In recent decades, the role of older people changed as a result of falling fertility, lengthening life expectancy and the growing proportion of older people in society. The traditional image of older people killing time by frequenting church activities, playing cards or just pottering about in the garden or house is today a worn-out cliché.

European countries, including Malta, recognise that active ageing policies promote personal and economic wellbeing for older people. An analytical report prepared by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the European Commission’s Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion has taken a snapshot of active ageing in various EU countries in 2014.

This report defines active ageing as “growing older in good health and as a full member of society, feeling more fulfilled in our jobs and social engagements, more independent in our daily lives and more engaged as citizens”.

The toolkit used to measure active ageing success comprised 22 individual indicators grouped in four domains: employment, social participation, independent living and capacity for active ageing. Malta’s overall placing in the Active Ageing Index – in 18th place, one place higher than that achieved in 2012 – was well below the EU28 average.

One set of indicators that should attract the attention of economic policymakers is employment. Four indicators determine how successful a country is in attracting and keeping older people in the workforce. These indicators show the employment rate of people between 55 and 75. Malta places in lowly 26th place out of 28 countries in these indicators.

It appears that the main reason for this poor result, according to the coordinator of the Gerontology Unit at the University, Marvin Formosa, is “the fact that many unskilled older women preferred to work in the informal and underground economy. Consequently, they remained undetected in labour market surveys”. The size of the informal economy in Malta is among the biggest in Europe and this often makes statistical comparisons on economic and social issues with other countries quite difficult.

Despite the distortions caused by inaccurate data resulting from the impact of the informal economy on labour participation, more needs to be done to encourage older people to remain active by continuing in employment beyond the age of 55. Early retirement schemes are still encouraged by some employers and by generous fiscal measures that, for instance, do not tax terminal benefits.

Both male and female workers should be rewarded to work beyond the statutory retirement age rather than encouraged to leave the workplace early.

The ‘lump of labour fallacy’ that maintains that older people still in employment block jobs for younger workers is today discarded by most economists. It is a fact that when older people stay in employment for longer, they not only enjoy better health but have more money to spend and, thereby, create demand for more goods and services giving rise to more employment.

A successful active ageing strategy is much more than a well-written National Strategic Policy for Active Ageing document. It involves progressive policies that encourage independent, healthy and secure living and covers most areas of public policy including health, employment, social support and education.

The slight improvement in Malta’s placing in the latest Active Ageing Index is welcome. But by placing well below the EU28 average Malta has a long road ahead of it to be among the best in Europe in promoting active ageing.

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