AGE Barometer - Belgium

Analysis provided by Niels Vandenweghe, representative of Vlaamse Ouderenraad

Overall situation

Current important policy issues related to older persons:

  • The reform of long-term care legislation
  • The development of the Flemish Social Protection System, aimed at supporting people with long-term care needs
  • Specific issues with the criteria for care budgets for older people (allowance)
  • Contesting age barriers in access to first-line psychological care
  • A more comprehensive cross-policy approach to housing, living and care
  • Energy poverty among older people – the update of the Flemish action plan on energy poverty
  • Digital inclusion and the right to personal (non-digital) access and support in essential services

Gender equality

  • Little gender inequalities in unemployment, but higher differences in the older age groups
  • No strategies or action plans on gender equality, except for non-discrimination policies
  • The gender pension gap has recently diminished, but reforms are threatening to increase it in the future.

The statistics show little gender inequality in unemployment, while at the same time there are notable gender differences in employment for the age group 55-64. This translates in a significant gender pension gap: very few women achieve a ‘full’ career, resulting in lower pension rights.

The Belgian and Flemish governments have no official strategies or action plans concerning gender equality. Policies are limited to initiatives in the field of non-discrimination.

Regarding the gender pension gap, although the gender pension gap has diminished slightly (from 35,2% to 26,6%) due to the stronger participation of women in the labour market, the current line of pension reforms is outright counterproductive with regard to the gender pension gap. Most significant in this regard is that the federal government has decided to introduce a higher minimum pension but only for people with at least 45 years of previous employment (a full career), among which very few women. This was highly contested by women’s organisations and trade unions.

The general focus on working longer and making early-exit systems less attractive will undoubtedly have a further impact on the current gender pension gap. We expect little progress in this regard.

Support to find employment

  • There are tax incentives in place to support older jobseekers finding employment
  • Public Employment Agencies have a focus action on older jobseekers
  • Unemployment benefits have been reformed to strengthen the incentives to work longer
  • Ageism persists, older people more often laid off in restructurings

Several measures to support older people in finding employment exist: tax incentives for hiring/retaining older people, more vacation days for older employees themselves, counseling by the public employment agency VDAB, … Simultaneously, access to early-exit systems from the labour market are being reformed in order to keep older people in the labour market, and unemployment benefits have been made digressive over time, in order to provide a strong financial incentive to search for work.

While we see a continuous string of policy measures to keep older people in the labour market, the fact is that our society itself moves at a slower pace. Actual job opportunities for older people are scarce, older people are still perceived as more expensive and are more often laid off in large-scale company reforms, ageism still persists widely among employers. Despite this, older people in unemployment are confronted with regulation that has become more and more strict in a relatively short time.

These is no specific policy framework for promoting self-employment for older people.

Age-friendly workplaces

  • Adaptation of workplaces is not a specific policy area
  • Some efforts have been made to allow pensioners to earn an untaxed additional income

As far as we know, age-friendly workplaces are not a specific policy topic. This is mainly included in healthy workplaces, lifelong learning and collective agreements concerning vacation days for older workers in non-profit and social-profit sectors (health care, socio-cultural sector, …).

In a broader view, a number of other measures can be highlighted:

  • The ongoing discussions concerning the framework for heavy labour/strenuous jobs, which should grant people in with strenuous jobs a more favourable access to retirement
  • Systems have been created to encourage people in retirement to earn an (untaxed) additional income. A positive measure for many older people, although the question can be asked whether this is not intended to reduce pressure for adequate pensions, making a sufficient income more of an individual responsibility of the pensioner himself.

Work-life balance

  • Belgium has a fairly good system for supporting carers with leave, but overburdening happens
  • No solution is provided however for people who have to stop working entirely because of care responsibilities

Support for working informal carers takes different forms: care leave systems (which have been improved recently), recent legislation concerning flexible work hours and telework, home and day care services, the Flemish policy plan on informal care. We believe Belgium and Flanders have decent policies in place regarding work-life balance for informal carers, although in practice many informal carers still feel overburdened and a lot of improvements are still possible to support them better in their vital role.

On the other hand, reducing early access to retirement de facto also has an impact on informal care, as many people use these systems to take up care duties in the family (for their older parents, their partner, their grandchildren, …). It will be important to monitor the impact of these measures in practice.

An important question that remains is how we intend to support and reward informal carers who had no other option than to end their employment entirely (used up all their rights to care leave), for example with regard to pension rights.

Poverty

  • Many pensioners are situated around or below the at-risk of poverty threshold, especially among the oldest pensioners.
  • The Flemish Action Plan on Poverty does not focus on old-age poverty
  • The tax-shift policies have increased charges for older people by increased prices for public services, increased VAT and electricity prices

In Belgium, a lot of older people have pensions around or below the at-risk-of-poverty threshold. These concern mainly the oldest pensioners, as they are historically least adjusted to progress in overall welfare.

An automatic yearly indexation system is in place, although this has been marked by skipping indexation several times, and changes have been made to the basket of goods and services the indexation mechanism is based on. Furthermore, Belgian social partners decide over the so-called yearly ‘welfare envelope’, a budget used for increasing minimum allowances and pensions.

The Flemish Action Plan on Poverty does not focus on older people as a target group.

As part of the tax shift, which was intended to reduce taxes on income from work, older people have been confronted by a large number of budget cuts and increases in prices for public services (indexation skip, V.A.T. on electricity, public transportation, water, the Flemish care insurance, adult education, taxes on alcohol and products with sugar, …), without sharing in the benefits of the tax shift. While this does not directly affect their income level, and thus does not translate into poverty statistics, this does have a significant negative impact on older people’s available income.

Research has been conducted on reference budgets, but apart for certain local governments, this is not used by governments at regional or federal level.

Pensions

  • Focus of pension reforms is mainly on sustainability; except for reflections around a new framework for pensions in strenuous jobs

Pension policy reforms have focused mainly on the financial sustainability of the pension system. With regard to the income of current pensioners, very little has been done (except for a higher minimum pension for people with at least 45 years of employment, the indexation and the welfare adjustment).

Financial sustainability has been strengthened by increasing incentives for employment for 50+ and reforming pension systems for civil servants.

Discussions are ongoing regarding the new framework for strenuous jobs, the idea of a pension system based on ‘pension points’, and the introduction of part-time retirement.

Focus: 
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