Raising Awareness: the Society for All Ages

The theme for 1999, "Towards a society for all ages", has been adopted by several countries and organizations. It lends itself to a broad exploration of the situation of older persons while promoting the ideal of a society that accommodates itself to all.

The society for all ages emerged from the concept of a society for all. As noted in the conceptual framework (A/50/114):

"... we may think of a society for all as one that adjusts its structures and functioning, as well as its policies and plans, to the needs and capabilities of all, thereby releasing the potential of all, for the benefit of all. A ‘society for all ages’ would, additionally, enable the generations to invest in one another and share in the fruits of that investment, guided by the twin principles of reciprocity and equity" (para. 38).

There are several ways of conceptualizing a "society for all ages". An explanation of the concept is to be launched at the sixteenth World Congress of Gerontology and will be continued in the World Ageing Situation 1997-1998. Throughout 1998-1999, the issue will be debated and monitored by the support group of the Commission for Social Development. The programme on ageing will host an interregional conference on the topic in 1998, and issue a related publication in 1999.

A preliminary exposition is given below, using the four facets of the conceptual framework: (a) the situation of older persons; (b) lifelong individual development; (c) multigenerational relationships, and (d) the interplay of population ageing and development.

Guidelines for improving the situation of older persons are well developed and include: (a) the United Nations Principles for Older Persons, listing 18 principles in the areas of independence, participation, care, self-fulfilment and dignity, whose promotion is the overall objective of the Year; (b) the International Plan of Action on Ageing, whose 62 recommendations for action lay the broad foundations for activities on ageing, focusing, inter alia, on education, employment and income security, housing and the environment, health and hygiene, social welfare and the family; and (c) general comment No. 6 (1995), on the economic, social and cultural rights of older persons, adopted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on 24 November 1995.2

The general comment draws the attention of Member States to the situation of older persons who, unlike women or children, have no comprehensive international convention addressing their rights. The comment will guide States parties to better understand their obligations to older persons when implementing the various provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.3 Though the Covenant does not contain any explicit reference to the rights of older persons, it implicitly recognizes the right to old-age benefits through article 9, which deals with the right of everyone to social security, including social insurance.

The Plan, Principles and general comment provide a broad framework for action on ageing, and draw attention to specific groups that have tended to be excluded from mainstream socio-economic development, such as older women, migrants, refugees, indigenous elders and the "oldest old".

Among the many dimensions of "the situation of older persons", two are emerging to pre-eminence — active ageing and caregiving strategies. The terms "active" or "productive" ageing are currently used in two ways: first, to describe, and thereby to support, the importance of the many socially and economically productive roles open to ageing individuals in developing countries and, secondly, as an attempt to reverse the phenomenon in developed countries whereby retirement from the formal economic sector automatically negates the formal acknowledgment of the unpaid productive roles of many older persons.

Active Ageing

The promotion of active ageing in developing countries needs technical and financial international support. Developing countries identified income-generating projects for older persons as their foremost need in the fourth world survey on ageing, 1996.4 To date, such assistance has been limited, carried out mainly through contributions to the United Nations Trust Fund for Ageing, and has fallen off to almost nothing in the 1990s. In the role of project design and implementation, consistent support has been provided by HelpAge International in assisting groups of older persons or organizations of older persons to become economically self-reliant. Current initiatives include, among others, the provision of solar tents for agriculture in Bolivia, transmission of traditional skills in Jamaica, and income-generating mills for returnees in Mozambique.

Opportunities for active ageing in developed economies have been increasing. At the initiative of Japan, the group of eight industrialized countries, in their Denver communique of 22 June 1997, recognized it as the desire and ability of many older people to continue work or other socially productive activities well into their later years. They agreed that old stereotypes of seniors as dependent should be abandoned, and they discussed how to promote the active ageing of their older citizens with due regard to their individual choices and circumstances, including removing disincentives to labour force participation and lowering barriers to flexible and part-time employment that exist in some countries. The group touched on the transition from work to retirement, lifelong learning and ways to encourage voluntarism and to support family caregiving.

A convergence of approaches to ageing in developing and developed countries, under the concept of productive or active ageing, is evident. In this regard, the United Nations programme on ageing is exploring the possibility of convening an expert meeting on expanding older workers’ options. Such options include gradual retirement, part-time work and the creation of "initiative centres" in local communities that would provide basic supports (tools, marketing advice, etc.) for a variety of mid-life and elder enterprises.

However, in promoting active ageing, a cautious route must be forged between the two extremes of exclusionary "ageism" and an activism that might unintentionally lead to too much demand on older persons.


Attention to the development of appropriate caregiving strategies is another priority. As women enter the labour market in greater numbers and the number of the oldest old increases, the supply of informal caregivers will decline, even as the likely demand for caregiving will increase. At the same time, Governments in all areas of the world tend to prefer home care for frail elderly over institutional care, for both humanitarian and financial reasons. Thus, a tension is developing between two distinct policy objectives: promoting equal opportunities in the labour market for women on the one hand, while on the other, actively promoting the role of the family in caregiving.

To clarify these apparently conflicting trends, and to develop policy guidelines for caregiving strategies in the next decade, two meetings are planned. In November 1997, the programme on ageing is convening an expert group meeting at the International Institute on Ageing in Malta, in cooperation with the Division for the Advancement of Women, Alzheimers Association USA and Pfizer Inc. The National Committee on Ageing of China is exploring the feasibility of hosting, in cooperation with several United Nations entities, a related interregional symposium on family and community caregiving in 1999 in China.

Simultaneously, many initiatives at the local and national levels are getting under way. One of these is client-centred caregiving in small housing units being promoted by the Salmon Group. The Group came into being after the European Year of Older Persons and Solidarity between the Generations, in 1993, and has extended its activities into eastern Europe. As a contribution to the Year 1999, it is seeking partnerships worldwide in establishing a network and debate on small-scale client-centred care innovations.

A recent decision of the Population Division of the United Nations Secretariat to disaggregate population data for ages 80 and over by age groups 80-84, 85-89, 90-94, 95-99 and 100 and over in future demographic projections and in the year 2000 round of censuses will provide much-needed information on the oldest old or the "fourth age".


Women live longer than men by several years in most countries. They often have fewer resources and more of the health problems associated with advanced age. Thus, income security and health-care strategies for women need to be given priority. At the same time, more research is needed into the biomedical, social and cultural causes of the significant gap in life expectancy between women and men.

The Commission on the Status of Women, at its forty-first session, recommended that the preparations for the Year include a gender perspective and decided to address the status of older women and the violation of their rights, at its forty-second session, and the differential impact of population ageing on men and women, at its forty-third session. It invited other United Nations entities to examine the status of older women, including the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the Division for the Advancement of Women.5


Lifelong individual development, the second approach in exploring the society for all ages, is a relatively new priority within the United Nations programme on ageing. It is based on the simple idea that both individual behaviour and national policy, which affect people at different ages, but especially the young, will shape the situation of people in older age. New interest in the question is partly a response to the rapidity of population ageing in developing countries — a process that will take many only 15 to 30 years, as opposed to the 50 to 100 years it took developed countries in the past. Today’s youth, therefore, are an important target group; they need to acquire new knowledge, skills and behaviours if they are to reach their own later years enjoying good health and income security with supportive family and social networks.

Youth need information about the long-term impact of the so-called "affluent lifestyles" of smoking, drinking, "junk food", stress and pollution. These lifestyles are taking root in developing countries, according to the World Health Report 1997, leading to a rapid increase in chronic diseases that can be prevented but seldom cured. Unhealthy lifestyles in youth and middle age can result in an extended period of debility in later years, with a consequent heavy caregiving burden on families and societies.

Youth also need to know that traditional systems of support and social security are changing — perhaps weakening — including family and community networks, especially in developing countries. At the same time there is an erosion of state welfare services in developed economies. Developing the habit of saving over one’s entire working life is important, as urged by the World Bank in its 1994 publication Averting the Old Age Crisis. Policy frameworks that support savings, access to pensions and provision of social security are explored in the 1996 ESCAP publication Lifelong Preparation for Old Age in Asia and the Pacific.


Childhood, too, has a particular relationship with later years and has been called "the cradle of longevity". It is now known that "emotional intelligence" is acquired in childhood, together with the imprints of co-dependence, independence and interdependence — "know-how" that facilitates family life, self-reliance and collaboration throughout the life course. Many see a natural bond of affection between children and elders, and the latter have been trained, in places, to be "grandparents by choice" for emotionally deprived children.

The ability of individuals to make an early adjustment to longevity will be influenced by their perceptions of old age and by societal attitudes. If old age is accorded meaning and purpose for individual and societal development, it can be approached with interest and confidence and could help shape a kinder, gentler civilization of benefit to all, and of necessity for a time fast approaching when every third individual will be over age 60.

With longer life expectancy, mid-life becomes an ever more important phase of life. It could be used for adults to review their past and future life achievements and possibilities, and make the appropriate adjustments in their lives, both in terms of lifestyle and livelihood skills in order to remain active members of society in their now-extended later years.

At present, particularly in industrialized countries, the demands of work and family life compete for time and attention of working adults, while those in retirement tend to have abundant free time but fewer responsibilities or calls on that time. Societies as well as individuals would gain by a more even distribution of time spent in education, work, leisure and discharge of family tasks throughout the lifespan.

These and other aspects of individual lifelong development will be explored at forthcoming meetings, including an international symposium on restructuring work and the life course, being organized by the University of Toronto and the University of Bremen at Toronto from 7 to 9 May 1998; the World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth, at Lisbon from 8 to 12 August 1998; and the International Development Conference, in Washington, D.C., in 1999.

Multigenerational Relationships

A consideration of multigenerational relationships provides a third approach to the society for all ages. It hinges on the concept of "interdependence" and how this can be maintained in family and society as the proportions of old and young change. The emergence of the "inverse pyramid" family is a good illustration of this change. Where once there was a pyramid of many children and increasingly fewer adults and older persons, now the inverse pyramid family is possible, consisting of one child, two parents, four grandparents and, possibly, eight great-grandparents.

The practical implications of individual and population ageing for the family rest mainly in caregiving and, for society, in the provision of social services and income security. These two dimensions have innumerable issues to be explored — such as active ageing and an appropriate caregiving mix, as discussed earlier. But the subject is broader still.

A concept of multigenerational citizenship is again being discussed, one that invites each generation to shape the public world, seeing it as a continuum that existed before their birth and will remain after their death. Legacies to future generations are a collective responsibility of today’s citizens — be this the legacy of natural capital (the environment), physical capital (infrastructure, plant and equipment), financial capital (savings), social capital (institutions and structures) and cultural capital (the values, principles and concepts that are handed down).

The Bulletin on Ageing (Nos. 2 and 3, 1997) will examine multigenerational relationships from several perspectives: equity, exchanges, caregiving and the particularities of gender, indigenous cultures and migrants. The International Family Policy Forum is guest editing the Bulletin and is seeking support for establishing a worldwide inventory of multigenerational initiatives, with expert analysis and commentary, as a major contribution to the Year 1999.

The Committee for Development Planning will consider intergenerational transfers and social security at its thirty-second session, in May 1998.

Ageing and Development

Considering the ageing process in its totality (ageing and development: the fourth approach to the society for all ages) requires, according to the International Plan of Action on Ageing, "an integrated approach within the framework of overall economic and social planning. Undue emphasis on specific sectoral problems would constitute a serious obstacle to the integration of ageing policies and programmes into the broader development framework".6

An integrated approach, as recommended in the Plan, has proceeded more slowly than separate sectoral approaches to ageing (health, housing, etc.). The lifelong approach has only just entered the debate. Macro-level concerns have been mainly in terms of social security costs, usually calculated in terms of rising old-age dependency ratios.

The rising dependency ratio of older persons is, in itself, only one of many factors that can influence a nation’s capacity to provide income security to its elderly while ensuring economic growth. A broad and more integrated approach would introduce several other factors, including, inter alia:

The capabilities of cohorts over age 50 and their opportunities to continue working, including on a part-time basis;

The rates of unemployment and of female employment and the age of entry into the workforce, all affecting overall dependency ratios that, in turn, affect national income and disbursements;

Application of new technologies, which can increase individual productivity as well as national revenues;

Population policies, which could, for example, aim to increase the infant population through pro-natal policies, or the adult population through pro-immigration policies;

Investing internationally in youthful countries, which could simultaneously generate jobs for youth and income for pensioners;

Military spending, and the extent to which spending on "external security" can be translated into spending on "social security".

Population ageing also prompts a change in production and consumption patterns, savings and investments, and underscores the need for universal design — an environment that facilitates movement by older persons who may, at times, have difficulties with activities of daily living.

Strategies need to be developed to support this integrative approach. These would include integrating ageing into follow-up activities to the major United Nations conferences of the 1990s (on social development, population, women and housing). Progress in this area would meet with global target No. 2 set for the year 2001, which aims to generate support for integrating ageing into national and international development plans and programmes (see A/47/339, sect. III).


2 Official Records of the Economic and Social Council, 1997, Supplement No. 2 (E/1996/22), annex IV.

3  Resolution 2200 A (XXI), annex.

4  E/CN.5/1997/4, para. 79.

5 <   Official Records of the Economic and Social Council, 1997, Supplement No. 7 (E/1997/27), chap. I, sect. C, resolution 41/2.

6 Report of the World Assembly on Ageing, Vienna, 26 July-6 August 1982(United Nations publication, Sales No. E.82.I.16), chap. VI, sect. A, para. 49.