Labour markets and national social protection systems have already undergone profound transformations to respond to longevity and the challenges an ageing society poses to national economic and social systems. This process has started with a number of initiatives in the European Union (EU) and the world. These include fighting old age discrimination in the area of employment, promoting active ageing and incentivising longer working lives, as well as introducing reforms in social protection systems addressing old age, namely in pensions, health services and long-term care provision. Reforms are also starting to move away from needs-based approaches aimed at responding to age-related ‘deficits’, towards shifting the focus to the individual, a human being with fundamental rights and inherent human dignity. According to Article 1 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, human dignity is inviolable and must be protected and respected, regardless of age.
However, this shift should not overlook the age-specific needs of older people, nor downgrade the importance of the state’s responsibilities towards individuals – including older people – who may need support. Moreover, older people are a heterogeneous group with quite diverse needs and preferences. Many preferences and experiences in the life course affect outcomes at older age. Gender, immigrant or ethnic minority status, disability as well as socio-economic status and geographical or other aspects can have a compound negative impact on older people. This largely determines to what extent they enjoy their rights.
The civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights apply to everyone, regardless of age. Nevertheless, age features specifically under Article 21 as a protected ground for discrimination and under Article 25, which recognises a right for older people “to lead a life of dignity and independence and to participate in social and cultural life”.
Non-discrimination and equal opportunities for older people in various areas of life, as well as their living in dignity, are also embedded in the recently proclaimed European Pillar of Social Rights. According to the European Commission, the European Pillar of Social Rights “partially goes beyond the current acquis”. The objective is to reflect on how to extend protection against discrimination on the ground of age to the areas of social protection, including social security and healthcare, education, and access to goods and services available to the public.
The proclamation of the Social Rights Pillar, albeit a non-legally binding set of principles and rights, signals a strong political will and commitment by EU institutions and Member States to work towards a more social and inclusive Europe – a Europe that makes better and more respectful use of all its human capital without excluding anyone. It is an opportunity for the EU and Member States to deliver concrete results on promoting and implementing the rights of older people, who are an important part of human capital and have the potential to contribute substantially to all aspects of life.
However, setting rules and minimum standards is only the first step in this process. Raising awareness and using coordination and monitoring mechanisms are all equally essential to fulfil fundamental rights of all, including older people, as provided in the Charter. In this effort, the engagement of both the EU institutions and the Member States is more than necessary.
In this respect, FRA’s opinions outlined below should be seen as building blocks in support of the shift towards a comprehensive human rights-based approach to ageing.