Going for grey

As politicians compete to bribe the grey voting bloc, they reveal the depth of their contempt for the elderly.

Phil Mullan

Topics Politics

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As the UK general election looms, both the Labour and Tory parties have become engaged in a rather undignified scrap over the grey vote. Why?

It is not that either party has any genuine affection for, or interest in, pensioners. The obsession with the grey vote partly reflects a sense of the parties’ resignation to the scale of political disengagement, and their consequent desire to court the people still most likely to vote. And it is partly an attempt to engage with an issue that they feel will only get more pressing in the future – the danger of too many old people overburdening society.

With both parties incapable of presenting a strong, appealing vision that might excite popular interest, this general election contest is becoming reduced to the mere accumulation of ballot crosses. Anticipating declining voter participation, the politicians cynically consider which demographic section is likely to succumb least to staying away from the booths on polling day. The easy answer is those aged 60 and over.

The sixtysomethings have various social reasons for turning out to vote, and they also have a greater tradition of voting – they come from a generation more likely to have voted as a matter of course, and as individuals they have voted more often.

Moreover, demographic ageing means that the elderly are becoming a bigger part of the potential electorate. Grey power is in the ascendant. There are already 11million pensioners and this number grows by the year. When there is a falling national turnout in elections, it is easy for the party election managers to calculate that, assuming there will be a stable turnout from these older voters – or even if there is a small, lower-than-average decline – this translates into a bigger absolute and relative chunk of actual voters.

By default, in an uninspiring contest the politicians appeal to the elderly.

As with most stereotypes, the ideas of grey power and the grey voting bloc are misleading. It is wrong, as well as patronising, to view the elderly as a common fraternity who live, think, act and vote the same. In fact the old are probably more heterogeneous than any other age group.

As Debra Street, a researcher at the American Pepper Institute on Ageing and Public Policy, explained in the Wall Street Journal: ‘The older we get, the more diverse we become as individuals, simply because life experiences have led us down different pathways’. Age is probably the least significant ‘group’ indicator of how people vote. Gender, colour, income and wealth are all much more important.

The current orientation to the pensioner voter ignores all this. Look at the contemptuous assumption that the choice between slightly different tax and benefits packages will determine how older people will vote. The Tories promise rises in tax allowances and four pounds more on the state pension for over-75s, while Labour plans a complicated extension of means testing, with a £100 minimum income guarantee by 2003 and a pension credit for those with savings income.

Leaving aside the meagerness, deficiencies and iniquities of both sets of proposals, this horse-trading perpetuates the image of elderly people as mere supplicants whose votes will be bought by an extra few quid, from this means-tested benefit or that tax allowance.

What gives the courting of the grey vote its repulsive character is not just that, as Age Concern notes, ‘No party has pledged to increase the basic state pension to an adequate level’. Reducing the political message to such a narrowly financial one is scornful of the elderly as living people. If ever proof were needed that the politicians, not people, are to blame for political apathy, it is the degrading spectacle of political parties competing to bribe the grey voting bloc.

Genuine humane concern for the dependent elderly is not measured by a few quid here or there, but by how society behaves towards them more generally. This form of electioneering, combined with all the real ways in which governments have treated the lives of old people with derision, shows that our leading politicians have failed at least this test of civilisation.

No doubt these same politicians would protest that they are doing all they can, given the financial constraints. To provide the level of resources in pensions, health and other forms of support needed to ensure a decent standard of living for those unable fully to look after themselves, is simply, they would say, ‘unaffordable’.

The argument goes that demographic trends are against us. Longevity is increasing. Fertility has fallen since the birth boom years of the 1950s and 1960s. The support ratio, measuring the number of people of working age for each pensioner, is estimated to fall from about 4.2 today to 2.6 in 2031, once the baby boomers have all retired. So with more older people above retirement age, and fewer younger people of working age, society will just have to accept that resources are limited. These are the facts that are believed to underpin the spectre of the ageing timebomb.

For up to 30 years now, and increasingly in more recent times, politicians of all parties – Democrats and Republicans in the USA, Labour and Tory in the UK, Christian and Social Democrats in Europe – have been talking up the financial and social problems produced by our ageing populations. The idea that ageing is a problem is taken for granted.

In the face of this assumption, politicians can show their prudence and far-sightedness by being miserly in any additional benefits given to the old. They simply justify this as sensibly avoiding the creation of any hostages to the future. Hence Margaret Thatcher broke the automatic link between pensions and earnings in 1980, and the Labour government has endorsed this as a financial necessity.

But there is no timebomb. There is no ageing ‘problem’. Greater longevity and falling early age mortality is a cause for celebration, not concern. Populations have been ageing and support ratios falling at pretty much the same rate for over 100 years, without generating the sort of financial and social crises being predicted today. The number of working people ‘supporting’ each pensioner has fallen from 14 to 1 in 1900 to 4 to 1 in 1990, and hardly anybody noticed. Why?

People over the designated retirement age do not become worthless dependents in need or support overnight. And with people living not just longer lives, but longer, healthier and fitter lives, this myth has less and less credence to it.

More significantly, compared even to the statistical ‘support ratio’, national wealth has increased at a much faster rate – by about seven-fold – over the same period. Contrary to conventional opinion, wealth generation has nothing to do with either the average age of the population nor with demographic ratios. Rather, it is a function of both the size and the productivity of the labour force.

Employment rates vary for all sorts of social and economic reasons between countries, regions and times. Many of these have nothing directly to do with population ageing. These labour market changes usually have much more of an important impact on national wealth than the net movement in numbers of people of below and above the official retirement age.

Historically, outside periods of severe economic crisis, the active workforce in industrialised countries tends to grow. Even without an increase in the size of the workforce productivity – output per worker – growth at the long-run trend of about two percent a year keeps national wealth doubling every 35 years. This is much faster than the growth in real elderly dependence on social wealth. The ageing ‘problem’ does not exist.

More people reaching old age in the future will be a welcome sign of further social progress. As in the past, increasing wealth production will ensure that no genuine burden arises. But given the fashionable tendency to imbue demographic trends with exaggerated and negative consequences, this is unlikely to be the last Western election where the ‘grey factor’ takes centre stage.

Phil Mullan is the author of The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population Is Not a Social Problem, IB Tauris, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

Read on:

spiked-proposals: Pensioners

Grey days for democracy, by Mick Hume

Sergeant-Major Brown’s ‘Grey Army’, by Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics


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