• A threat to Democracy

    Are Politicians supporting a ‘Grey Tyranny’?

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The baby boom of 1945-65 produced the largest, richest generation that Britain has ever known. Today, at the peak of their power and wealth, baby boomers run our country; by virtue of their sheer demographic power, they have fashioned the world around them in a way that meets all of their housing, healthcare and financial needs.

In his 2011 book, The Pinch, The Minister of State for Universities and Science, Rt. Hon. David Willetts MP, argues that if our political leaders do not begin to discharge their obligations to the future, the young people of today will be taxed more, work longer hours for less money, have lower social mobility and live in a degraded environment in order to pay for their parents’ quality of life[1]. Baby boomers, worried about the kind of world they are passing on to their children, are beginning to take note. However, whilst the imbalance in the quality of life between the generations is becoming more obvious, what is less certain is whether the older generation will be willing – or able – to make the sacrifices necessary for a more equal distribution. In this thought piece I will explore how and why the power of the older voter has arisen so noticeably, its implications for younger voters, and suggest possible solutions to this forthcoming ‘grey tyranny’.

The latter half of the 20th century saw the more developed countries, and in particular those in Europe, experience population ageing to a degree unprecedented in demographic history. As both fertility and mortality rates fell, so the median age of the population increased[2]. By 2000, there were more people over 60 than under 15 in Europe, and by the end of this decade, half of the population of the region will be aged over 50; with the UK having 1 in 6 people over the age of 65[3]. Understanding the reality of such demographic issues is vital for governments. Public spending on pensions, high dependency ratios between workers and non-workers, rising healthcare costs, and a slowdown in consumption are all salient issues that are facing our political leaders. As people at the same life-stage share formative experiences, and therefore develop common perspectives, these common generational perspectives will influence the broad political agenda within which all parties seek to garner support.

Looking at the 2010 general election, the youngest voters, and voters in their early-30s, were particularly disadvantaged, with the voting power of people approaching retirement – whose life chances are affected by electoral outcomes to a far lesser extent than younger voters – being much more dominant. There were more voters aged 55 to 64 than for any single age between 18 to 54, and more voters aged 65 plus than aged 18 to 24[4]. This age disparity and, thus, voting inequality will inevitably accelerate in coming decades due to increasing survival rates, and the ageing of the members of the large baby booms of the immediate post-war era. The overriding trend is towards an older electorate, with greater concentrations of potential voting power among people in their 50s and 60s[5]. In addition, given their lower propensity to vote, 18 year-olds exercised less actual voting power at the 2010 general election than 73 year-olds, with 45 year-olds exercising 84 per cent more actual voting power than 18-year olds, and 50 year-olds exercising 62 per cent more[6].

The power of the ‘grey vote’ has been recognised by all the major political parties as crucial for their political success[7], with almost half of older people willing to change their vote in favour of a party that addresses their needs according to a survey commissioned by the charity Age NI[8]. Added to this political king-making power, older people’s care, or lack of it provided by the current health and social care provision, elicits a significant amount of sympathy from the general public[9]. For example, even though all the major political parties recognise that fundamental changes to our welfare state are needed, it has arguably led to a mess to how the future of adult social care system will be funded. No politician wants to propose a ‘granny tax’[10], even though the over-55s are the ones demanding the most, but giving proportionally little in return for their care.

Unless the political marginalisation of young people abates, there is a real danger of creating ‘generation D’, a succession of disenfranchised cohorts with little say in how their society is governed. Today’s young people (‘generation Y’ or ‘the jilted generation’) are suffering a democratic deficit, and we can expect this trend to accelerate in coming decades as our society gets older. Added to this witches brew of youth political disenfranchisement, there are further social and economic problems: upwards of 18.5% of people aged 18-24 in the UK are out of work, while over the last decade, more than 90% of the rise in employment has gone to the over-50s[11]. If you have a large section of society fundamentally reduced to second class citizens, in that they see their voice and vote gaining them less reward from the democratic process, you begin to undermine democracy itself; you soon create a ‘grey tyranny’.

What are the possible solutions to this democratic imbalance? Dr Craig Berry suggests six possible solutions in his paper, The rise of gerontocracy? Addressing the intergenerational democratic deficit. These include: Lowering the voting age to 16; greater political training for young people; forums of young people in legislatures and/or designated seats for young people in legislatures; greater support for young election candidates; stronger rules ensuring that the impacts of policy decisions on young people are calculated; and an independent commission for future generations[12].

Such solutions could make a difference, and we shall see if a version of them shall be implemented in the coming elections, but fundamentally there has to be a political will and, ultimately, political courage. We cannot remain on our current path of the democratic process being increasingly driven by one section of society, we need to share the responsibility and rewards equally, for, as the American libertarian author James Bovard says, “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner”.


[1] The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give it Back, David Willetts, Atlantic Books, May 2011

[2] Going Grey: The Mediation of Politics in an Ageing Society by Scott Davidson, Times Higher Education Website, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/going-grey-the-mediation-of-politics-in-an-ageing-society-by-scott-davidson/2002447.article last accessed 7th May 2014.

[3] 2011 Census – Population and Household Estimates for England and Wales, p.8, March 2011, Office for National Statistics website, http://www.agediscrimination.info/SiteCollectionDocuments/2011%20census%20-%20population%20and%20household%20estimates%20for%20england%20and%20wales%20march%202011.pdf accessed 2nd August 2013.

[4] How Britain Voted in 2010, Ipsos MORI website http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/poll.aspx?oItemId=2613 accessed 2nd August 2013.

[5] National Population Projections, 2010-Based Statistical Bulletin, Office for National Statistics website http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/npp/national-population-projections/2010-based-projections/stb-2010-based-npp-principal-and-key-variants.html accessed 2nd August 2013.

[6] The rise of the gerontocracy? Addressing the intergenerational democratic deficit, Dr Craig Berry, Intergenerational Foundation website http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/IF_Democratic_Deficit_final.pdf accessed 5th August 2013.

[7] Going for the grey vote, 16th April 2010, BBC website, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/england/8617599.stm accessed 5th August 2013.

[8] ‘Grey vote’ warning for politicians, 11th April 2011, Age NI website, http://www.ageuk.org.uk/northern-ireland/latest-news/archive/grey-vote-warning-for-politicians/ accessed 5th August 2013.

[9] Fear of the grey vote has turned our politicians into cowards, 22nd January 2013, The Telegraph website, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9818664/Fear-of-the-grey-vote-has-turned-our-politicians-into-cowards.html accessed 5th August 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Have young people never had it so bad, 5th February 2013, BBC website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21302065 accessed 6th August 2013.

[12] For greater detail of these solutions please refer to The rise of the gerontocracy? Addressing the intergenerational democratic deficit, p.8-9, Dr Craig Berry, Intergenerational Foundation website http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/IF_Democratic_Deficit_final.pdf accessed 6th August 2013.

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