Handling the coming shades of grey

Updated: Jun 23 2005, 05:30am hrs
It takes a very close look at the results of the recent elections in the German state of North-Rhine-Westphalia to find among the list of Others, the tally for The Greys: they got 0.1% of the total vote (Germanys voting rules follow a list-based system of proportional representation). In other words, only one in every thousand voters elected for them, although they claimed to speak for that states retired and elderly people, who constitute as much as over 30% of the population.

Generation consciousness, quite unlike the class consciousness of older times, is obviously not such a defining factor in peoples political preferences. Many more Greys voted for The Greens than for their own party. This is an important fact. Most Europeansand this is also true of many other parts of the worldare living in rapidly ageing societies. Nurseries and schools are closing, while retirement homes and hospices spring up everywhere. Rising life expectancy, coupled with low birth rates, are shaping the demography of almost all prosperous countries. By the middle of this centuryunless there takes place a dramatic turnaround about half the population will be economically inactive for reasons of age.

This trend will have a number of consequences. The most obvious implication is for the welfare state as we know it, notably on pensions and healthcare. While the expenditure for both heads is rising at a rapid pace, the offsetting revenues are now coming from ever fewer people in employment.

As a result, the usual generational contract looks ever less and less viable, because we arent in a position to be able to rely, unlike in earlier times, on todays workers to pay for todays pensioners. Instead, we are finding insurance-based systems of entitlements created by personal contributions are increasingly taking the place of the earlier national health and pension services. This is quite a profound change and it also happens to generate much friction in the transitional phase.

For example, the transitional phase is a period of time in which public debt in-vitably increases. Governments are obliged to continue the payment of benefits to to-days pensioners. And they can con- tinue doing so only by borrowing money to obtain a replacement for the revenues that tomorrows pensioners are now having to divert to personal insurance schemes.

In ageing societies, the old welfare state looks less and less viable
Yet, older people dont seem to want a political party devoted to their plight
The issue poses an added responsibility on the younger voters in society
Debt, however, has another dimension. It is a burden imposed by current citizens on the future generations. Understandably, various signs are apparent that younger politicians of all parties are resisting this development. Indeed, a party of the young might well turn out to have better prospects than the Greys.

Such shifting political interests are, however, but only one part of the changes that take place in an ageing society. Among the more visible are changes in citizen lifestyles. People who live to a longer term, even while not being in employment, understandably want to enjoy their lives. A plethora of magazines are available to tell pensioners what all they can do. The advice given ranges from sex in ones old age to tourism. Tourism, in particularship cruises, as well as far more adventurous trips has become, in these societies, a favourite pastime for the elderly. And also simultaneously, the ima-ges of life and expectations in our own societies are shifting. No one is really surprised to observe grey-haired people dancing and singing and petting. For quite a few of them, life appears to have become an almost permanent holiday.

To be certain, the said impression is quite deceptive. Older people who have families are often found in a new role as educators of the young. While their sons and daughters go off to work, they are becoming the real parents of the next generation. Todays young children often see more of their grandmother than of their mother. One may very well wonder about what this means in terms of the social values.

The impression of a generation on permanent holiday is deceptive in yet another respect. Much public debate has been devoted to the issue of child poverty and how one could relieve it. However, there happens to be at least as much of old-age poverty. The point is that this is less visible. Occasionally, the newspapers have a report about an elderly person having been found dead after days, having suffered a lonely demise from illness, or even starvation. For the most part, old-age poverty is hidden, often by the victims themselves, who are too proud to talk to others about the condition theyre in.

This is part of the explanation for the failure of the Greys, that is, for the failure of political groups catering to the perceived interests of the elderly in society. While such interests do certainly exist, they do not seem to lead older people to close ranks and organise themselves. If they are poor or otherwise disadvantaged, they are most likely to regard this as their personal, almost private, destiny. Like the unemployed, they do not seem to want a political party devoted to their plight.

Beyond that, the key feature of an ageing society is the independence of the elderly. Their vote is precisely not an expression of group interest. They make up their own minds and thus contribute to the unpredictability of modern elections. In that sense, too, an ageing society adds to the responsibilities of the young.

The writer, a member of the British House of Lords, is former rector of the London School of Economics. Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2005