The Politics of An Aging Population

Analysis of political issues across the world

The Politics of An Aging Population

Postby Michael » 07 Feb 2012, 18:20

I wanted to share with the forum a recent post I made to my new blog, addressing some perennial topics of discussion among forum members. In the article I examine a very common phenomenon that produces little inquiry: the fact that people become more parochial and set in their ways as they age, and it's probably effects on the future of the Western world as our demographics change over the next fifty years. I use the term "conservative" in the article, but by that I mean that the trait of being set in a habitual way of thinking and resistant to change. So progressives tend to become stuck as progressives, liberals as liberals, etcetera.

Because it is rather long (~2000 words) I am linking to the article rather than posting it here in full.

I am worried that the article comes off a bit more progressive-sounding than I wanted it to be, but I found it was becoming excessively long as I tried to work in all the caveats and amendments to my main thesis.

I would be very interested to hear your thought's on the piece. My question for you all is: what effects you think an aging populace will have on your respective countries?
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Re: The Politics of An Aging Population

Postby Gavin » 07 Feb 2012, 21:32

A very interesting article, Michael. At this point I won't address your question re. What effect an ageing population might have (I think this is a big one), but will make a few other comments if you don't mind:

I think I would call myself a conservative these days, but I certainly do not define this as being resistant to change, but only to change for change's sake.

In fact I think change is often to be celebrated (most obviously in technological fields). The problem we see these days (for example in art) is that works can be considered admirable not because they have any intrinsic merit whatsoever, but simply because it have "not been done before". Often they have not been done before because they were not worth doing. Only in such a post-modern, relativisitic society would they be considered admirable (while secretly everybody knows they are not really). This compares of course with political correctness generally.

In my case I have always seen the truths I see now (I mean, since childhood) but what I have learned is to "unlearn" the political correctness we are taught. We are all, after all, raised by left wing teachers and we largely seek to fit in. Thankfully my parents were really quite neutral and didn't try to indoctrinate me in any way. So my becoming more conservative has just really been becoming more confident to state my views, formed according to evidence, against the tide of PC.

However, it is quite clear that many liberals do become more conservative with age, and this happens the other way around more rarely. I would put this down to the kind of factors you describe - mainly experience, which in some cases leads to understanding and confidence. I think an associated thread here may be this one.

Thanks for posting your essay and I look forward to any other replies.
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Re: The Politics of An Aging Population

Postby Caleb » 08 Feb 2012, 01:24

Michael: Nice article and I'm checking out the rest of your blog now.

I think it's very interesting to note that my parents' generation (but not my parents specifically) have basically mortgaged the future of future generations in securing their own benefits. I actually don't see that much conservatism in my parents' generation, though now that they're entering retirement, perhaps. Even then, I don't think it would be true conservatism per se. Their ethos seems to be about whatever they can secure for themselves while the rest of the world burns, which has always been the case with them, though it's easier to explain and excuse as the folly of youth. There's practically no vision of a world beyond their own lifetimes. In that sense, they're just as self-centred now as they were back in the late sixties and early seventies. I'd hardly call that conservative. I see them as an extremely radical force, actually.

I agree broadly with the three reasons for your thesis.

However, I'm really not sure about your future speculations.

In terms of technology, I don't think medical technology will progress nearly as fast as you imagine. Also, there's a real counteracting force of lifestyle related diseases (particularly anything related to obesity), and these are growing quite rapidly right now. Some people will definitely continue to live longer than their parents or grandparents, but we may see a certain segment of the populace with reduced lifespans.

The other big thing, I think, is immigration. Europe simply won't be European in the future unless it really grasps the nettle in an increasingly small window of opportunity. That by its mere existence, will cause massive social friction, especially for old, white liberals when they increasingly realise how untenable their world view is and how the people they have brought into their countries despise them, their way of life and their world view. Even the U.S. is undergoing a very dramatic shift right now. It's going to be majority Hispanic within a couple of generations at the present rates, though there will still be a significant minority who will be white. I don't think that will be anywhere near as detrimental as what's happening in Europe, but it will still keep politics and culture in a state of flux, even for people in old age. Then there are the developed Asian countries that are simply going to have to embrace immigration -- a thing they are completely unprepared for (in that they simply haven't done it on any real scale and are generally extremely xenophobic societies) -- if they even want to remain viable as societies. Japan especially is in real trouble. Immigration will really keep people in such countries on their toes.
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Re: The Politics of An Aging Population

Postby Elliott » 08 Feb 2012, 02:04


It's nice to see you on the forum again. :)

The first thing is, I'd be interested in seeing the full version of this essay, complete with amendments and caveats. I don't think it's too long at all, indeed it ends a bit abruptly.

It is difficult to predict anything about the future, but especially our future, the 21st century, because there are so many competing factors at play. For example, while it is true that the traditional populations of the West will become older, there are huge immigrant populations which will get younger. They, by virtue of their youth and their immigrant status, will want change and probably be very happy to embrace it.

Secondly, we live in an age dominated by bureaucrats and quangos - people who relish change because it gives them their raison d'etre: managing change. Such people have an interest in ensuring that change is as relentless as possible.

Thirdly, the constant progress seen in technology has filtered down to people in the form of a belief that progress should be constantly happening. Windows 7 might have a bug, but the next update will solve it. There may be a feature missing, but the next service pack will add it. There may be an annoying way of doing things, but the next version of Windows will change it.

Facebook is an example of something which constantly changes. I am not talking about the "content" but the site itself. Only today I saw that last night they had changed how photos are shown on the main page, and the new way isn't even an improvement. It doesn't add any new functionality or make things any simpler. It's just a change. The developers are constantly testing the water, trying this and that, actually quite frivolously.

However, and this supports your thesis and contradicts mine, every time a change occurs on Facebook, people complain about it. They don't complain about its merits or lack thereof, but about the fact that something that wasn't broke has been fixed.

I think it's true that the vast majority of people do not enjoy change. They may like it as an idea, but not as an experience. There are a few people who do, because they have an amazing open-mindedness and flexibility, and they enjoy the daily challenge to keep up with stuff, to adapt and experience new things. They find fun what most people find troubling.

There are also people who are "pathological change lovers". Where the above category of people are pragmatic about change and generally very happy within themselves, this category is totally different. I think of somebody like George Monbiot or Harriet Harman. These people strike me as miserable within themselves and deeply resentful of the fact that other people are happy. They want to see society barraged by change, change, change. They would call it progress, but what it really is is a secret desire to make everyone else as miserable as them by taking away their security, their stability. They want a society in which nobody ever knows what the situation is because everything changes so fast. In such a society, people like them (the pathological change lovers) will become idols.

The climate change thing was an excellent wagon for these people, because it justified all the change that could be dreamed up by every bureaucrat and every quango. I have said before but say again: if the 2008 economic crisis hadn't happened, the climate change project could have escalated into this century's Communism. I think it was sheer luck that more important concerns broke the back of this project, and though it persists (politicians still talk about "greening" the economy, etc.), it's on borrowed time and will eventually die out. Had things been different, the climate change project would have made every aspect of our lives open to question and condemnation at the drop of a hat. The opportunities for random change would have been innumerable.

To return to the main topic, I think there is a distinction to be made between trivial change and serious change, and also between chosen change and mandated change. Most people like the former and dislike the latter. I choose to buy a new sweater - this is a change in my life that I am in control of and, being trivial, it will not harm me. My employer forces me to switch from a programming language I know to one I have never used before - this is a change that I am not in control of and, being serious, it will trouble me.

What we're seeing with technology is that it is becoming more and more user-friendly. Again, look at Facebook. Whatever you (and I) may think of its flaws, it is a product that is astonishingly easy to use. Websites that want to be popular have no choice but to be user-friendly because their users are inherently conservative: they want the same website they visited last week, but with new content (the same hotel but with different guests in each room). But does this affect our expectations of society, of life itself? I don't know. I suspect not. I think that as we have become more cowed by bureaucrats, we have come to expect that life will be stressful in a way that it hasn't been before. Management structures mean that most people live with the fact of frequent, unwelcome and apparently random change, and they just have to accept it if they want to stay employed.

I think the mentality carries over from "work life" to "national life". Just as most people have no idea what the rules are, and even what those higher up in the organisation really want, I think we increasingly expect that our national culture will change quite randomly. The loss of control we experience in the workplace is also experienced on the national, political stage. Nobody feels in control of the life they experience. This breeds resentment, stress and hostility, but it also inculcates a tolerance for change - I think the way it works is that we begin to assume all change is random and therefore meaningless, so while we adapt to a new way of working, we are comforted to think that the new paradigm is superficial and thus, the change is actually harmless. It's just a matter of keeping up with the game. In other words, we learn to tolerate the errant bureaucrat/politician as a weak nanny learns to tolerate an errant child. This dehumanises us all, of course, but at least we stay sane.

Politically, I'm afraid it makes us putty. That may be the experience of the 21st century Westerner.

More optimistically, I think it is always possible for this to end. It would mean removing the quangos, bureaucrats, politicians and lawyers who keep it going. That is the only way a population (aging or otherwise) will regain control of their politics.

I honestly think this is what's likely to happen. We are not going to be putty, not indefinitely. Eventually we will take control (probably through movements like the Tea Party etc.) and from then on, any changes will feel more chosen than mandated.

Will the politics we implement be more conservative or more "progressive"? I think this is a bit of a non-question. Who is really against progress? And similarly, who doesn't have a deep attachment to the past? I think most people are on the same page here, and it's just a question of which details to preserve and which to change.

Most people, while warm to the idea of progress, are not interested in "progressivism". That is an abstract concept which I don't think figures in most people's minds, and is largely antithetical to their real interests: pragmatic change and conservative values. What most people want is to feel that they have a stake in society, that the elites respect them, and that the future will be better without making the past alien.

You seem to be concerned that an aging population will be more knee-jerk about change. I think that we should all be pretty knee-jerk about change, because not much needs changing. What we have in the West is a way of living that simply works. While improvement is possible, I don't see it being necessary to the fundamentals of our culture.

Furthermore, progressive changes in recent decades have been largely for the worse. The politics of the future will largely be the politics of restoration. Ultimately, that will be necessary if the West is to survive. And it will.

Funnily enough I have been writing a thread for this forum that addresses "change, technology and weariness", inspired by seeing how people older than 60 deal with technology - most of them try to ignore it as much as possible. However it is more psychological/cultural than about their politics, and it is concerned specifically with how technology affects people, so I'll keep it separate from this thread.
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Re: The Politics of An Aging Population

Postby Michael » 09 Feb 2012, 21:19

Thank you all very much for your kind responses! I am now working hard on my next post, about Samuel Johnson and the wisdom of limiting our desires. I wlll do my best here to respond to thoughtful your replies.

Gavin - You mark correctly the need to distinguish between change and progress. Progress is very real, but not as universal as the self-titled "Progressives" would have us think. Too often, as you note, a mere change is mistaken for progress, as if any departure from the current state could not help but be an improvement. Conditions of life where any change at all would be an improvement are (thankfully) uncommon.

The examples of this in art are particularly depressing. I am midway through the first volume of Boswell's Life of Johnson and it is refreshing to read prose and poetry from an age when excellence was sought rather than novelty. Novelty was welcome only when paired with excellence, rather than being celebrated for itself as it is now - but we are all too familiar with that contemporary blight.

Caleb - You are right that I overlooked the counteracting effect of lifestyle related diseases. Like all resources, funds for medical research are limited, and thus work is generally focused on the most pressing problems (even Viagra, a frivolous waste of medicine, was an unexpected offshoot of blood pressure medication research). Lifestyle related diseases are already a widespread plague, and will likely only become more so. Counteracting and managing obesity and diabetes will likely absorb most of the resources that could have been devoted to longevity research.

Elliott - Thank you, it is good to be back!

I like your point about the pathological change lovers. What is fascinating about them, and a great reason to distrust their intentions, is that all their solutions are bureaucratic and centralized. This is precisely the area such people (you correctly equate them with bureaucrats) thrive, as it means more power, more prestige, and more money for them. George Washington wisely did not trust anyone advocating a change who could not tell him what they personally expected to get out of it. The pathological change lovers are always silent about what they expect to gain from the change they want to see in the world. I have no great love for libertarians, but at least I have found them to be honest about how they expect to profit from greater liberalization.

My concern about the 'knee-jerk' reaction to change is that we will freeze our society with the dysfunctional institutions a naive notion of "progress" (All change = "Progress!") have saddled us with, like political correctness, overly generous welfare, and weak educational standards. From our present position a reversion to tried and tested institutions and values would be progress, in a very real (though only relative, not absolute) sense. From there we could, with the memory of our past folly, be more circumspect about the changes we want to make, as Burke recommended.
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Re: The Politics of An Aging Population

Postby Caleb » 10 Feb 2012, 00:33

My concern about the 'knee-jerk' reaction to change is that we will freeze our society with the dysfunctional institutions a naive notion of "progress" (All change = "Progress!") have saddled us with, like political correctness, overly generous welfare, and weak educational standards.

Michael: To be honest, I don't think this is possible in the long term. I think these things are anti-survival. As such, societies that embrace them find it harder and harder to sustain them economically and so, eventually, a crisis occurs that forces a change. At some point, a society either wakes up to itself or it gets completely steamrolled by another.

From our present position a reversion to tried and tested institutions and values would be progress, in a very real (though only relative, not absolute) sense. From there we could, with the memory of our past folly, be more circumspect about the changes we want to make, as Burke recommended.

As such, I would change "would" to "will". Of course, who knows when that will happen, but it will happen.
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