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February 01, 2014

Aging in the 21st Century

Marcos Acle Mautone

(Note: The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: BIFOCAL Vol. 35, Issue 3.)

The world is facing today an unprecedented demographic shift: The global population, besides growing in number, is aging. Increased human longevity combined with the reduction of child mortality and the reduction of birth rates in many countries––among other factors, is causing the population of those older than 60 to steadily grow relative to other age groups.

Within a few decades, the number of people globally over age 60 is expected to outnumber those between the ages of 18 and 60 for the first time. One estimate of the overall trend indicates that the proportion of people over 65––which was less than 8% in 1950, may reach a record 26% by 2050. In an exact reversal of the situation in 1950, the population aged 65 and over is projected to be 2.5 times that of the population aged 0 to 4 by 2050.1

In the United States, the Administration on Aging has estimated that in the year 2011, people over 65 years old represented 13.3% of the population, a percentage expected to grow to 21% by 2040.2 In Latin America and the Caribbean, people over 60 now make up about 8% of the population, and it is estimated that by mid-century that demographic will exceed 22%. On the other side of the scheme, population under age 15, which was over 40% in 1990, is projected to represent close to 18% by 2050.3

This demographic shift may inevitably impact the economic and social reality of states. A shrinking labor force will bear the cost of basic services and pensions for an increasingly dependent population; this scenario worsens in countries with informal labor markets and higher youth unemployment. Some quarters are already calling for an inevitable reform of the social security systems in various countries in order to prevent their collapse.

In addition to these projections, numerous studies at the regional and global level have shown that many older people are systematically exposed to situations of profound inequality and discrimination, many times reflected in violence, neglect, abuse, lack of opportunities, inadequate and poor basic services, and limited participation in public life, among other situations.4 In Europe, for instance, research has shown that age discrimination is the most widely experienced type of discrimination.5

Apart from suffering inequity in most areas of their daily life—from education and health services to access to justice and public participation—seniors are victims of prejudice and negative stereotypes that equate old age with disability. Some of these stereotypes are so pervasive that older people may internalize them.6

Increasing Involvement of the International Community

In response to this reality, and with awareness that such a demographic forecast may only worsen the situation of older people if nothing is done, the United Nations (UN) and other organizations worldwide have begun to undertake actions to promote the rights of older persons. At the heart of this movement are the principles of equality and non-discrimination in old age, with the concepts of active aging and intergenerational solidarity as keys to a more democratic, just, and inclusive society.

A first World Assembly on Ageing was held in Vienna in 1982; the UN General Assembly adopted in the “UN Principles for Older Persons” in 1991. These Principles for Older Persons encourage governments to introduce provisions in their policies that take into account the principles of independence, participation, proper care, self-fulfillment, and dignity of older people. The second World Assembly on Ageing was held in 2002 in Madrid. Following this Assembly, the “Madrid Plan of Action on Aging” was adopted; its goal is to remove all forms of violence and discrimination against older people. This document currently stands as the main reference for the international efforts in this field.  

In 2010, the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Aging was created at the proposal of the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The task of the group is examining the existing international legal framework in this area, the study and determination of possible gaps in this legal framework, and the definition of possible mechanisms to correct those gaps.

At the regional level, the African Union is moving towards a draft Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Older Persons in Africa which sets down obligations and duties of states parties in promoting and protecting rights of older persons.7 The Council of Europe is preparing a recommendation on the promotion of human rights of older persons, which seeks to provide specific guidance and practical examples based on good practices in the region.8 In the Americas, the Organization of American States’ member states are negotiating a draft Inter-American Convention on Human Rights of Older Persons9 with active support of regional organizations such as the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the Pan-American Health Organization.

Last but not least, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across the world have begun to take action to raise awareness of the need to protect the rights of older people and assert their role in community improvement and development progress. In the global sphere, international advocacy groups such as Global Alliance on the Rights of Older People and Global Action on Aging bring together the main NGOs in the world which share the objective of promoting this subject.

In the United States, the American Bar Association––through its Commission on Law and Aging and its staff––actively seeks to contribute to strengthen and secure the legal rights, dignity, autonomy and quality of life of older persons, both nationally and internationally. For that reason, in 2011, the ABA adopted Resolution 106C, which urges “the United States Department of State and the United Nations and its member States to support the ongoing processes at the United Nations and the Organization of American States to strengthen the protection of the rights of older persons, including the efforts and consultations toward an international and regional human rights instrument on the rights of older persons.”10

The Call for an International Convention

The general system of human rights recognizes the right to equality before the law to all people. Nevertheless, over the decades since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international community has recognized that certain social groups are particularly vulnerable and has legislated to eliminate all forms of discrimination affecting them. That has not been the case for older people. The prohibition of discrimination by virtue of old age is largely absent from most universal and regional human rights treaties.11

For that reason, many countries have asserted that it is necessary to reaffirm the principle of non-discrimination in regard to older people. To be effective, the provisions should be binding and unequivocal, leaving no room for divergent interpretations—namely, an international convention. International human rights treaties serve as a reference for governments when they design public policies and social programs, and for NGOs in advocating for their issues of concern. Further, they are a tool for awareness creation and education to society in general, as they establish minimum international standards to fight discrimination through the elimination of prejudices, negative stereotypes, and stigmatization.12

Despite the call for a convention from various quarters, recent discussions held in the framework of the UN made it clear that while almost all countries agree on the overall situation analysis of human rights of older persons and the urgent need for improvement of that situation, there are still diverging views on how to address these shortcomings. Two opposed positions are now clearly identifiable. On the one hand, some countries argue for a legally binding instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of older persons and call for moving negotiations forward to discuss the main elements of an international convention. On the other hand, others believe that existing international human rights instruments apply to older persons and that current deficiencies in the protection of the rights of older persons are due to poor implementation.13

In view of these clashing points of view and in order to further assess the reality of older population in both developed and developing countries and the challenges of an imminent demographic change, the UN Human Rights Council mandated the three-year appointment of an Independent Expert on the Enjoyment of All Human Rights by Older Persons. The main task of the independent expert will be to “assess the implementation of existing international instruments with regard to older persons while identifying both best practices in the implementation of existing law related to the promotion and protection of the rights of older persons and gaps in the implementation of existing law”14 in dialogue with all the relevant stakeholders. This assessment will be submitted as a report.

OAS Efforts

At present, the OAS is the only forum where a draft convention is being actively negotiated. The current draft under discussion is very detailed, with an extensive preamble and precise definitions. The document states the purpose of the convention “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all older persons, without distinction of any kind,” while promoting respect for their inherent dignity and their full inclusion, integration, and participation in society. The current OAS draft recognizes that “as he or she ages, a person should continue to enjoy a full and autonomous life, in health, safety, integration and with active participation in the economic, social, cultural and political spheres of his or her society;” and that “the need to address matters of old age and ageing from a human rights perspective that recognizes the valuable current and potential contributions of older persons to the common good, to cultural identity, to the diversity of their communities, to human, social, and economic development, and to the eradication of poverty…”15

However, as promising as this may sound, some OAS Member States still remain unconvinced that a convention on the rights of older persons is needed. A footnote to the OAS General Assembly resolution of 2012 reads: “The United States has consistently objected to the negotiation and adoption of a new regional convention on the rights of older persons, and reiterates that such a convention is not needed at this time...” Similarly, Canada has noted its concern by the prospect of duplication of international work in this area and believes it prudent to await clarification from the outcomes of the work being carried out within the UN before moving ahead with an inter-American convention.16

The outcome of the OAS negotiations alongside the UN independent expert’s conclusions will be important in inspiring and committing the global community of states to move the process forward. Moreover, the contribution of civil society is essential to any national and international legislative processes. The inclusion of such stakeholders’ perspectives will give greater legitimacy, and above all, enrich the debate.

A Suggested Approach to Human Rights and Development: The Need for an “Age Perspective”

The demographic projection of population aging is a fact. As such, it should be met with actions. These actions should be designed following a two-fold approach: as a human rights issue and as a key element of development.

First, as a human rights issue, population aging implies that the need to respect, protect, and promote the rights of older people increases as this group grows in relation to others. Old age is a factor that already exacerbates vulnerability and may become a bigger problem in the context of demographic change. Therefore, it justifies a special consideration for the situation of older people and those around them, especially from the state.

Second, the approach to the topic of aging from this development perspective assumes that this is a matter of social and cultural consideration, in addition to being a human rights matter. The issue of aging involves the entire society––not just elders––and has as its backbone a new paradigm that recognizes older people as a potentially active and productive part of society.

Older people are often seen as beneficiaries of social programs and charity and not always as active participants of society. However, the substantive contribution that this group of people is capable of making to the social, economic and cultural heritage of their communities must be recognized. Far from a burden to national economies, this mass of workforce, intellectual capacity, rich experience and culture, and wisdom should be seen as a valuable resource for countries to take advantage of when planning development strategies.

Finally, taking into account that the rights of the elderly is a overarching issue, the time has come for national governments and international organizations to consider the adoption of an age perspective when designing, implementing, and evaluating public policies, especially those of economic and social character. An age perspective involves not only a change in language and terminology, but requires full consideration of age when designing activities aimed at promoting all other rights––the rights of migrants, refugees, people with disabilities, victims of natural disasters, etc––and when planning programs––to promote democratic governability, access to justice, sustainable development, etc. This strategy must be implemented through specific action plans, manuals, workshops, and guidelines, guiding public officials in the overarching incorporation of this perspective. It must be applied within national governments and international organizations when producing statistics, designing cooperation projects, drafting regulations, or generating indicators.

In light of a proven projection of population aging, we must strive to promote the new paradigm of active aging and intergenerational solidarity and bring the issue to the discussion table at all levels ––addressing it not only as necessary for the advancement of human rights, but also as a key element for integral development in the coming decades. Such a strategy is a fact-based approach, not an arbitrary desire. The question we have to ask ourselves is no longer just: “What can we do to assist older people?” It is also: “What can we do to re-involve older people in the process of development of our societies? How can we seize their abilities, unique wisdom and experience?”

That is the challenge ahead.


Haub, Carl (2001), “World Population Aging: Clocks Illustrate Growth in Population under Age 5 and Over Age 65”, [online]

Administration on Aging (2012), “A Profile of Older Americans: 2012”, [online]

United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) (2006), “Observatorio demográfico Nº 2 Población económicamente activa”, [online]

United Nations ECLAC, (2002), “Informe de la Segunda Asamblea Mundial sobre el Envejecimiento” (A/CONF.197/9), [online] [2/8/2012].

ECLAC Centro Latinoamericano y Caribeño de Demografía - División de Población (CELADE) (2007), “Informe sobre la aplicación de la Estrategia regional de implementación para América Latina y el Caribe del Plan de Acción Internacional de Madrid sobre el Envejecimiento” (LC/L.2749(CRE-2/3), Santiago, [online] [2/8/2012].

Organization of American States (OAS) (2011), “Report on the Situation of Older Persons in the Hemisphere and the effectiveness of binding universal and Regional Human Rights instruments with regard to protection of the Human Rights of Older Persons (Agreed by the Working Group at the meeting held on December 5, 2011)” (CAJP/GT/DHPM 14/11 rev. 1), Working Group on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons, Committee for Juridical and Political Affairs, Permanent Council, Washington, DC., [online]

Ardill, Nony (2012), “Using human rights to promote the dignity of older persons: a British perspective”, in ECLAC Los derechos de las personas mayores en el siglo XXI: situación, experiencias y desafíos, Sandra Huenchuan (editor), Santiago, 2012.

Roqué, M. (2009), Informe DINAPAN “La percepción sobre la discriminación, el abuso y maltrato por parte de las personas mayores”, presentación de relevamiento nacional realizado en el marco del Programa de prevención de la discriminación, abuso y maltrato hacia las personas mayores, Buenos Aires, in ECLAC Los derechos de las personas mayores en el siglo XXI: situación, experiencias y desafíos, Sandra Huenchuan (editor), Santiago, 2012.

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. “106: Resolution on the Rights of Older Persons in Africa”, [online]

Council of Europe (2013), Draft Recommendation CM/Rec(2014) of the Committee of Ministers to member States on the promotion of the human rights of older persons, Strasbourg, [online]

OAS (2012), “Protección de los Derechos Humanos de las Personas Mayores” [AG/RES. 2726 (XLII-O/12)], General Assembly, [online] [2/8/2012].

10 Pope, William L. (2013), Remarks given at the 4th meeting of the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing as ABA Liaison to the UN Working Group, New York, [online] American Bar Association (2011), ABA Policy 106C, adopted by the ABA House of Delegates on August 8, Washington, D.C., [online] 

11 Martín, Claudia y Diego Rodríguez-Pinzón (2006), “El estatus internacional de los derechos humanos de los ancianos”, en Claudia Martín (comp.), Derecho internacional de los derechos humanos, México, DF.

12 Doron, Israel e Itai Apter (2010), “International Rights of Older Persons: What Difference Would a New Convention Make to the Lives of Older People?”, Marquette Elder’s Advisor Law Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2, [online] [3/8/2012].

13 United Nations Open-ended Working Group on Aging (2013). Fourth Working Session Chair’s Summary. New York, 12-15 August, [online]

14 United Nations Human Rights Council (2013), 24th Session “Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development,” “24/… The human rights of older persons” (A/HRC/24/L.37/Rev.1), Geneva, September.

15 OAS (2011), Draft Inter-American Convention on the Human Rights of Older Persons (CAJP/GT/DHPM 37/12), Working Group on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons, Washington, DC.

16 Ibid. vii. ■

Marcos Acle Mautone

About the Author: Marcos Acle Mautone is legal consultant at the Organization of American States’ Secretariat for Legal Affairs and Commissioner at the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging. Mr. Acle  holds a Doctor of Law and Social Sciences degree from the Universidad de la República Oriental del Uruguay, and an LL.M. in Public International Law from the University of London