Arts, Culture, and Aging in the EU

Arts, Culture, and Aging in the EU

. 7 min read

An Aging European Union

The age profile of the European Union (EU) is increasing at a rapid pace. By 2100, more than 30 percent of the European Union’s population will be over the age of 65. The age dependency ratio—or ratio of those above the age of 65 as compared to the working age population—is expected to leap to 57:100, rising sharply from the 2021 ratio of 32:100. In more than two-thirds of the EU member states, the old-age dependency ratio will exceed 50 percent by 2050. While these statistics may seem a bit abstract, ballooning elderly populations have very real implications for the European Union. With a greater proportion of the population retired from the labor force, coupled with more elders dependent on healthcare resources, strains on the EU social safety net are inevitable. Conversations surrounding the societal implications of an aging population dominate the discourse in the European Union at present, especially in light of  numerous countries attempting to mitigate the societal impact through policy changes. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, recently unveiled a plan to increase the French retirement age by 2 years, from 62 to 64, as a way to cut costs within France’s pension system, a plan that prompted more than one million French citizens to join a day of strikes and protests throughout 200 French cities on January 19, 2023. France’s internal debate on raising the retirement age is just one example of many when looking at the European scramble to address aging populations, yet this predominantly negative framing of the situation is causing more harm.

Shifting Focus

While it is critical to address the myriad challenges posed by an aging population, the disproportionate focus on the detriments of an aging population creates a vortex of negative discourse, exacerbating ageist sentiments. Data reveals that ageism—or the “stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination towards others or oneself based on age”—is a pervasive challenge in the European Union at present. According to the first Global United Nations Report on Ageism from 2021, one in three people in Europe report having been the target of ageism. The report also found that ageist sentiment was particularly high in Eastern European countries including Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Critically, the report links ageist sentiment within Europe to reduced quality of life for elderly citizens, particularly highlighting the negative impact on both one’s physical and mental health. The report calls for a greater societal investment into “intergenerational solidarity,” with the aim of fostering more empathy and respect between citizens, regardless of age.

Intergenerational Solidarity: An Artistic Approach

While ageist sentiment remains unfortunately rampant within the European Union, there exist valuable initiatives working to shift the rhetoric around aging in Europe. As a collective body, the European Union is largely considered an adept soft power, boasting competences in the cultural sector. The European Commission in particular works to “ensure that the social and economic role of culture is acknowledged in wider EU policy making and actions.” Building on these competences, EU member state nations have begun to link art with the concept of aging as a tool to highlight creativity, celebrate life, and showcase the vitality of elderly populations so as to engage the public in fostering intergenerational solidarity.

Powerful mediums, namely theater and dramatic performances, have emerged as creative tools to engage with the topic of aging in Europe. Such performances, some of which emerged as early as 2015, allow senior citizens to participate and engage with art and society, offering opportunities for both social interaction and creative expression. Additionally, such performances center on themes relating to aging, offering a look at the elder experience and inviting audience members to engage with the concept of aging from a positive perspective with the aim of shifting the ageist narrative in Europe.

The 2015 artistic project, “The Art of Aging,” developed by the European Theatre Convention and initiated under the late esteemed author Etel Adnan in coordination with the Culture Programme of the European Union, was the culmination of five, multicultural original stage productions centered on “the phenomena of Europe’s aging societies.”  The productions were performed as part of the “1st European and Science Festival,” held in Romania in 2015. The production embodied three key objectives: initiate debate on the challenges of an aging Europe; raise awareness about the societal impact; and, perhaps most importantly, encourage multigenerational participation in arts and society. The five performances, each centered on a different theme, focus on relevant topics related to aging, including enduring love, caring for younger family members, and collective and personal memory through the years. The performances gave meaningful voice and artistry to elderly performers, capturing the very essence of what it means to age in Romania and Germany, among other countries.

Similar themes and motivations underpinned the 2018 project, spearheaded in Malta and entitled, “The Culture of Ageing.” The film project and lecture program engaged with the question of “how societies deal with an aging population and what role seniors play in various societies.” The project was also intentional about incorporating senior perspectives into the creative process through the employment of educational programming involving Maltese and Dutch senior citizens and interviews gauging elder perspectives.

Additionally, while not an artistic platform itself, the AGE Platform Europe strives to be “The Voice of Older Persons at the EU Level.” The platform similarly works to increase awareness and spark conversations at the public and policy levels relating to the well-being of elders in Europe. The AGE Platform is a European network of nonprofit organizations composed of and expressly advocating for those in Europe ages 50 and older. The key goal of the network is to ensure elderly perspectives and priorities are present in EU policy debates. AGE also actively engages in art campaigns to foster dialogue and conversation on the realities of aging in Europe. For example, in light of the 2015 “The Art of Aging” project, the former AGE Platform Vice-President, Ebbe Johanssen, took part in a public panel entitled “Scientific Findings of the Aging Phenome in Artistic Dialogue with Civil Society and Policymakers.”

Not only can the art sector offer a powerful platform for senior citizens to actively engage in society and culture and vocalize their lived experience through creative expression, art has also proven beneficial for the health of the elderly. Between 2019 and 2021, researchers from Amsterdam UMC and Leyden Academy on Vitality and Aging conducted a large-scale national study in the Netherlands focused on the intersection between vitality, aging, and the arts. Four hundred seventy micro-narratives collected through the study revealed that senior citizens engaged in the arts in the Netherlands reported developing “a positive feeling, personal and artistic growth, and deep contacts” as a result of their participation. The study concluded that “by collaborating with more artists, the care sector and the social domain can better respond to the need for challenge and lifelong learning of today’s older people, and also play a role in improving the well-being and health of the elderly and loneliness problems in the Netherlands.”

This study implies that there exists an important relationship between arts, culture, and healthy, vibrant aging. Should more countries strive to incorporate initiatives and opportunities for the elderly to engage in artistic activities, namely music and theater performances, there could be marked improvements in the quality of life of older citizens.

COVID and the Arts

Furthermore, of particularly relevant interest is the way in which art and aging intersect in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. While not an EU member state, Wales boasted a successful merging of arts and society, with the presence of a digital theater production centered on “countering the views of older people as vulnerable and frail in the face of coronavirus.”  The nine-person theater company, sponsored by the charity Re-Live, based in Cardiff created a Zoom production entitled, “Secret Country,” which “enabled the cast to demonstrate resilience” in light of the ongoing pandemic which disproportionately impacted elderly persons. The online production is yet another manifestation of the power of aging creatively—in this instance a production with very timely relevance.

Arts and Aging: A New Form of Demographic Diplomacy

The connection between the arts and aging and the myriad benefits of this relationship for reshaping the narrative around aging has been demonstrated in numerous instances within the European Union. Important lessons can be gleaned from EU member states that have been intentional about investing in and implementing policies focused on cultivating the passions, interests, and well-being of their aging populations. Providing elderly citizens with opportunities to engage in the arts enables them to remain active and involved in society, asserting their vocality and perspectives while also benefiting from the health benefits associated with social interaction and peer engagement. Projects focused on providing a platform for elderly voices are vital for reframing societal perspectives, effectively working to combat ageism through models of arts and culture.

Critically, these models could be replicated beyond the European Union itself, extending to other countries around the world facing aging populations and the detrimental side effect of rampant ageist sentiments within societies. The incorporation of arts and culture initiatives, supported and funded by key institutions at the governmental level or by nonprofit organizations within the cultural sector represents a form of “demographic diplomacy,” a model that could be replicated and applied in other countries. Demographic diplomacy can be defined as “a globally beneficial consultative mechanism to address the issues of demographic diversity and population-development dynamics by recognising that we all live in a connected world, our circumstances affect each other, and that we are cognizant and empathic of each other’s circumstances.”

While most often used in reference to migration and diversity-related topics as they pertain to population dynamics, this theory of demographic diplomacy has relevant implications for aging populations. Essentially signifying the mechanisms employed to address demography-based structural changes within society—of which age is especially salient—arts and culture policies addressing elderly populations fit neatly within this framework. The policies of the European Union, as evidenced by various projects, have yielded positive benefits as member states undergo critical population changes.

Rather than perpetuating negative rhetoric surrounding aging populations, other countries might similarly discover the ways in which the narrative can shift in a far more positive direction—simply by enabling and encouraging older generations to take center center stage.