Immediately after the Brexit vote, an idea began to spread through social networks. Jokingly or not, many voiced their frustration at the result by suggesting that old people should not be allowed to vote.
Citing a poll by the international market research firm YouGov, a table displaying support for the Remain and Leave options among different age groups showed that, while voters under the age of 50 had chosen to Remain, voters over 50 favored the Leave option. Support for Brexit was especially high among people over the retirement age.
Over the next several days, the idea of limiting the voting rights of elderly people made its way into the mainstream media. “Old people vote shortsightedly, choosing the least progressive outcome,” writes Joel Stein in Time. He goes on:
In surveys in the [United States] and the UK, people over 65—compared with people under 30—were nearly twice as likely to be against gay marriage; twice as likely to be pro-Brexit; half as likely to support legalization of marijuana; nearly five times less likely to want to spend money on education; 60 percent more likely to vote for Donald Trump; and nearly 50 percent more likely to say immigrants have a negative impact on society, despite the fact that they are being wheeled around by them. Whether these figures are accurate is irrelevant, since old people are so bad at Googling.
Albeit in a less caustic tone, David Schrieberg similarly argues in an article for Forbes that elderly support for Brexit mirrors their support for Trump in the United States, Marine LePen’s National Front in France, and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. He goes on to claim that older voters’ “bad electoral decisions” are caused by a “toxic rationale” that combines fear, anxiety, and nostalgia. He concludes, “Better to leave it to the young, who have their hopeful eye on the future, rather than their fearful elders, looking back to a mythic past.”
This depiction of the young as idealistic and full of hope and the elderly as fearful and nostalgic is remarkably common. Many believe that even the most progressive young people naturally become more conservative or even reactionary with age. But is this actually the case?
Empirically, the idea doesn’t seem to hold up. Schrieberg’s suggestion that support for far-right parties in France and the Netherlands is higher among the elderly is actually false. According to an I&O poll from December 2016, support for Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom is highest among young voters and declines dramatically with age. Less than five percent of voters over 65 support his xenophobic campaign. Likewise, the National Front is the top electoral choice among French voters under the age of 50, but among the elderly, Marine LePen’s ultra-nationalist party is the third choice.
The fact of the matter is that the political and cultural perspectives of the elderly are more complex than we tend to assume. A forthcoming project by the Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona and the Open Society Foundations further explores the difference between older and younger citizens across EU countries, dispelling the myth that the elderly form a single, increasingly conservative constituency. Ageing Democracies? Political Participation and Cultural Values among the Elderly in Europe brings together five individual fellows from various backgrounds, disciplines, and European contexts to produce works that challenge our preexisting notions of the elderly.
Through this variety of approaches—from academic studies to documentary films to an immersive theatrical play—the Ageing Democracies project hopes to shed light on a complex and unexplored topic with dramatic political implications. Ultimately, the elderly are as diverse as any other age group. Yet it often seems as if ageism is tolerated in our society, even by those who criticize other forms of discrimination such as racism, sexism, or homophobia.
The impacts of ageism are not going away anytime soon, especially not in Europe. According to the European Commission, by 2060 nearly 30 percent of Europe’s population will be 65 and over, up from 18 percent in 2014. During the same period, the continent’s old-age dependency ratio (i.e., people aged 65 and over relative to those aged 15–64) will rise from 27.8 percent to over 50 percent.
As population aging accelerates, affecting an increasingly large portion of the world, the politics of aging will only grow in importance. How democracies respond to the challenge of an older future is being decided today.