To mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality, the latest UNECE Policy Brief on Ageing, developed in collaboration with the Government of France, explores the challenges of addressing gender gaps in ageing societies, providing recommendations on how to strengthen gender equality measures.
In 1995, when the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted, 1 in 8 persons were over the age of 65 in the UNECE region. Today it is 1 in 6, by 2030 it will be 1 in 5, and by 2050 we will be approaching 1 in 4 persons over the age of 65 on average in the UNECE region. Women make up 58 per cent of persons over 65. While these figures mask cross-country variation in the rates of population ageing, changing demographics have wide-ranging implications for societies in the region, including for gender equality.
Trade-offs between sustainability, intergenerational solidarity and gender equality in pension reforms
The increased cost of demographic ageing to welfare states (such as pensions and health care expenditures) raises important questions for intergenerational fairness. Those currently young will need to finance most of the pension costs of a growing number of retirees through higher contributions whereas their own pensions will likely be less adequate when they reach old age.
Over the life course, women’s lower hourly earnings, lower monthly wages (gender pay and earnings gaps), part-time work and career breaks taken to care for children and relatives (gender employment gap) cumulate to overall lower lifetime earnings and savings for old age. This accumulated disadvantage is illustrated by the gender pension gap. In the UNECE member States for which data was available for 2018, the gap ranged from 0.1 percent in Estonia to 44.4 percent in the Netherlands. There is significant regional diversity but on average across the region women face a greater risk of poverty in old age.
Work-care and health challenges for older persons
Enabling longer working lives necessitates not only combating ageism against older workers and promoting lifelong learning (see Policy Briefs 19 and 21) but also greater recognition of the informal care provided by many older persons and the subsequent need for working time arrangements and care services that enable them to reconcile employment with care responsibilities for grandchildren, aged parents or other family members. Work-care pressures can have negative preventable health implications for informal carers (see Policy Brief 22).
Time-use data for the UNECE region shows that women spend significantly more time than men on domestic and care work. The policy brief recommends expanding policy measures aimed at improving the reconciliation of paid work and care such as care leaves and flexible working arrangements from parents of young children - on which they currently focus - to all working carers. Furthermore, a more equal sharing of unpaid care work between women and men is necessary to close what is called the “gender care gap”.
Growing needs of care require investments in long-term care services, better working conditions and pay and better recognition of the value of care work
It is estimated that women currently meet between 70 and 95 per cent of all care needs and are 33 per cent more likely than men to provide care and 60 per cent more likely to provide intensive care. Unless there is a redistribution of care work from women to men and from informal to formal care givers to support families, women are likely to be disproportionately impacted by the growing needs for care that are likely to arise with growing numbers of older persons and longevity. As older women also form the larger share of long-term care recipients, they will be more strongly affected by the consequences of care shortages such as lower quality and unmet needs if the growing demand for care is not adequately met. To address this challenge, it is recommended that member States invest in the development of long-term care services and make the care professions more attractive by increasing that status of care work, improving working conditions and raising wages.
The costs of adaptation to population ageing and the benefits derived from increasing longevity should be equally distributed between women and men and existing gender gaps need to be reduced through a long-term and life-course oriented approach that prevents the accumulation of disadvantages over the lifespan. Some disparities can be addressed with reforms of social protection and pension systems. Others need to transform current gender roles, redistribute the division of paid and unpaid work and value women’s work more highly.
To enhance gender equality in ageing societies, the Brief recommends to:
A. Prevent the accumulation of gendered disadvantages over the life course by tackling inequalities at all levels to close the persistent gender gaps in care, employment, earnings and pensions.
Examples of policy measures through which UNECE member States address these include free childcare provision in Malta, programmes to facilitate labour market re-entry after periods of care in Austria and Germany, gender pay gap reporting in the UK and the examination of compensation practices for typically male and female jobs in Canada, initiatives to tackle gender segregation in occupational choices in Armenia and Israel, gender quotas to increase the number of women on corporate boards, to care credits in pension calculations in Norway.
B. Mitigate the risks resulting from gender inequality among older persons through redistribution and support.
Ageing-related and sex-disaggregated data and tools, such as the Active Ageing Index, allow member States to identify gender gaps in opportunities for active and healthy ageing and to address them.
Redistributive measures to ensure a minimum income for a decent standard of living includes social pensions such as in the guaranteed pension in Sweden, or financial support with the costs of housing (e.g. in Canada) and essential items such as food and medicine (e.g. in Czechia and Kazakhstan). Community-based actions such as the French MONALISA programme to fight social isolation in old age are important non-monetary measures to create social links and fight feelings of isolation and loneliness that many older persons experience.
Women, who often outlive their partners and live alone in advanced age are particularly at risk and can benefit from community support enhancing their opportunities for social participation and social connections.
C. Anticipate the impacts of current reforms on future generations of men and women by mainstreaming age and gender in societal adaptations to demographic change.
Policy responses to population ageing need to be gender-sensitive and responsive to address the goal of gender equality at different stages of the life course with measures that are oriented at the short, medium and long-term.
The brief highlights the need for gender- and age-responsive labour market, pension and care sector reforms, including efforts to improve working conditions in the care professions to attract more staff and prevent care shortages. It is important to analyse the gender implications of current and future policy responses to population ageing, to make sure that the opportunities and challenges of longevity in the UNECE region are equitably shared by women and men in current and future generations.
25 years ago, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action stressed the importance of gender mainstreaming in all policy fields to achieve gender equality and many tools and methods have been developed to support this process (see for example the EIGE Gender Mainstreaming Platform). The UNECE Working Group on Ageing has embarked on a regional review of age-mainstreaming practices to inform new guidelines for gender-sensitive age mainstreaming that will be launched in 2021.
Policy Brief No 23. on Gender Equality in Ageing Societies
Changing demographics: Ageing and its implications for gender equality