Legacies of 1999: first indications

While it is premature to assess the Year's worldwide impact, its impact on the United Nations programme on ageing is already evident.

First, the programme has extended its exploration of the roles, opportunities, entitlements and contributions of older persons in fast-changing societies. With other partners, it is endeavouring to identify late life's unique capacities and contributions, such as new manifestations of wisdom in a technological-oriented world, and the competitive advantage of older persons in the new kinds of service-oriented economies. This search is being guided by the expectation that demographic ageing holds the promise of maturing attitudes and capabilities in social, economic, cultural and spiritual undertakings, and for global peace and development in the next century.

Secondly, the programme is engaged in the ongoing formulation of a policy framework for a society for all ages, together with a research engine that could drive it. The still evolving policy framework grew out of the conceptual framework for the Year, encompassing the situation of older persons, lifelong individual development, multigenerational relationships in families and communities, and the macrosocietal implications of ageing.4 These four facets were subsequently examined as two dynamic processes: investing in the phases of life; and fostering enabling environments.5 A focus on these dynamics-making lifelong investments and society-wide adjustments has given rise to a proactive and positive exploration of ageing for its potential contributions to development.

Following on the Year's rich debate and its many worldwide activities and innovations, the programme on ageing anticipates four broad areas of activity in the years ahead:

(a) Priority programmatic measures: continuing refinement of the policy framework for a society for all ages, an undertaking supported by the Republic of Korea and by Swiss Re Life and Health; further elaboration of the research agenda on ageing for the twenty-first century undertaken in cooperation with the International Association of Gerontology, supported by the Government of Germany and Novartis Foundation for Gerontology; and development of an Internet accessible database of policy approaches and innovative projects, supported by the Government of the Netherlands;

(b) Meetings: two are planned for 2000, with the leadership or close collaboration of the United Nations programme on ageing - an expert examination of the interaction of social technologies and multigenerational ties (supported by the Government of the United Kingdom and being organized by HelpAge International); and an international conference on rural ageing (being organized by the University of West Virginia). Three other meetings are being considered for 2000 - a conference of national focal points (at the initiative of the Government of Malta); an expert group on midlife adjustments for resourceful ageing (seeking the involvement of the media and research communities); and resourceful ageing and the workplace (with the corporate sector);

(c) Reviews: four are scheduled for the years 2001 and 2002 and could be combined. In 2001, three interrelated reviews will consider the impact of the Year; ongoing implementation of the International Plan of Action on Ageing; and, relatedly, assessment of success in reaching the "targets on ageing" elaborated in 1992. In 2002, a review of the outcome of the World Assembly on Ageing may be undertaken in response to resolution 37/2 of the Commission for Social Development in which the Commission requested the Secretary-General "to solicit the views of States, non-governmental organizations and the private sector on updating the International Plan of Action on Ageing and on the desirability and feasibility of convening in the year 2002 a review of the outcome of the World Assembly on Ageing, including the interrelationship of ageing and development".6 The views have been requested and will be reported to the Commission at its thirty-eighth session, in 2000;

(d) Mainstreaming: For the most part, during the United Nations conferences of the 1990s, the issue of ageing was "added on", usually in terms of the needs of "vulnerable elderly". Ageing has not been seen in its "revolutionary" terms - how the addition of decades to life can effect a restructuring of the entire lifecourse - or in global terms - how the rising proportion of older persons may invite a restructuring of the socio-economic and cultural landscape.

From the 1999 debate and its innumerable activities, a two-part change of mind may be under way. On the one hand, there is much greater recognition of the far-reaching implications of demographic change. On the other, there is a shift from a widespread negative view of older persons as "patients and pensioners" and of societal ageing as a "problem" to a positive view, captured by a member of the Indian Parliament speaking to the General Assembly at its fifty-third session on the occasion of the launch of the Year. She said:

"... we see age not as harbinger of mortality, but opportunity to rekindle life's fires in ways different from that in which it was lived, ways different and exciting, but rooted, inevitably, in the experiences and education of years before.

"We see age not as evidence of biological frailty or cerebral limitation, but as integral to the adventure of life, a phase to be looked forward to, savoured and cherished.

"We see age not in the context of individuals, or societies, or nations, but in a global picture where the needs of those fortunate to take it for granted can be harmonized with the need of those for whom adulthood itself is not assured.

"We see age not as a reward or a liability but simply a part of the exultation of the 'larger freedom' to which the United Nations Charter pledges the peoples in whose name this Organization was established and from whom they continue to have so large a measure of expectation."

4 See A/50/114.
5 See A/53/294.
6 See Official Records of the Economic and Social Council, 1999, Supplement No.6 (E/1999/26).