Foreign Policy Blogs

The Age of Democracy (Part I)

old woman

image courtesy Ronn Aldaman/flickr

Whilst ‘growing up’ is admirable and desirable, ‘getting old’ is often framed in a more negative light. What words come to mind when you think about the elderly? Frailty, weakness, health problems? A burden to society? Or rather politically engaged, motivated and experienced? It is now these latter qualities that are a cause for concern in Western societies as medical advances have improved to deal with the former. What hasn’t advanced so much is the very structure of democracy, and demography is now placing pressure on this political ideal.

According to a 2008 US report into global aging trends (available here), Japan is demographically the oldest state. Over twenty percent of all Japanese are currently aged 65 or over, and by 2030 this could rise to over thirty percent. Fertility rates have long since fallen to below replacement levels. But Japan will not be alone in this situation for long. By 2040, other countries will be experiencing huge relative growth in the older age categories: Singapore’s older population is set to triple, and that of Malaysia, Costa Rica and India more than double. In an effort to counterbalance this ‘greying’ of society, Singapore, for example, has created the “Baby Bonus” scheme, where parents receive a cash gift of up to $4,000 for their first and second child, and $6,000 for their third and fourth. But what does this have to do with democracy?

Japan, as already discussed, is an aging society. In aging societies, disproportionately greater demands on social services and pension schemes come from older people compared to the rest of the population. The way these services are funded, however, means that the younger generations’ financial contributions are continually increasing in order to support the elderly – something perceived as not being particularly fair, almost like a social Ponzi scheme. So, how could this be changed?

In democratic societies, political responsiveness is mediated through the ballot box. Policy support is measured by the proportion of votes each party receives – so if a situation really is unfair, then it would be hoped that this would motivate people enough to cast their vote in such a way as to right the balance. When it comes to aging societies however, it is being realized that this may not actually work. As well as constituting an ever-growing segment of society, older people also are more likely to vote. So in terms of sheer numbers, they are a formidable political force; it is obviously highly unlikely that this group would actively support policies trying to reduce their welfare. Herein lies the rub. [to be continued…]

Image via flickr here, licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



Cate Mackenzie

Cate works as an editor in Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich, and a BA (Hons) in International Studies with Political Science from the University of Birmingham (UK).

She has previously lived and worked in Fiji and the US.