Eleitorados envelhecidos, justiça intergeneracional e política orientada para os idosos – um estudo de política comparada
Aging Electorates, Intergenerational Fairness and Pro-Elderly Policy Bias: A Survey of Research in Comparative Politics
Palavras chave: política geracional, a equidade intergeracional, justiça social empírica, gerontocracia, assistência social comparada, sociologia política, reforma das pensões.
This article reviews the state of the art in comparative politics and political sociology on the interplay between population aging and public policies in
OECD democracies. It discusses findings from the Intergenerational Justice Index (IJI) - a simple four-dimensional indicator developed with the Bertelsmann
Stiftung in order to compare intergenerational justice in practice across 29 societies (Vanhuysse 2013). Three of the IJI dimensions measure policy
outcomes that leave legacy burdens towards younger and future generations (ecological footprint, child poverty, and public debt levels per child) whereas
the fourth dimension measures policy inputs in the form of welfare states’ overall pro-elderly spending bias. I argue that demography is not destiny: good
policy design strongly mediates the direct influence of population aging on pro-elderly policy bias and intergenerational equity. Demographic change
provides urgent arguments for (re)activating the fiscal and human capital basis of aging welfare states and for investing in early human capital. But the
institutional complexities and context-dependencies of generational politics do not justify blanket generational blame games.
Keywords: Generational politics, intergenerational equity, empirical social justice, gerontocracy, comparative welfare, political sociology, pension reform.
Wide across the Western world, people are living longer lives and having fewer children. This has led to larger shares of elderly voters during elections.
Many now fear that elderly voters are becoming an immensely powerful political pressure group. After all, aging populations do not just entail more elderly people who are eligible to vote. These elderly electors also tend to actually go voting more often than younger voters (e.g. Goerres 2009). Even some
serious researchers now claim that we live in a gerontocracy, where the elderly monopolize all power (e.g. Sinn 2; Sinn and Uebelmesser3). But empirical evidence shows such strong gerontocracy to be either empirically weak still (Tepe and Vanhuysse4) or altogether wrong as they merely derive from the asymmetric visibility of the transfers going to the old versus to the young (Gal et al. 5, Gal et al.6). What is clear, however, is that population aging has very significantly changed electoral and policy dynamics across all aging democracies (Vanhuysse and Goerres 7, Petersen and Petersen8). This article reviews the state of the art of recent research in comparative political science, comparative social policy and political sociology.
2. Does population aging equate pensioner power?
Notwithstanding important early clarion calls by, for instance, Cutler9 and Heclo 10, political science and political sociology as modern disciplines have lagged behind somewhat in
developing an integrated body of knowledge on population aging. Yet explicitly comparative and political explanations delving into long-run electoral and
institutional processes and policy cultures stand a better chance at explaining the political processes of aging populations than mere demographic or
descriptive social policy or gerontology approaches. Adopting such a political lens provides insights that are more theoretically refined and
institutionally complex than the increasingly shrill and alarmist assertions being voiced recently about allegedly ‘gerontocratic’ welfare states dominated
by unholy baby boomer alliances of ‘greedy grey’ voters and ‘myopic’ or populist politicians. 11
The rise of elderly citizen numbers among the electorate may have manifold implications for policy; not all of them straightforward or intuitive. Tepe and
Vanhuysse’s12 theory of the politics of pension pain argues that aging populations may
simultaneously lead to delays in the implementation of large pension benefit generosity cuts and to the acceleration of medium-size cuts.
They present a theory that modifies prospect theory’s notorious insight that most actors are at the same time very loss averse and prone to take
large risks when they think they are losing (see Kahneman and Tversky13; Vis 14). Thus, Tepe and Vanhuysse15 use event history
analysis to argue that aging populations today may function as powerful ‘alarm bell signals.’ They put policymakers in a ‘loss frame,’ urging them to
muddle through by implementing incremental cuts sooner rather than later – but perhaps only to better be able to delay electorally truly risky larger cuts.
Politicians may thus jump to bite relatively small cutback bullets early, mainly in order to postpone biting larger bullets. Counterintuitively, Tepe and
Vanhuysse16 further find that neither the pressure of upcoming elections nor the amount of veto points in
the political system have any effect on the timing of pension cuts. But partisan power does matter: more rightwing governments generally implement pension
pain significantly earlier than leftwing governments (on retrenchment politics see e.g. Starke17 ; Tepe and Vanhuysse 18; on pension politics see also Petersen and Petersen 19).
Other evidence in comparative politics also contradicts frequent claims about the alleged policy sclerosis and reform-inability of aging
democracies. For instance, Sciubba20 shows that all three of the demographically oldest OECD societies,
Italy, Germany, and Japan, have actually managed to implement policy reforms that directly hurt the interests of older voters in the past decade.
Investigating two of the most liberal OECD welfare states, Great Britain and the USA, Edlund and Svallfors 21 find very different temporal dynamics in popular welfare state support that are explained by these
countries’ recent social policy histories. Moreover, there is simply no evidence that age differences are superseding class differences in explaining
social policy attitudes. If anything, cohort differences are becoming less rather than more pronounced over time. This finding drives yet another nail in
the coffin of the simplistic ‘gerontocracy’ or ‘generational wars’ arguments (see also Gal et al.22).
3. Grey parties and young families
Specific pensioners’ parties single-mindedly promoting narrow pensioner interests are another boogeyman that is often assumed to arise wherever population
age. Yet, Hanley23 shows such parties to have been successful only in those democracies that combine
adequate levels of self-organization of older people with already existing high levels of pro-elderly spending. In a first-ever analysis of
grey parties in altogether 31 democracies, Hanley finds in addition that the main obstacle to the emergence of grey-interest parties in Western Europe is
the stability of established parties and party systems and their continued success in attracting older voters. But in Eastern Europe, the main obstacle is
a weak civic infrastructure for older people and a changing but steady supply of catch-all populist protest parties. Hanley argues that West European
pensioners’ parties are thus likely to succeed by pursuing strategies that link anti-establishment protest with the specific sectional demands for elderly
voters. But in Eastern Europe successful pensioner parties emerge in the niche provided by less stable party systems (on the strategic policy factors that
have inflated the size of pensioner constituencies in Eastern Europe on a historically unprecedented scale, see Vanhuysse 24, Vanhuysse25)
At the other side of the generational spectrum, there exist high but varying levels of intergenerational solidarity inside the family in caring for
children and grandchildren (Saraceno26, Gal et al.27).
But this may also increase the demand of young families for the state to provide childcare – at least in those welfare states that are already
highly active in providing public childcare. Goerres and Tepe28 argue that young families are cognitively
constrained in their expectations for policies that benefit their own age group. In welfare states that do little to support families, individual
involvement with the family does not impact on what these young citizens expect – perhaps because they have learned to expect little from the state.
Goerres and Tepe conclude that generational policy models developed in the past can powerfully shape the generational policy expectations of voters in
different age cohorts today.
4. Does population aging lead to intergenerational inequities?
Population aging has also led many people to question whether aging democracies treat young citizens as fairly as elderly voters. For instance, in a study
of more than two thousand young adults (undergraduate university students) from eight democracies across four worlds of welfare, Sabbagh and Vanhuysse 29 find that younger working-age adults (aged 18-35) are systematically perceived to be treated worse
than either older working-age adults or the elderly (on perceived pension injustice specifically, see Sabbagh and Vanhuysse 30)31. Derek Parfit, Norman Daniels, Brian Barry,
Ronald Dworkin, Axel Gosseries and many others working in political theory and moral philosophy have provided excellent analytical contributions on the
notion of intergenerational justice (for recent contributions see e.g. Barry32; Gosseries and Meyer 33; Bidadanure34). But there is much less evidence on
how this notion has been applied in public policies. How can we answer questions about intergenerational justice in practice when we do not know about the
intergenerational equity of real-life public policies?
At the request of the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Germany, in Vanhuysse35 I have therefore developed a simple
four-dimensional snapshot indicator for 29 rich Western democracies: the Intergenerational Justice Index, henceforth IJI (see also Vanhuysse 36, Vanhuysse37) Sustainability is the
moral starting point. ‘Enough and as good’ should be left by each generation for the next (Barry38). It
is not a priori morally problematic when at one point in time, different age groups receive an unequal treatment from the state. Today’s elderly,
quite naturally, need more pension and health care resources than today’s young. But the young will one day need such resources themselves. When such
inequalities are likely to be perpetuated across different birth cohorts over their life cycle, then we do end up with lucky and unlucky generations
within the same country (Chauvel and Schroeder39; Lee and Mason 40; Vanhuysse41). And this does imply
So the equity question is really whether current policy patterns towards different age groups appear sustainable 42 IJI measure legacy burdens towards younger and future generations. (1) The first IJI
dimension, ecological footprint, is a measure of the total pressure put on the environment by all generations alive today and left for the next
generations to tackle. Austria ranks tenth-worst in the 29-country sample on this measure. Hungary, Poland and Portugal are among the best performers best
on this measure; Denmark, the USA, Belgium, Australia and Canada among the worst ones. (2) The second IJI dimension captures the total central
government debt weighing on the shoulders of each child aged 0-14; a fiscal burden left for this next generation to cope with. Here, Estonia and
South Korea perform best, and Italy Greece and Belgium very badly, while Japan is literally off the scale with by far the highest levels of debt per child.
(3) A third IJI dimension measures early-life starting conditions as measured by child poverty levels. Child poverty matters morally. Not
just because children cannot be blamed for being born into poor families, but also because such poverty has powerful scarring effects all through their
later adolescent and adult lives (Heckman43, Vanhuysse 44, Vanhuysse45). The best countries in the sample on
this dimension are the Nordic countries, but also Slovenia and Austria. Austria, along with Nordic countries, also has one of Europe’s lowest rates of
severe material deprivation among very young children (just 7.5 percent among 0-6 year olds in recent years). And nowhere else in Europe are there fewer
NEETs - young adults who are not in employment, education and training (just 7 percent among 15-24 year olds) (Vanhuysse 46).
(4) The fourth IJI dimension is an overall measure of the welfare state’s pro-elderly spending ratio. This is calculated by comparing
spending on a whole range of elderly-oriented welfare programs such as old age and disability pensions and elderly care, to spending on a whole range of
nonelderly-oriented programs such as family benefits, active labor market spending, and unemployment benefits (on elderly biases in social spending, see
also Lynch47; Gamliel-Yehoshua and Vanhuysse48; Tepe
and Vanhuysse49; for a radical extension, see Gal et al. 50). The least pro-elderly biased rich welfare states are New Zealand, Canada, and Ireland, but also
demographically older countries such as South Korea and Denmark. These countries all spend less than two and a half times more per each elderly as per each
On the other side of the spectrum, the (still) demographically rather young Poland has the highest pro-elderly social spending ratio in the OECD: it spent
more than eight and a half times as much on each elderly Pole as on each nonelderly Pole. Other pro-elderly tilting welfare states include demographically
old countries such as Greece, Italy (pro-elderly ratio above 6.5) and Japan (around 5.5), but also, more surprisingly, young societies such as Slovakia
(above 6.5), the Czech Republic and Slovenia (around 5.5).
In other words, when it comes to age group spending patterns, demography quite simply is not destiny (see also Vanhuysse 51; Tepe and Vanhuysse52). Two of the demographically
oldest societies in the world, Italy and Japan, have high pro-elderly spending ratios, but another old society, Sweden, shows much more age group spending
balance (Vanhuysse53). This is because Sweden, like other Nordic countries, also invests massively in
young programs such as early childhood, education, and family and active labor market programs. And Nordic countries have the tax resources to do so,
because labor market participation rates, including those of women and of elderly workers, are much higher than in continental or Southern Europe. The
greater (and historically earlier) labor market participation of women in turn derive from deeper cultural and political causes such as the earlier
adoption of gender equality norms and the concomitant need for work-family policies such as subsidized early childhood programs and generous maternity
allowances and parental leaves in Nordic Europe (e.g. Tepe and Vanhuysse54; on Nordic pensions in
historical perspective see Petersen and Petersen55).
5. Alarm bells for activating reforms – not alarmist diagnoses of gerontocracy
When put together, the four IJI dimensions combine into an overall IJI value. Here Vanhuysse 56 shows that among the most intergenerationally equitable OECD countries were Estonia, South Korea, New
Zealand and all of Nordic Europe. Among the least intergenerationally just countries were the USA, Japan, Italy, Greece and Canada. In a complementary
study specifically on the material circumstances of young adults and very young children and educational outcomes (such as PISA results in mathematics,
reading, writing and problem solving), Vanhuysse57 furthermore finds that the years since the 2008-2009
crisis have seen the emergence of a new ‘North-East to core’ good gradient in Europe from Finland over Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia to
France. Outside of this gradient, the new periphery regarding young Europeans’opportunities now includes the UK and Ireland, again all of Southern Europe,
and Eastern but no longer Central Europe.
So, what to conclude? Clearly, an aging society need not be morally blamed for lower fertility; still less so for longer life expectancy. Living longer
lives (of quality) is actually a yardstick of social progress. And moderately low levels of fertility may even be desirable (Lee 58) -- not least from an environmental point of view.
But crucially, the way in which a society’s public policies react to population aging is morally important. This is where the IJI results
matter. Unless low- IJI countries such as the USA, Japan, Italy, Greece, and Canada can somehow (miraculously yet credibly) guarantee fast
and sustainable productivity growth and rapid technological (including environmental technology) progress in the near future, not reforming current policy
patterns would simply perpetuate a bad current deal for young and future generations (Vanhuysse59 Gosseries and Ricoy60).
we need more refined comparative-political science and political sociology research into the political processes and the policy feedback effects arising
from population aging (Goerres and Vanhuysse61). The demographic alarm bells currently tolling in many
OECD countries indicate the need for urgent policy rethinks. And they appear to be imprisoning politicians in many countries in ever-tighter electoral and
fiscal straitjackets. But they need not provide grounds for alarmism.
Population aging certainly provides urgent arguments for (re)activating the fiscal and human capital basis of aging welfare states and for providing better
‘rates of return’ from the intergenerational social compact for today’s and tomorrow’s young generations. No doubt some political actors, and some advanced
democracies, are more resistant to such reforms than others. But the institutional and sociological complexities and context-dependencies of the politics
of population aging just do not justify one-size-fits-all prescriptions or blanket generational blame games.
Good policies make all the difference in the nexus between aging populations and generational politics. Investing in early human capital is probably a key
ingredient in safeguarding the fiscal foundations of welfare states in aging societies (Heckman62;
Vanhuysse63). In addition, it is an efficient and effective way of boosting the opportunities and
capabilities of young citizens, while simultaneously leveling the playing field especially for children born in disadvantaged circumstances.