building a society for all ages

Second World Assembly on Ageing Madrid, Spain 8 -12 April 2002

Decent jobs: social inclusion and social protection

"Increased longevity is providing humanity with a new frontier, a broadening of our mental and physical landscape. The older people of today are, in many ways, pioneers. True to this spirit, they have been innovators, catalysts and leaders of the many initiatives taken during the Year. In doing so, they have helped pave the way to a safer, healthier and richer life for the many generations of older people who will come after them."

-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan

The over-60 population is growing faster than any other age group. Between 1950 and 2050 it is expected to increase from 200 million to 2 billion. As the number of older persons increases, so will the need to ensure their social inclusion, based on an income from decent work or retirement and a chance to participate in community life through employment, volunteer work or other activities. According to the International Labour Organization, "decent work" is work that meets people's basic aspirations, not only for income, but also for security for themselves and their families, in a working environment that is safe. Decent work treats men and women equally, without discrimination or harassment. Finally, decent work provides social security and is carried out in conditions of freedom and human dignity.

But there are over 1.2 billion people in the world who live on an income of less than $1 a day, and another billion who live on less than $2 a day. They live hand to mouth, day to day, and do not have enough income to support their daily existence -much less put something aside for retirement. In most developing countries retirement is a luxury few older people can afford. Even in developed countries some hard working people will not have enough to live on come retirement. Many women - paid less than men, working more at home than men, and working more informally than men - may not be ready or able to rest come 65.

By tradition, at least in developed countries, there is a change in roles as one moves from active middle years into "gentle" and "enjoyable" retirement. This change in roles has been viewed - by the public, by government and by business - as a transition from a productive time of life to one that is unproductive and dependent. But today more than ever, this is not true. Most older people do not withdraw from society. Instead, they continue to contribute to their households, to their descendants and to their communities - although their contribution may not be paid employment.

Instead of producing goods or services - the traditional economic model "products"- older persons may contribute a "product" that has value to society, such as caring for children, caring for other older persons, caring for the oldest old, providing community leadership, mentoring or being an effective role model. But in spite of their significant human and economic benefits, such contributions have not been figured into an economy's gross national product. And they have not been appropriately valued.

Over the past several decades, most industrialized countries have experienced a substantial drop in the average age at which individuals retire from the labour market. Longer life expectancy and better health have not been accompanied by longer working lives. As a consequence, these countries are facing serious concerns about the viability of social security systems. A key challenge for these countries is to mitigate the effects of a drop in the working age population by increasing and prolonging the participation of older people in the labour market.

Social protection
Social protection is a basic component of decent work. The objective of most social protection schemes is to provide access to health care and income security. But today more than half the world's population is excluded from any type of social security protection.

In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, statutory social security coverage ranges from 5 to 10 per cent of the working population, and in some cases is decreasing. In Latin America, coverage differs from country to country, ranging from 10 to 80 per cent. In South-East and East Asia, coverage can vary between 10 and almost 100 per cent.

In most developing countries, no more than 20 per cent - and sometimes as few as 5 per cent - of older persons can expect to receive a pension or adequate health care. People working in the informal economy, predominantly women, are likely to have very low or no income in old age.

"The vitality of our societies increasingly depends on ensuring that people of all ages, including older people, remain fully integrated into society. For older workers social inclusion means, first, a decent income from work or retirement and, second, the possibility of participating in the life of a community through employment, volunteer work or other activity."

Juan Somavia, Director-General
International Labour Organization

Health and care
For older persons, the main expenditure tends to be on health. Health care is an essential part of social protection in any society, and as the global population ages, it is essential that health services adapt to new demands. Even in countries where the family takes on the responsibility of caring for frail older people, global pressures and trends suggest that the elderly will increasingly be forced to rely on themselves, as younger people move from rural to urban areas for economic reasons.

A growing sector of the population that will certainly require care is the oldest old, those 80 years of age or older. Some have developed strategies for caring for themselves and for each other, and are thus able to receive and give care and support, to remain independent and to have control over their own lives. But the percentage of the oldest old is growing very rapidly, and there is an urgent need, particularly in developing countries, to expand care and security networks.

The overall cost of health care due to ageing alone is expected to increase by 41 per cent between 2000 and 2050 (36 per cent for the more developed countries, 48 per cent for the less developed). Financing of health systems that takes into account ageing-related costs will be one of the main challenges for all countries.

Older women
By far, the most vulnerable older persons are women, who are more likely than men to lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, less likely to have paid work, and less likely to be eligible for pensions-where they are available. When women are eligible for pensions, because of their lower pay and interrupted work histories, they are more likely to receive lower pensions. Older women who have lost their partners greatly outnumber their male counterparts. In some countries, widows are often denied access to or control over resources. Also, women's inheritance rights are poorly established in many societies. For these and other reasons, women, especially in developing countries, are much more likely to sink into poverty in their older years. Security schemes to alleviate poverty must take into account that most of the older poor are women, of whom many have limited experience in the labour force.

Skill development
The demand for new skills and knowledge places older workers at a disadvantage, as their training and skills developed earlier in life become obsolete. But age discrimination compounds many of the difficulties older workers face in the labour market. Biased attitudes hamper the efforts of older workers to find new employment and discourage employers from providing them with training. However, there is evidence that prejudices against the abilities of older workers are unfounded, and that the average difference in work performance between age groups is significantly less than the differences between workers within each age group.

Allowing workers who so wish to work longer has clear advantages for business. By maintaining a broad pool of workers with a more diverse range of skills and abilities a company can avoid the vacuum created when a number of skilled and experienced employees retire.

Training and education are particularly important in helping older workers to adapt to changing demands and opportunities. Lifelong learning, which is increasingly recommended by social policy experts, is an important cultural and economic asset. Implicit in the concept of lifelong learning is the rejection of a society structured on the basis of age, in which education and training are one-time undertakings experienced only early in life.

Information and communication technologies
Information and communication technologies can play an important role in extending working lives. They have the potential to allow older workers to maintain their ties to the labour market and enhance their contributions and their quality of life.
Telecommuting holds great promise as a tool that can help older workers to maintain their integration in the economy and in society. Savings in transportation costs are just one advantage. For older workers with disabilities telecommuting offers an alternative to premature retirement or disability leave. There are also clear advantages on the employer's side: businesses can retain access to critical skills and knowledge, and do so in a way that saves on office space. However, before this can occur, attitudes on the parts of both employers and workers must change.

Adequate and safe working conditions
The ability and willingness of older workers to continue working depend also on their personal state of health, conditions of work and motivation. Older workers face special difficulties at work, such as greater vulnerability to strain in a working environment, problems in adapting to new working methods and techniques and stresses associated with the transition to retirement. Ensuring appropriate conditions of work for older persons is crucial.

A policy response
The vitality of our societies will increasingly depend on active participation by older persons. It is therefore imperative that we foster economic and social conditions that will allow people of all ages to remain integrated into society. An essential challenge is to promote a culture that values the experience and knowledge that come with age.

The International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations agency that deals with labour issues, advocates the adoption of policy tools oriented to support older workers' participation in economic and social life. To that end, the ILO recommends:

· Taking action to ensure an appropriate minimum income to all older persons. Social security schemes based on the principle of universal coverage for older persons should be developed. Women as well as men should acquire their own rights and independence.

The ILO and older workers

The International Labour Organization (ILO) works to ensure decent work or retirement for older people. ILO's Older Workers Recommendation (No. 162), of 1980, calls upon states to adopt national policies to promote equality of opportunity and treatment for workers, whatever their age; and to take measures to prevent discrimination against older workers, particularly with regard to:

· access to vocational guidance and placement services,
· access to employment of their choice that takes into account their personal skills, experience and qualifications,
· access to vocational training, in particular
· further training and retraining, and
· employment security.

Upon retirement, the ILO recommends that measures be taken to ensure that the transition from work to retirement is gradual, that retirement is voluntary, and that the age qualifying a person for a pension is flexible.

· Enacting policies aimed at eliminating age discrimination in the labour market and that promote a flexible retirement age.

· Taking measures - involving both employer and worker organizations - to ensure that older people can continue to participate in economic life and society including providing training and retraining.

· Promoting informal, community-based programmes to help older people develop a sense of self-reliance and community responsibility.

· Involving young people in providing services and care and in participating in activities for and with older persons.

· Enacting measures that ensure a gradual transition to retirement. Such measures would include pre-retirement courses, lightening the workload during the last years of the working life, and making the age of entitlement to a pension flexible.

· Ensuring satisfactory working conditions and environment for older workers. Where necessary, working conditions and the working environment should take into account the characteristics of older workers.

Population ageing is not a "catastrophe," but it does pose a policy challenge. Since ageing is a long-term phenomenon, there is sufficient time available for coping mechanisms to be introduced gradually. Such mechanisms are most likely to be found in the world of work and in social transfer systems. The United Nations and the ILO have a vital role to play in developing far-sighted solutions and setting them into motion.

This article was based on information provided by the International Labour Organization.

For further information, please contact:
International Labour Organization (ILO)
Geneva, Switzerland
Mariàngels Fortuny
Tel: (41 22) 799-8761

Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Tel: (1 212) 963-0500

United Nations Department of Public Information
Tel: (1 212) 963-0499

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information DPI/2264 March 2002

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