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Liberal gerontocracy and its discontents

Fewer young people supporting more old people has become an unsustainable situation

Famously, older people tend to be more interested in politics than the young and turn out to vote in greater numbers. However, the situation in France presents a paradox: in 2017 the country elected its youngest president ever — his platform was detailed in a book fittingly named Revolution — largely with the support of the oldest segment of the electorate.

The West has never been so old, and old age has never wielded as much power as it does today. In Le Grand Viellissement, French economist Maxime Sbaihi brings attention to the reality of French liberal gerontocracy. According to him, the French state has become a fiction through which one generation lives at the expense of the young.

At first glance, France’s demographic situation doesn’t seem so dire when compared with its European neighbours. A closer look, however, shows that the French model is hyper-sensitive to demographic changes. When the pension system was introduced in 1946, there were five active workers for every one inactive person; in 2016, that ratio dropped to three to one, and by 2040 it is expected to be two to one.

Due to its longer life expectancy and lower retirement age, France is on the podium among OECD countries in terms of the number of years retirees will collect benefits. France also ranks highly in two other OECD categories: it has some of the wealthiest pensioners and is among the countries with the highest pension contributions. In light of the above, the particular vulnerability of the French model to the greying of society becomes clearer.

In France, the logic of the welfare state has been reversed: redistribution goes not from the rich to the poor, but in the opposite direction. The French national statistics institute, INSEE, reports that of all age groups, those over 65 are the least at risk of poverty, while those under 30 are the most. Increased life expectancy also results in young people receiving an inheritance — today, often the only significant influx of wealth that enables them to buy their own home — much later than before. At the beginning of the 20th century, inheritances were received, on average, in one’s 30s — by 1945 in one’s mid-30s, and today, in one’s 50s. Instead of providing a boost at the beginning or middle of a career, inheritance is now received toward the end of it. The young have been excluded from the transmission belt of wealth, Sbaihi argues. Real estate has ceased to mean homes for young people looking to start a family — it has become a speculative asset for boomers; since the beginning of the century, real estate prices have doubled in France and quadrupled in Paris. The situation in the labour market further aggravates the predicament faced by younger generations: whereas in 1975, the first permanent contract was typically secured at age 20, today it is obtained at age 31. Without it, applying for a mortgage is an exercise in futility. Furthermore, diploma inflation has diminished the employment guarantee once provided by higher education: for individuals born in the late 1940s, it translated into a 60 per cent chance of securing a mid-level job, whilst today that probability has been cut in half to 30 per cent. It is worth noting that, although pension spending accounts for two-thirds of the total increase in public spending in France over the last 20 years, not a single additional euro cent has been allocated to education in the same period. This situation is alarming enough to have drawn the attention of the National Human Rights Commission. In 2020, the number of French NEETs aged 15-29 stood at 1.7 million. Overall, the distribution of wealth is captured by the 3×60 principle: the population over 60 owns more than 60 per cent of the country’s financial wealth and more than 60 per cent of the country’s non-financial assets. France has become a grey plutocracy.

But the pandemic also unveiled the gerontocratic nature of Western political systems

The pandemic represented a moment when the trends shaping our time revealed themselves in full. We have seen, for example, how software has eaten the world with remote work and Zoom calls. But the pandemic also unveiled the gerontocratic nature of Western political systems. France serves as a prime example. The government initially planned to phase out lockdown by age category, but this approach was rejected and the interests of the young discarded. Sbaihi quotes the remarks of philosopher Robert Redeker, who saw in the pandemic an anthropological upheaval: “we invoke the lives of the oldest to limit the lives of the youngest”, he claimed.

French liberal gerontocracy is extremely difficult to reform by political means. Young people under 30 represent only 17 per cent of the electorate, while those over 50 account for more than 50 per cent of the votes. Young people feel that their political choices do not matter, leading many to abstain from voting —and when they do go to the polls they often place their hopes in the far-right or the far-left. The French are pessimistic about the future of new generations. When asked whether life for today’s children will be more difficult, easier, or as difficult as for the current generation, 77 per cent respond that it will be more difficult. In contrast, Germans (61 per cent) and Italians (54 per cent) are not as gloomy.


Britain, of course, ranks highly among the major Western liberal gerontocracies. Similar to its French counterpart, the UK’s welfare state has reversed the traditional logic of redistributing money from the rich to the poor, instead redirecting funds from the financially precarious young to the affluent and elderly. One in four pensioners today is a millionaire. If in the 1980s, a worker aged 24-29 earned more than one aged 60-64, by 2008 — according to David Willetts’ The Pinch — the latter group was, on average, already earning 14 percent more than the former. Globalisation and immigration have been great tailwinds for the British boomers. With millions of Asian workers entering the global labour market, wages went down and the return on capital increased. This shift has benefited boomers, who own capital through pension funds. Additionally, in their youth, they didn’t have to worry about downward pressure on wages or competition in the labour market from immigrants, unlike today’s young Englishmen. The latter have no say because, as an electorate, they cannot match the overwhelming grey vote. As a result, parties serve the interests of pensioners. Baron Willetts accurately points out that this explains, for instance, why there is so little investment in new infrastructure. Long-term projects are at odds with the political parties’ focus on short-term interests: catering to the largest slice of the electorate, the gerontocratic one, for whom the distant future holds little concern.


According to him, liberal gerontocracies discriminate against the young, making it difficult to start a family

Although the future of liberal gerontocracy remains obscure, its dangers have become clear. Richard Hanania is among the thinkers who consider them fundamental. He proposed “Critical Age Theory,” a framework that takes into account not only entitlements spending, but the entirety of societal relations encompassing various domains such as economy, culture and social capital.

According to him, liberal gerontocracies discriminate against the young, making it difficult to start a family, thus exacerbating further the demographic problems. This, in turn, can lead to what economist Tyler Cowen has called the “low-fertility trap”, as ageing and shrinking populations produce fewer and fewer inventors and entrepreneurs, and domestic companies lack a sufficiently large domestic market to expand and move on to compete internationally. Consequently, hopes for high growth or catching up fade away, and the demographic burden only gets heavier.

Hanania points to an additional aspect that Joseph Heinrich mentions in his book WEIRDest People in the World. One of the reasons that placed the West on a unique developmental path was its generally lower respect for the authority of elders compared to other cultures. Everything points to the conclusion that the trait is quickly disappearing from the West.

Now, there is a great question mark — why hasn’t the conflict between generations erupted yet, even though a vision of Malthusian carnage looms over us? Political scientist Kevin Munger suggests that this is due to social media, which has allowed for a separation of the Boomer public (still watching mainly television) from the communication sphere of younger generations. However, one could argue to the contrary, that social media bubbles amplify negative emotions, thus preparing the war of generations. 

This frustration can only grow when you consider that many books, like Le Grand Vieillisement, offer no pragmatic remedies to the problems of liberal gerontocracies. Sbaihi discusses the greater engagement of older people in the labour market and immigration as countermeasures, but these are either insufficient or lead to other problems. The window of opportunity for many of the solutions that have been put forward in the past, such as increasing contributions or adjusting the retirement age, appears to have snapped shut. Will political elites have the courage to back bolder proposals and ease intergenerational tensions?

Munger seems to claim in his Generation Gap: Why Boomers Still Dominate American Politics and Culture that the only chance to resist the gerontocracy involves “cohort consciousness,” a sense of shared destiny between Millennials and Gen Z. Perhaps this consciousness will find a political articulation before it’s too late, reminding the baby boomers of the essence of the social contract: intergenerational solidarity.

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