More thoughts on setting an age limit on voting in a Democracy

My last post introduced the idea of having an upper age limit for voting as a means of restoring the historic strength of democracy from a mostly young voting population.   With longer lifespans and higher quality of life for older people, the older generation are having a larger voice in government and are retaining positions of authority longer and this is diminishing the voting influence of younger adults and their ability to find vacancies to enter influential positions.  At the same time, the political incentives to attract older voters has placed more emphasis on protecting and expanding benefits to older people through pension-like benefits (social security, subsidized health insurance) and through protecting the privileged positions (laws against age discrimination and mandatory retirement).   These benefits must come from increased burdens on younger people through higher taxes (and inflated health-insurance policies) or from having to later service the debt that is accumulating to pay these elder benefits now.

The risk to democracy is that the young people may not come to the government’s defense when challenged by internal protests or riots, or by external threats.  I pointed to evidence in collapsing democracies or near-democracies in Middle East as a hint of what may happen if we do not give young people their chance to influence and run government.   The hint from the Middle East is that the young people can find better opportunities in a disruptive new government that replaces the older one dominated by older people.   In a strenuous conflict between generations, the younger generation will always have the advantage.

This problem of too many old voters is a relatively new phenomena for democracies.   In 19th century US, the population tended to be very young with most elections decided by young people and with many influential positions open to younger people through the frequent vacancies due to people aging out of their jobs as a result of declining health or death.

An upper age limit on voting can restore the influence of younger people.   Older people will continue to enjoy their long and healthy lives, but at some point they will lose their right to vote.  Obviously, this proposal is impractical.  Most people are not inclined to voluntarily give up their right to vote once they have earned it.  In addition, my claim is that the older people already have enough political influence sufficient to prevent a democratic process to take their voting rights away.

I am suggesting there are clues that continued shift of voting influence toward older populations moves democracy into uncharted territories.  The resulting democracy may not be as resilient as past experience when the voting influence was much younger.   It may take a crisis to discover the building weakness of a democracy dominated by old people.  I’m suggesting that global current events provide ample clues that such a crisis will occur where either the government is challenged in such a way that a large number of young people refuse to defend it, or that the young people themselves will lead the challenge.

The strength of democracy comes from the strength of the individuals in that democracy.  Most of that strength is concentrated in younger people.

My objective in this post is to defend the concept of setting an upper age limit for voting and in particular to set that age limit to be 55 instead of some higher age such as 90 or 100.

Shift electoral power to young people

The point of setting a maximum age limit is to restore the approximate relative influence of young people that they enjoyed during the very successful years of US democracy during the 19th and early 20th century.   The upper age limit must be low enough to exclude sufficient number of people from voting so that the younger voters can have an appropriate level of influence on voting and policy-making.   According my calculations from census bureau data, about 32% of the population is over 55, but only 16% is over 65, and only 7% is over 75.   The 55 year age limit results in a significant shift in voting power to young people.  Setting the age at 65 is much less effective and by 75 there is hardly an effect at all.   In terms of population size, 55 works best as an upper voting age limit.

Voting multiplier through influence

Older people have many ways to influence younger people’s votes.   Many young people will allow their votes to be influenced by their respecting the politics of their parents or grandparents.   Outside of the family, older people tend to have positions of leadership, management, or seniority (such as mentor status) that will influence the younger people below them where this influence can subtly (or not so subtly) include political ideas.   In addition, older people tend to be wealthier or more secure financially so that they are able to provide donations that will often include donations to political campaigns designed to influence voting.   There are many ways that the older generation can multiply their votes through influencing others.   At the aggregate level, taking away older people’s voting rights should not significantly diminish their influence in politics because they can still convince younger people to vote consistent with the older people’s views.

Encourage more influence on young people

A corollary of the above observation is that older people can influence younger people.   In current politics there is a tendency for age groups to isolate from each other.   For example, the rise of the Tea Party gave political power to mostly older people who had conservative views.   Their resulting political power came from their collective right to vote.  As a result, they had little incentive to influence younger voters when they have the votes they need from their own group.   A maximum voting age limit of 55 would have forced them to use their organization to present their case to the younger people who still have the right to vote.

This is very important.  Part of the deterioration we are seeing in institutions is likely a result of a breakdown in inter-generational communications.   There is a world-wide trend of segregating the older people from the younger people.  At the community level, the result is that the younger people are not being influenced by the older generation.  In terms of ideologies, older people tend to be more moderate and cautious about their beliefs while younger people tend to be more confident and radical.   Without inter-generational communication, the younger people will lose the moderating influence of the older generation.

Setting a max voting age to be 55 will encourage more inter-generational conversations because that will be the only way the older generation will have voting influence on the government.  As mentioned in the last section, as a group, the older generation has abundant opportunities to exert their influence.

Old people defend old-age benefits

The success of the US democracy during the 19th and early 20th century was in large part due to the electoral support for policies that encouraged risk-taking in business innovation and entrepreneurship.  Starting around the mid-20th century, we began to provide more safety net benefits to eventually include social security, public-service pensions, medicare, and a monetary policy that places a priority on fighting inflation.  At first these benefits were a small burden on the government but with the aging population, the costs of these benefits are beginning to exceed the tax revenues.   Lately, we have have been funding the shortfall by adding to the national debt (through various budgetary techniques).   I believe that such old-age qualified benefits should be paid from revenues instead of debts because these will never be investments that will pay back in the future.   The investment into old age benefits is guaranteed to be a near total loss.

I support the idea that these benefits should be on a pay as you go basis where the total disbursement is allocated strictly from current tax revenues similar to the Dutch defined ambition model (as opposed to US defined contribution or defined benefit models).   It makes no sense to pay elder benefits with new debt.   However, much of our government benefits for old people are based on fixed benefits that obligate spending independent of tax revenues.   Because we can not change these plans, we must pay the benefits with deficit spending.   The problem is most acute with medical benefits of medicare.   These defined benefit programs are placing a huge burden on young people in terms of higher taxes and of eventually servicing debt of dead beneficiaries.

The problem with the dominant older voters is that they have a vested interest in preserving or even expanding these benefits.   For example, recently there have been complaints about inadequate cost-of-living increases or objections to changes in cost-of-living calculations that can reduce benefits.   There is a problem when the beneficiaries of these programs have sufficient voting clout to defend and expand these spending programs.

Introducing an upper age limit for voting will present a new political environment that will allow us to reform our old-age benefit programs to be more affordable and sustainable for the new reality of longer lifespans and life-extensions during terminal illnesses.   The beneficiaries of these programs will not have a direct vote for new politicians tasked with solving the problem.   However, as I noted earlier, the older generation retains substantial influence through their familiar connections (being grandparents or parents of voters), and through their leadership roles or their access to wealth.   They can still have a substantial influence on protecting or expanding benefits, but because they lose the right to vote they will will have to gain this influence by persuading younger voters to vote on their behalf.

By 55, people are more serious about retirement planning

In the current economy, the typical retirement age is 65-69 and there are many people who continue to work will into their 70s or 80s.   With this reality, the 55 year old is still at least a decade away from retirement.  For those who are employed, they are more likely to be in jobs or careers where they have confidence that they’ll remain employed until they reach retirement age.

At around 55, people will direct more of their attention to their own retirements.  As a result, their politics will tend to be more aligned with the older population than with the younger population.   They will begin to favor protecting and expanding old-age benefits of social-security and medicare.   They will also favor policies that protect their jobs or careers over policies that can encourage disruptive market changes that can put their careers into jeopardy.   By this age, people start sharing politics with the older generation.  This justifies including them in the disenfranchised in order to give more voice to the younger adults who need opportunities and low burdens in order to keep the government strong and resilient.

In addition to sharing political sensibilities with retired people, the over-55 group will be very defensive about preserving their own jobs so that they can maximize their retirement prospects.   As I mentioned in the last post, one of the frustrations for young people is the lack of vacancies available to them to move into positions of leadership and influence.   This lack is from older people who are motivated to defend their positions by their selfish goals of retirement.

Their defense for continued holding of their jobs often invokes their unique skills or experience, but these can be challenged.   At some point, they entered their jobs with less experience or skills.   A younger person today can be equally qualified as the older person was when he entered the position.

Politically, the older person will support policies that will protect his job, both from new disruptive businesses and from internal practices that can be prosecuted as age discrimination.   These policies protect his job and block opportunities for young people to succeed in the economy.

This particular argument about the change in perspective for older adults depends on deciding what is more valuable for a healthy democracy.   An experienced and trained older person retaining his job may offer economic benefits from his greater skill and maturity.   Personally, I doubt most senior people are offering significantly more benefit than a younger person can provide.  There is value to the inherent innovation that comes from learning new skills.  In any event, the younger person will have more energy to pursue the job and a motivation to prove his capability.

There is the hidden risk of younger people unable to find a way to engage productively in the work place.  I worry about evidence such as in this article that shows declining workforce participation by people in ages of 20-54 while there is increasing participation by 55 and older.   We risk a building up of a frustrated population of young people who will decline in offering their contribution to super-majority consent to be governed when that consent is challenged by protests or riots.   Indeed they may find the protests and riots as offering better prospects than continuing the current system.


6 thoughts on “More thoughts on setting an age limit on voting in a Democracy

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