A couple of items of news pose the intriguing question of what impact an older population will have on politics. To take the more trivial first, research in the UK suggests that over-55s are blocking the development of wind power, consistently leading campaigns against wind turbines that would benefit future generations. On a rather more serious scale, Republican success in the US midterm elections is being widely attributed to the voting patterns of an older electorate.
In the past, there has been quite a lot of hopeful propagandizing for the view that the radicals of the 1960s will turn into the public-spirited utopians of the 21st century. Theodore Roszak, once the chronicler of the counter culture, speculated in his recent book, The Making of An Elder Culture, that upcoming generations of older people would be like no others we’ve seen.
‘The old are not a good audience for a dog-eat-dog social ethic,’ he wrote. ‘If anything, they create an ambience which favours the survival of the gentlest.’
Yet the ambience of the midterm elections was overwhelmingly angry. The tea party movement is the outgrowth of that anger and, according to Ed Pilkington of the Guardian, who spent much of the campaign on the Tea Party Express bus, the average age of those attending its rallies was over 50, with pensioners particularly visible.
In Florida, where 35% of voters are aged 65+ (compared to 23% across the nation) Marco Rubio was the tea party’s most prominent success. The 65+ vote across the United States went Republican by a 20 point margin. Not so much for liberals to cheer about there, then.
The British writer Fred Pearce has speculated that rather less testosterone in world affairs could turn out to be a very good thing and that the ageing population may bring about ‘a permanent end to patriarchy,’ given that it will probably be dominated by women. Anyone who assumes that this will mean a less confrontational, more empathetic and environmentally conscious group of elders should look at the research published in the last couple of days, which suggests that only six out of 10 over-55s support the development of wind farms, compared to 86% of 16-34-year olds and 100% of under-24s.
So will the very large group of older people associated with the ageing population be more idealistic than the old have ever been before? Or will they carry into old age qualities that owe more to those other babyboomer features, self-centredness and a sense of entitlement?
After Tuesday’s elections, the ambitions of those who believed, with Theodore Roszak, that ‘free-market economics and the elder culture are not a good fit,’ must feel rather shakier. The hopefulness that characterised the presidential elections in 2008 has evaporated. Apart from anger, the defining attitude of the electorate as expressed to exit pollsters was pessimism.