Active Aging vs. Successful Aging Policies—What’s the Difference?

While the concept of successful aging has become prevalent in academic and policy discussions surrounding aging in the United States, in Europe the idea of active aging has been the most prominent response to challenges related to an aging population. An article in a recent special issue of the Gerontologist on successful aging outlines the major features of the idea of active aging and how it compares to the successful aging perspective.

The article notes that in Europe, active aging “has become the leading scientific and policy conceptualization of a later life characterized by well-being,” one which maintains a focus on older adults as active social and economic resources. There are two main policy frameworks in which the concept of active aging has been employed: first is a holistic, life course-oriented approach that focuses on actions that can be taken at individual, organizational, and societal levels. The other framework is an economic one, which more narrowly focuses on the extension of individuals’ working life and places most of its attention on paid employment.

The primary feature of the concept of successful aging that is more prominent in the United States has centered around older adults leading lives that allow them to avoid disability and disease, thus allowing individuals to remain productive and engaged in society. The keys to this successful aging were continuing activity in older age and older adults retaining values typical of individuals in middle age by continuing to consider themselves productive even after leaving the workforce. However, successful aging has primarily prioritized medical and clinical criteria and is largely an individualistic perspective.

Like successful aging, the concept of active aging also focuses on encouraging the participation of older adults in society, but societal participation receives much more emphasis. An important distinction of active aging is found in how this concept defines active: “continued participation in social, economic, cultural, spiritual and civic affairs, not just the ability to be physically active.” In other words, the focus is on the active roles that older individuals can play in society. The greater societal focus of active aging also results in more emphasis on the measures being taken to ensure the protection, dignity, and care of older adults, so that their societal participation can be best facilitated. The authors argue that this broader-based concept leads to it offering greater positive policy potential than successful aging and other aging discourses.

However, while active aging may offer greater policy potential, in Europe much of the policy implementation of the ideals of active aging has focused on keeping older adults in the workforce in order to counter a decline in the size of the working population and looming pension costs. The authors write that for current active aging policy, the “aim is overwhelmingly to extend the working lives of older people.”

In the absence of a comprehensive policy approach based on the idea of active aging, the authors make a number of recommendations that can draw on the full potential of this concept. First, they suggest greater valuation of activities other than paid employment, such as volunteering and leisure activities. Second, they suggest that active aging be made as inclusive as possible, being extended to include both younger adults and those older adults who are frail and dependent. This then could promote greater intergenerational solidarity. Similarly, active aging should respect and accommodate individual differences and cultural diversity. Thus, “it is vital that a comprehensive approach is flexible.” Third, the authors suggest that the concept of active aging involve both rights and obligations for individuals and social institutions. Lastly, active aging should be empowering and provide the opportunity for bottom-up action and input, rather than just consisting of top-down policy designed to encourage activity.

The authors suggest that an effective active aging strategy as one that is based on the combined contributions of the citizen and society. Although active aging has not yet reached its full policy potential, the concept does point to limitations that come from the individualist emphasis on physical and mental health in the conceptualization of successful aging, as well as suggesting great policy potential or broader active aging initiatives. Moreover, they suggest that this concept also has the potential to unify the interests of all key policy stakeholders: citizens, nongovernmental organizations, business interests, and policy makers. Thus, active aging has both the potential to be a guiding principle and serve as a potential platform for consensus building in aging policy.


Foster L and Walker A. Active and successful aging: a European policy perspective. The Gerontologist Special Issue: Successful Aging (2015); 55(1): 83–90.


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