Toward a Comparative Politics and a Political Sociology of Population Aging

Do more older voters really lead to more pensioner power? Most rich democracies today are faced with significant population aging, as a combined result of longer life spans and lower fertility rates. Many now fear that elderly voters are becoming an immensely powerful political pressure group. After all, aging populations do not just entail more elderly people who are eligible to vote. These elderly electors also tend to actually go voting more often than younger voters. A number of ‘elderly power’ theorists therefore suggest that population aging pressurizes politicians into providing ever higher pensions and other pro-elderly policies – a claim that is often mistaken.

Some early clarion calls notwithstanding, political science and political sociology as modern disciplines have lagged behind somewhat in developing an integrated body of knowledge on population aging. Yet explicitly comparative and political explanations delving into long-run electoral and institutional processes and policy cultures stand a better chance at explaining the political processes of aging populations than mere demographic or descriptive social policy or gerontology approaches. Adopting such a political lense provides insights that are more theoretically refined and institutionally complex than the increasingly shrill and alarmist assertions being voiced recently about allegedly ‘gerontocratic’ welfare states dominated by unholy baby boomer alliances of ‘greedy grey’ voters and ‘myopic’ or populist politicians. This is what we argue in Ageing Populations in Post-Industrial Democracies: Comparative Studies of Policies and Politics, co-edited with Achim Goerres (University of Duisburg).


The politics of pension pain. Contributors to Ageing Populations in Post-Industrial Democracies find, for instance, that aging populations may simultaneously lead to delays in the implementation of large pension benefit generosity cuts and to the acceleration of medium-size cuts. Modifying prospect theory’s key insight that most actors are very loss averse, in my chapter with Markus Tepe we use event history analysis to argue that aging populations today may function as powerful ‘alarm bell signals.’ They put policymakers in a ‘loss frame,’ urging them to muddle through by implementing incremental cuts sooner rather than later – but perhaps only to better be able to delay electorally truly risky larger cuts. Politicians may thus jump to bite relatively small cutback bullets early, in order to postpone biting larger bullets. Counterintuitively, Tepe and I further find that neither the pressure of upcoming elections nor the amount of veto points in the political system have any effect on the timing of pension cuts. But partisan power does matter: more rightwing governments generally implement pension pain significantly earlier than leftwing governments.

Other chapters in Ageing Populations in Post-Industrial Democracies contradict frequent claims about the alleged policy sclerosis and reform-inability of aging democracies. For instance, Jennifer Sciubba shows that all three of the demographically oldest OECD societies, Italy, Germany, and Japan, have actually managed to implement policy reforms that directly hurt the interests of older voters in the past decade. Investigating two of the most liberal OECD welfare states, Great Britain and the USA, Jonas Edlund and Stefan Svallfors find very different temporal dynamics in popular welfare state support that are explained by these countries’ recent social policy histories. Moreover, there is simply no evidence that age differences are superseding class differences in explaining social policy attitudes. If anything, cohort differences are becoming less rather than more pronounced over time. This finding drives yet another nail in the coffin of the simplistic ‘gerontocracy’ or ‘generational wars’ arguments.

Grey parties and young families. Specific pensioners’ parties single-mindedly promoting narrow pensioner interests are another boogeyman that is often assumed to arise wherever population age. Yet, in Sean Hanley’s chapter such parties are found to have been successful only in those democracies that combine adequate levels of self-organization of older people with already existing high levels of pro-elderly spending. In a first-ever analysis of grey parties in altogether 31 democracies, Hanley finds in addition that the main obstacle to the emergence of grey-interest parties in Western Europe is the stability of established parties and party systems and their continued success in attracting older voters. But in Eastern Europe, the main obstacle is a weak civic infrastructure for older people and a changing but steady supply of catch-all populist protest parties. Hanley argues that West European pensioners’ parties are thus likely to succeed by pursuing strategies that link anti-establishment protest with the specific sectional demands for elderly voters. But in Eastern Europe successful pensioner parties emerge in the niche provided by less stable party systems.

At the other side of the generational spectrum, high levels of intergenerational solidarity inside the family in caring for children also increase the demand of young families for the state to provide childcare – but only in those welfare states that are already highly active in providing public childcare. The chapter by Achim Goerres and Markus Tepe argues that young families are cognitively constrained in their expectations for policies that benefit their own age group. In welfare states that do little to support families, individual involvement with the family does not impact on what these young citizens expect – perhaps because they have learned to expect little from the state. Goerres and Tepe conclude that generational policy models developed in the past can powerfully shape the generational policy expectations of voters in different age cohorts today.

Alarm bells for activating reforms – not alarmist diagnoses of gerontocracy. In sum, Achim Goerres and I make a plea in Ageing Populations in Post-Industrial Democracies for more refined comparative-political and political sociology research into the political processes and the policy feedback effects arising from population aging. The demographic alarm bells currently tolling in many OECD countries indicate the need for urgent policy rethinks. And they appear to be imprisoning politicians in ever-tighter electoral and fiscal straitjackets. But they need not provide grounds for alarmism. Population aging certainly provides urgent arguments for (re)activating the fiscal and human capital basis of aging welfare states and for providing better ‘rates of return’ from the intergenerational social compact for today’s and tomorrow’s young generations. No doubt some political actors, and some advanced democracies, are more resistant to such reforms than others. But the institutional and sociological complexities and context-dependencies of the politics of population aging just do not justify one-size-fits-all prescriptions or blanket generational blame games.


[4] Vanhuysse, Pieter and Achim Goerres (eds) (2012) Ageing Populations in Post-Industrial Democracies: Comparative Studies of Policies and Politics. Abingdon: Routledge/ECPR Studies in European Political Science series.

This entry was posted in Ageing, Pensions, Unemployment, Welfare by Pieter Vanhuysse. Bookmark the permalink.
Pieter Vanhuysse

About Pieter Vanhuysse

Pieter Vanhuysse, PhD (LSE) is Professor of Comparative Welfare State Research, University of Southern Denmark. Previously, he was Head of Research and Deputy Director at the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research, Vienna (affiliated to the UN). His research on the political sociology of public policies and welfare states, intergenerational policy conflict, and population aging has been published in over forty journals including West European Politics, Public Choice, Political Studies, Social Policy & Administration, Journal of European Social Policy, Journal of Social Policy and Journal of Public Policy. Pieter has co-edited Post-Communist Welfare Pathways (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and Ageing Populations in Post-Industrial Democracies (Routledge/ECPR, 2012). His book Divide and Pacify (CEU Press, 2006) was nominated for the American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award for Political Sociology.

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