"Silver Democracy" as Seen from the Distant Future

Visiting Fellow, RIETI

Winston Churchill, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, once offered the following wisdom (or so it was reported, but there seems to be no grounds for this statement, making it subject to endless dispute with some arguing that the words were actually uttered by a certain celebrity, not Churchill):

"If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain."

Indeed, a perception gap between the youth and the elderly is the norm in politics. Probably, there is no need to quote the words of someone famous, as just thinking of your parents, superiors at work, or children in the neighborhood would be enough. Intergenerational conflict is the driving force of humankind and, as Mao Zedong put it, "young, poor, and unknown" fledglings have always been the ones who change the course of history. However, those young revolutionists, who changed history driven by their anger and contempt against the old and useless, also become the old and useless themselves, and will be wiped out by the next generation. We can only "advance one funeral at a time," as noted by German physicist Max Planck.

Despairing the "silver democracy"

However, since the beginning of this century, things have been somewhat troublesome. It appears that the anger of the youth is now turning into despair.

The "funerals," which are supposed to bury away the old and useless, have been delayed again and again, leaving politics—or I should say the world—in the hands of the zombified elderly. What we are seeing is a sense of despair about the so-called "silver democracy," referring to a democracy in which the elderly represents a large portion of voters and thus has greater influence on politics. A legislator who is an acquaintance of mine, once told me a horrifying story about a certain political party contemplating redefining the term "youth" to refer to those aged 60 or under. This sort of episode evokes concerns that politicians have become symbols of the zombified elderly, seemingly leading to a deepening of the sense of despair.

Coined in Japan, the term "silver democracy" is probably unique to this country, but similar concerns are being voiced in many other countries as many people predict that the population of humankind will age and begin to decrease in the first half of the 21st century.

For instance, Empty Planet, which was published earlier this year, predicts a decline in global population in the coming years, provoking various pro and con arguments. A much talked about book, Factfulness, also discusses a global population decline in the coming years as if it were a fact.

When population declines and aging, which are current challenges to our society, exerts a great deal of influences on the realm of intergenerational conflicts, there emerges a new raging tide of silver democracy. In this article, I would like to explore how to fight against the tide of silver democracy from my own viewpoint, as someone who is aged between 25 and 35 years and self-claims to be fit to mediate conflicts over silver democracy.

How can we break the tide of silver democracy?

One often-proposed way to overcome the silver democracy issue is to create an election system that can better reflect the voice of young people, such as creating generational electoral constituencies dedicated to voters belonging to particular generations, weighting votes based on the average number of years remaining for a voter to live, and allowing parents to vote on behalf of their children below voting age. These ideas are no longer only social-scientific fiction. They are becoming a real possibility as exemplified by Hungary, where the National Assembly has gone so far as to deliberate a plan to introduce proxy votes for children.

However, would such a future-oriented election system change the voting results?

In order to find an answer to this question, I estimated the result if votes had been weighted by the average remaining life expectancy, using the U.S. presidential election of 2016 as an example. I used data from the American National Election Studies for information on voter choice and age, while average remaining life expectancies are based on the United States Life Tables 2014 published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hillary Clinton should have been the true president?

In a nutshell, this led me to infer that Hillary Clinton would have been the U.S. president if votes had been weighted by the average remaining life expectancy. This is plotted in Fig. 1 below, and we can see that the nationwide share of votes won by Clinton would increase from approximately 43% (227 electoral votes as indicated in the upper bar) to approximately 63% (336 electoral votes as indicated in the lower bar). She would have won a comfortable majority.

Fig. 2 below provides a more detailed analysis, illustrating in which states the winner would have been different if votes were weighted by the average remaining life expectancy. States shown in blue (Democrats) are those in which the winner would change from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, whereas the opposite would occur in those shown in red (Republicans). We can see that the so-called "Rust Belt" states—such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan—that were key to Trump's victory, would have flipped to Clinton, if votes had been weighted by the average remaining life expectancy. Film director Michael Moore had correctly predicted Trump's victory, saying, "Trump's election will be the biggest 'f**k you' ever recorded in human history," and just as expected, those shouting turned out to be elderly people in the Rust Belt.

Fig. 1: Hillary Clinton would have won the presidential election–Alternate election results with votes weighted by the average remaining life expectancy
Fig. 2: Hillary Clinton would have won the Rust Belt–States in which weighted voting would have altered the winner

An electoral system designed to give weight to the voice of the youth is likely to make significant changes to the results of crucially important elections such as the U.S. presidential election.

Are such changes good?

Just stop and think, and a certain suspicion will immediately arise in your mind. As the proverb says, time flies and it may be your turn tomorrow, that is, the youth of today will be the elderly of tomorrow. Looking back from the distant future, for instance, several hundred years from now, an age difference of several decades between the youth and the elderly today should be inconsequential. If so, when someone shouts out, "Defeat the silver democracy! Let's hear the voice of the youth," that person is only looking at the immediate future and not the distant future. This results in a paradox where people feel compelled to listen to the voice of the (immediate) future because they think too little about the (distant) future.

Thinking that way, the so-called silver democracy may not be the problem that really matters.

Then, what is the real problem?

What is important is to incorporate the true voice of the distant future—which would dwarf any difference that may exist between the youth and the elderly of today—into politics. As an example thought exercise, immortality would make citizens and politicians alike more conscious of the distant future. Imagine the future world depicted by Yuval Noah Harari in his best-selling book Homo Deus, where humankind will have reached immortality. This world of immortality would compel us to incorporate the distant future into today's politics.

If that is impossible, we should try to predict what humankind will be wishing for several hundred years from now and incorporate it into today's politics. Would someone please develop a technology that makes it possible to introduce such a political system?

>> Original text in Japanese

* Translated by RIETI.

June 15, 2019 Weekly Toyo Keizai

July 29, 2019