Ahead of the International Day of Older Persons (IDOP) on 1 October, the call for an international legal instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of older persons is getting louder.
Indeed, the IDOP is an excellent opportunity to highlight the important contributions that older persons make to society, the harms of ageism – stereotyping, prejudice, and/or discrimination of individuals or groups based on their age – and to raise awareness of the issues and challenges of ageing in today’s society. Therefore, this post invites you to reflect, to engage with older persons’ organisations at the national and local level, and to participate in this global debate on how we address ageing.
A survey published by the Fundamental Rights Agency in 2020, illustrated that ageing societies are facing challenges from the perspective of the use of information and communication technologies. According to the survey, 20% of people aged 75 years and older use the internet at least occasionally, in comparison with 98% of 16-29-year-olds. We can see that the digital divide between generations is significant and increases with age.
This is also emphasized by the United Nations, which adopted the ‘need for access and meaningful participation in the digital world by older persons’ as the theme of the IDOP this year. Among other issues, the United Nations International Day of Older Persons 2021 identifies a number of concerns, from the adequate understanding of forms and impacts of ageism, to the outpaced policy and normative framework and ‘the need for a legally binding instrument on the rights of older persons and an intersectional person-centered human rights approach for society for all ages’. On a similar note, the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG), which aims to discuss concrete ways to strengthen the protection of older persons, has been discussing for the past few years the need and feasibility of an international legally binding instrument. However, the lack of consensus has prevented clear outcomes from the OEWG.
In a new report on ageism, the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons Claudia Mahler not only promotes an intersectional approach, by illustrating the extent to which age intertwines with other forms of ‘isms’ and grounds of discrimination, but also reveals how pervasive ageism is across the world.
The report notes many issues and concerns that have been previously documented by many, like a deep-rooted age discrimination in health care. In a recent Equinet perspective on equality, diversity and non-discrimination in healthcare, several equality bodies reported overarching health inequalities as being rooted in the design and development of healthcare systems, where an overall lack of investment increases the risk of institutional discrimination and the uneven geographical spread of health services acts as a potential access barrier for older persons with mobility issues. This has been also illustrated in the recently launched report by Validity Foundation and Forum for Human Rights, which provides evidence-based research of the great extent of the institutionalisation of older persons with disabilities and the lack of community-based and family-based alternatives in the Czech Republic.
The UN report also notes with concern that age discrimination is widespread in other areas such as employment or the provision of goods and services. Research and practical experience both at the European and national levels show that the age, used as an exclusionary criteria, is applied on the basis of assumptions about older persons that often are based on negative stereotypes. This has further repercussions for older persons such as housing access and social exclusion, which is usually unchallenged and socially accepted. Moreover, the report addresses the disproportionate adverse impact of COVID-19 on the human rights of older persons. Worryingly, the work of AGE Platform on monitoring the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on older persons has exposed how ageism is deeply embedded in today’s society and highlighted that failing to protect the rights of older persons has serious consequences.
Lastly, the UN report stresses the need for comparable and disaggregated equality data. As Nena Georgantzi already pointed out in a previous blog post, the pandemic has also highlighted the invisibility of older persons in public data analysis. When data is systematic and specialized, it helps us predict and explain problems and envisage alternatives, while also giving us the essential knowledge to design effective equality policies.
On the premise that age discrimination is a social problem that must be combatted by legal and policy instruments, some kind of legal protection is warranted to that end. In EU legislation, nonetheless not always at the national level, such protection is limited to the field of employment.
Moreover, while the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights includes a specific article on the rights of older persons under its Equality chapter, where equality in old age is understood as the right to live in dignity and independence and to participate in all aspects of life, the EU Charter is not sufficient to protect individuals beyond the labour market context. In its submission to the EC Consultation on ‘Demographic change in Europe’, Equinet highlighted the legal gaps in EU equality law, reiterating the need for expanding the prohibition of unequal treatment based on age to all areas of life. We must wonder if the adoption of the so-called horizontal non-discrimination directive could potentially fill these gaps or if it would in fact allow more exceptions than for other grounds – even in areas where age is protected – leading to ultimately lower levels of protection.
Moreover, in a European Union built on equality as a founding value, the EU must use all the available EU policy instruments and processes for its successful implementation. This is also illustrated by a number of Commission initiatives, including the Gender Equality Strategy, the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy, the EU Roma Strategic Framework and the Anti-racism Action Plan. However, we must be concerned with the lack of concrete actions against ageism, being that his is one of the most widespread forms of discrimination within the EU.
Finally, within the framework of the Council of Europe, the European Social Charter, whose 60th anniversary we are celebrating this year, contains some protection against age discrimination. Contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Social Charter contains a specific article regarding the social rights of older persons to ensure their full participation in society, while protecting their independent lives. While enforcement mechanisms are limited, a recent study of the Council of Europe on the current use and future potential of the European Social Charter provides a roadmap to optimise the use of the Charter to uphold the rights of older persons.
Equality bodies are key to ensure equality in Europe. If mandated to tackle age-based discrimination and well-positioned, equality bodies are strong allies to support older persons and shed light on the nature and extent of ageism. Moreover, equality bodies in collaboration with older persons directly or through civil society carry out extensive work on capacity building and awareness-raising. At the European level, Equinet contributes to the discussions by analysing and disseminating the data collected by equality bodies through reports and events.
However, equality bodies also report some important legal barriers. Equinet’s Discussion Paper “Fighting Discrimination on the Ground of Age” underlines how often national courts tend to accept certain age generalisations instead of requiring individual assessments. But the far more striking obstacle is not only the lawful exemptions and justifications often applied, which allows for a wide range of discriminatory actions, but once again, the absence or insufficient mandate of equality bodies to deal with age discrimination across all areas of life.
While the challenges and issues are many, so are the opportunities!
First, we need to improve our legal frameworks to ensure effective protection of the rights of older persons. At the national and European levels, we need to reform of our laws to help us overcome the several obstacles in dealing adequately with cases of age discrimination. A new legal framework should not only detect and tackle structural discrimination beyond the field of employment, but also adopt an intersectional approach. At the international level, concrete steps in advancing the normative framework of the international human rights system for the promotion and protection of older persons’ rights should be a priority. This has been clearly emphasised by more than 200 signatories of an Open Letter to UN OEWG Bureau Members on 20 September 2021.
Second, equality bodies, if given appropriate independence, mandate, powers and resources, can be key actors in the fight against ageism. They need to be strengthened by the EU by explicitly including age-based discrimination in all areas of life in the mandate of equality bodies. When given the adequate powers together with proper resources, equality bodies will have the full potential to enable older persons to enjoy more rights and better protection. Importantly also, equality bodies should actively get involved with international actions to promote equality of older persons. For instance, they should participate actively in the UN OEWG meetings and promote the ratification of Article 23 and the collective complaints procedure under the European Social Charter by their respective governments.
Third, the journey to age equality should be shared, and its advancement must be the result of a joint endeavour. A change in the mindset is needed at all levels of society and we must build bridges and establish open dialogues with older persons to transform negative stereotypes into positive perceptions of older persons.
It is now urgent to draw lessons from the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on older persons worldwide and to ensure that, in facing new challenges such as digitalisation and climate change, fundamental rights deliver real benefits to everyone, including older persons.
Below you can find some of the ongoing events and campaigns related to ageism. Don’t hesitate to join, promote and contribute to the fight against ageism!