Social rights for all generations: time to deliver on the European Pillar of Social Rights
On 4 March the Commission released the long-awaited Action Plan of the European Pillar of Social Rights. The goal of this policy is to ensure the implementation of the Pillar, by identifying areas for action both for the EU and member states.
In this Special Briefing we look at the main objectives outlined in the Action Plan and what they mean for older people in particular.
The European Pillar of Social Rights was proclaimed by the EU in November 2017. Ever since, AGE has worked actively to give shape to the 20 social rights proclaimed as part of the Pillar, with a strong focus on the right to long-term care. Our work included our contribution to the 2020 consultation on which the Action Plan builds.
EU Social Summit 2021
On 7 and 8 May 2021 a European Social Summit took place in Porto (Portugal), bringing together heads of state and government, civil society and social partners. The summit has put front and central the EU’s efforts to strengthen its socialdimension, and notably to implement the EU Pillar. The end of the Europe 2020 social and economic strategy called for an update and renewal, which did not happen until this year.
Heads of state and government, social partners and civil society welcomed the Action Plan at the Porto Summit. But what does it mean for older persons?
Our initial reaction focussed on the modest ambitions relating to long-term care and adequate pensions. The Action Plan however covers much larger areas than those two questions. Here is a more comprehensive assessment of its contents from our perspective.
Three headline targets on employment, education and poverty
AGE has repeatedly called for a follow-up strategy to the Europe 2020 Strategy for social and economic convergence between the European Commission and EU Member States and a stronger role for the European Semester coordination process in reaching its targets. A future strategy should also be broader and focus on all the principles of the Pillar of Social Rights to fully address the challenges faced by many older persons. First of all, it must be welcomed that such a follow-up strategy exists, as it was a struggle to have this principle accepted.
The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan proclaims three headline targets for the EU to reach by 2030, which were confirmed by the EU member States in the final declaration of the Porto social summit.
The headline targets aim to:
- reach 78% employment rates by 2030
- halve the employment gap between men and women,
- reach 60% of all adults and per year participating in education and training and 80% of adults 25-74 to have at least basic digital skills,
- reduce poverty and social exclusion by 15 million relative to 2019, including by reducing child poverty by 5 million.
What about older people?
We welcome these targets, but caution against overlooking older persons. The employment target for the moment only includes persons until 64, while statutory pension ages – and unemployment risks – have recently risen above this age in many Member States. Similarly, the indicator measuring the target of 60% participating of adults in life-long learning and training does not capture persons over 65.
In the field of education, however, we explicitly welcome the ambition to reach beyond working age with the digital skills target going until 74 years. Further efforts should be made to also make digital education accessible to persons in higher ages, and especially to people whose autonomy and independence are at risk, such as in long-term care settings. It is crucial to address the challenges faced by older persons in these domains, as persons between 55-64 years are the least likely to participate in education and training, and two in five among them are not in employment. Gender gaps are also highest in this age group.
The target of reducing poverty and social exclusion by 15 million is ambitious in the context of the pandemic and its related economic downturn. However, it falls short of the promises made under the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to at least halve poverty and social exclusion in all its forms relative to 2015: this would mean reducing the number of people in poverty and social exclusion by 52 million relative to 2015 or 39 million from 2019 levels. Some groups of older persons have higher poverty risks than the general population, such as women over 75 or workers before pension age (age 55-64), and the trend of poverty and social exclusion among older persons is rising: therefore, a more specific sub-target on fighting old-age poverty would have been warranted.
Some measure support employment of older persons, albeit not explicitly
The European Commission proposed, together with the Action Plan, a Recommendation for Effective Active Support to Employment with guidance and policy measures to support job-to-job transitions towards digital and green sectors. The idea is good, as it is compatible with AGE’s recommendations to move from an approach to manage unemployment towards a labour market approach where people are empowered to design their careers in an sustainable way. AGE proposed measures such as mid-career assessments of skills, challenges in terms of mental and physical health or disability, ambitions and balance of private and family life to support workers in retraining, job rotation and prevention. AGE hails the announcement of evaluating the experience of a European unemployment reassurance in view of creating a permanent instrument of European solidarity in the area of unemployment. Such a reassurance was tested during the pandemic with the SURE instrument.
The European Commission aims to address working conditions primarily in
- regulating platform work, a thriving form of work that poses challenges in terms of responsibility for health and safety policies, access to social protection, and
- supporting the ‘right to disconnect’, especially in the context of telework and the updating of the Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work.
While these are important initiatives, a more ambitious vision about building more sustainable labour markets for persons of all ages is lacking in the Action Plan.
A positive point is the Commission’s announcement to work on individual learning accounts and to introduce micro-credentials for life-long learning. This will strengthen the rights of individuals to learning and provide opportunities for life-long learning and training throughout the career of workers. These initiatives are very important and will be supported by AGE.
A general commitment to equality, but no mention of ageism
AGE welcomes the announced possible legislative update to the Employment Equality directive, which aims to combat age discrimination in the labour market. AGE has participated in an analysis of the implementation and recently published a discussion paper pointing out the shortcomings of the directive, which allows wide and unclear exemptions.
We also welcome the repeated commitment of the European Commission to have Member States adopt the horizontal equal treatment directive, which would address age discrimination in the access to goods and services. Still, more efforts will be needed to unblock the legislation which remains stuck in the European Council for 13 years.
While the Commission underlines the strategies it has proposed to reach a Union of Equality, we point out that age is the only ground of discrimination mentioned in the treaties and not covered by such a strategy – we called for an Age Equality Strategy in our response to the Green Paper on Ageing.
Long-term care: new indicators and an EU initiative announced for 2022
Our work on the Pillar has had a strong focus on the right to long-term care. This is the first time the EU recognizes care as a right. In the COVID-19 context this is no longer only a reasonable focus, but an urgent one.
The Action Plan recognizes the importance of long-term care for the future of Social Europe, and it commits to two key actions:
- An EU policy initiative on long-term care in 2022. There are no indications of the concrete shape this initiative will take, but it will be most likely a non-legislative initiative. The Commission may take stock of the proposal shared in the consultation on the Green Paper, where we shared our views on further EU action. Contributing further to shaping the announced initiative will be a key endeavor for AGE in the coming year.
- The inclusion of two indicators on long-term care in the Social Scoreboard, one on social expenditure (% of GDP) and another on the coverage of long-term care needs. This would allow to monitor the progress of EU Member States in the field of care and include care as part of the core social analysis of countries’ reform plans. In view of the outcomes of the Porto Summit, these indicators are most likely to go forward.
These developments are promising. However, as we highlighted in our initial reaction, a stronger case on EU’s added value and role, including on indicators of access and quality as well as an access target, would have been useful. It would have contributed to marking more strongly EU’s interest in long-term care and why an EU initiative in this area makes true sense.
Social protection: unclear intentions regarding pensions and minimum income
While the European Pillar of Social Rights includes an entire chapter on social protection, including principles on old-age income and minimum income, the intentions in the Action Plan to implement them are not very explicit.
The Commission plans a Council recommendation on minimum income by 2022. This is positive, but falls short of the call expressed by the Council in its conclusions on minimum income in the context of COVID-19 to review and update the EU framework, including through legislation. As members of the European Anti-Poverty Network, we have called for a framework directive to ensure minimum incomes are adequate and accessible in a life-course perspective. In the upcoming Council recommendation, the adequacy of minimum income in old age, such as minimum pensions, should be fully addressed.
Regarding pensions, the Commission is proposing a reflection on pension credits for career breaks to address gender inequalities, and a continuation of the exercise of the Pension Adequacy Reports. These initiatives are needed, but they fail to address the rising old-age poverty and social exclusion and the increasing inequality between pensioners. The Commission wants to start a holistic discussion about the future of the welfare state – certainly an important exercise, but the risk of inadequate pensions is real especially for persons with disabilities, persons with a history of migration, older women or people having worked long careers with low incomes. These issues should not be diluted in a broader discussion on social protection in general.
The way forward
The Action Plan is called to be EU’s guiding compass in the social field in the coming years. It will be a priority for AGE to make sure the implementation takes due account of older persons’ realities and adopts a true life-course approach. Such approach is a must to ensure all generations access the support they need to thrive in society, as we have highlighted in our reaction to the Porto Summit. We will fight to make this happen, including via an EU Age Equality Strategy that ensures the integration of intergenerational solidarity and a life-course approach in all policies.
- The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan
- AGE press release on EU Social Summit in Porto
- AGE first reaction to the Action Plan of the EU Pillar
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