunteering – that span the life course will bear fruits in old age.  An age­-integrated life-course perspective is therefore recommended in order to promote equitable sharing of opportunities and responsibilities.

Read Policy Brief #19 on “Realizing the potentials of living longer”