Old vs. Young

Today, it’s demographics. Stop whining. I know it sounds boring, especially when you don’t have a personal connection with a topic as dry as this one. In my home country, demographics is considered to be one of the core challenges of the future. It comes along with terms like “Vergreisung” (senescence), “Diktatur der Alten” (the dictatorship of the elderly) and “silver shoppers”, a term for which apparently there is no matching German translation. I still consider myself to be young. So why bother about demographics?

Honestly, it used to be one of my favourite topics. I can still have heated exchanges about it, with my mum (who was born in 1961), my dad (born in 1956) and my Shanghai friend Brigitte (also in her fifties). It took me a while to understand that demographic changes cause more than just huge problems for the generational treaty that our former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer invented. He was a strong believer in people’s willingness to reproduce. “People will always have kids” was one of his famous quotes (“Kinder bekommen die Leute immer”). History proved him wrong. Today, Germany has one of the lowest birth rates in the developed world.

This causes problems for our social security system that relies on younger generations to pay for their predecessors’ pensions. According to recent forecasts, every taxpayer in my generation will have to fund several pensioners, which of course is not economically feasible if pensions remain at their current levels. So far, nobody in Germany has really dared to touch this can of worms, and I assume it’s going to take a while until large parts of the population wake up to the fact that the current system is broken and needs reforming.

But that’s not why demographics is still one of my favourite subjects in politics. The reason why I love discussing demographics is its impact on democratic elections and on decision-making. And that’s where we finally get back to the subject – reporting the British referendum.

Simply because of demographics, my mother’s generation is way bigger than mine. She was one of four kids at home; we were two. The problem is that the interests of younger and older people seldom align. My parents, for example, think differently about a number of things, as does my grandmother who is now 78. Neither my parents nor my grandmother can imagine the Chinese economy ever superseding the American economy. They think that the state should play an important role in guaranteeing minimum wages and that the system should largely be kept the way it is.

The same is true in the UK. Older people here think differently than younger people. Admittedly, the age distribution in the UK is not as skewed as in Germany where the 45- to 49 -year-olds and the 50- to 54- year-olds markedly outweigh all other age groups. Nevertheless, the cohort of 45- to 49-year-olds is also the biggest in the UK, followed by that of the 50- to 54-year olds.

That’s worrying, and not just from a political theory point of view. In Germany, the consequences are already visible. A lot of politicians, including our chancellor Mrs. Merkel, cater to the older generation in order to get reelected. Why bother with younger voters? Their numbers are declining anyway! That in itself is problematic because it leads to a continuance of the status quo, less openness for new ideas and fewer opportunities for long-term economic growth. I don’t blame anyone here. It’s just a fact that humans tend to become less open to change and innovation the older they get.

With regard to the upcoming EU referendum, there is special significance. Up until recently, the polls clearly showed older voters in favour of Brexit, whereas younger voters were deemed to be more in favour of Bremain. Because of the uneven distribution of old and young, this could mean that there will be a vote to leave just because the older generation is larger than the younger generation. Add to that the fact that forecasters project a high turnout amongst older Brexit supporters and a low turnout amongst younger Bremain supporters, and you end up with the not so unlikely event of a vote to Leave.

It’s not just the pollsters who think that a low general turnout will be good for the Brexit camp. Bookmakers like Ladbrokes are expecting the same. “A high turnout is perceived to be beneficial for the Remain side”, Matthew Shaddick, Head of Political Odds at Ladbrokes, told me some weeks ago.

That’s exactly why it’s important to get younger Brits to vote. I recently interviewed Paul Ostwald, a German student at Oxford University, who is part of a group called “Oxford Students for Europe”. Nearly every day, Ostwald and his co-students campaign for the EU referendum. “We try to make people aware of what is at stake”. He told me, “many haven’t really thought it through.” He recently welcomed the former head of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso, Nick Clegg, the former vice premier, and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party in Oxford. “We had a heated debate”, Ostwald said. “In the end, we voted in ancient tradition. To my relief, the Remain-side won – with a huge majority.”

For someone as wary about demographics as I am, Ostwald’s initiative is quite reassuring. Hopefully, there will be enough young voters showing up on referendum day. If they then decide to vote for Brexit, that’s fine with me. As long as it’s not an unintended consequence of the lack of motivation of my generation, it would be a result I could live with.

Fortunately, there is another piece of news that just crossed my way whilst I was doing research. According to a new poll by ORB for the Daily Telegraph, the amount of older Brexit supporters has recently declined. The majority of older voters, Conservative supporters and men are now backing the campaign to remain, having previously supported a Brexit in large numbers, a piece on Morningstar read.

So maybe, in the end, it’s not going to be old vs. young that decides this referendum. My parents will be relieved to hear the news.


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