Population ageing is rapidly accelerating worldwide. For the first time ever, most people can expect to live into their sixties and beyond. Over the coming decades, as Europeans live longer and have fewer children, Europe’s demographic structure will deeply change. In high income countries, this phenomenon will occur quicker and stronger.

Life expectancy at birth in the European Union (EU28), which rose rapidly during the second half of the last century, was estimated at 83.3 years for women and 77.8 years for men in 2013. This can be considered the outcome of an array of common welfare policies applied in Europe during this period, resulting in a rise of living standards, improved lifestyles and better education, as well as advances in social services and healthcare.

These extra years of life have great implications for each of us; there is little doubt about it. Furthermore, the demographic change means a whole change in the policy framework of the society we live in. It is not simply a case of doing more of what is already being done or doing it better. Systemic change is needed.

This need for strategy change is not just a hunch but is borne out by facts and data. A focus on the quality of life spent in a healthy state, rather than the quantity of life, warns of a loss in years of life in good health gained through increased longevity. In fact, healthy life expectancy stagnated in Europe in the last decade.

Such a challenge needs precise intervention and a comprehensive overview. Demographic change will shape Europe’s prosperity. It cannot be safeguarded if constructive efforts are not proportionate to the size of the challenge. Far from believing that the answer will be built at once or according to a single plan, we are involved in developing tools for common action of mutual interest. The European Covenant on Demographic Change is devoted to it, gathering local government and agents all over Europe.

We believe that local government has a significant leadership role to play in this issue and by mobilizing the public and private sector, employers, businesses and the voluntary and community sector it can ensure that the opportunities of an ageing population are seized and the challenges faced.

In this sense, we should consider that the loss of ability typically associated with ageing is not strongly correlated to a person’s chronological age, as the determinants of healthy life in older age are being established from the moment we are born, or even before. We need to apply a life-course approach for real success. This will need to be framed in a way that speaks to all sectors because older people are influenced not only by the systems providing health and long-term care, but also by the environments they live in and have lived in throughout their lives.

Demographic change is not an exception for us in Biscay, a small region washed by the Bay of Biscay, in the Basque Country. Our life expectancy is 85.1 years for women and 78.2 years for men. As a matter of fact, our society is ageing, and 21.6% of us are over 65 years old. All those figures stand slightly above the European (EU28) average, which makes us feel specially proud insofar as they reflect the achievements of a society that came out of a dictatorship and underwent a great industrial crisis in the early 1980s. Some lessons can be learnt from the leadership and the policy responses that have led us to the present situation; determination and cooperation played a key role. They will be necessary, but not enough.

A new comprehensive, global response to population ageing has to be designed in Europe, and Biscay, in order to transform systems that are fundamentally misaligned with the populations they increasingly serve.

Demographic change is a trend, and a fact, in the Basque Country and Europe; there is little we can do to avoid it. The context is changing; society is ageing. Yet, the response can be designed by us. Let’s make ageing just one contextual element of new prosperity.

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