Forum Summary: Is Democracy Sustainable in an Aging Nation?

Meridian 180 hosted a conversation among our membership about the sustainability of democracy in an aging nation from February 16, 2014 to March 21, 2014. What follows is a summary of that discussion.

Summary by Michael Lee

From February to March 2014, Meridian 180 hosted a forum regarding the sustainability of a democracy in an aging nation. The forum discussion largely revolved around the contention of Sung-In Jun (Hongik University). As background, Jun asserted that developed nations generally share two basic institutions—democracy and capitalism. In a democracy, “the people” hold political control through the vote. In a capitalist system, the productive class, i.e. young producers/wage earners, controls economic decision-making rights. Historically, these institutions have successfully integrated into a fair system where the productive class has maintained political control. The aging of populations, however, has shifted political control to the non-productive class, i.e., the elderly/retired. Accordingly, this productive/non-productive dichotomy may perhaps result in the following problem: The elderly/retired will squeeze the young with heavy taxes to increase welfare expenditures to fund, e.g., public pensions or generous medical insurance. The young will thus refuse to marry and reproduce, and the resulting low birthrate will accelerate aging until the economy and nation collapses.

Intergenerational Wealth Transfers

None of forum respondents denied that intergenerational wealth transfers are a reality in contemporary societies. Others, however, explicitly expounded on the burdens such transfers place on the youth. In terms of medical care, Thomas Riles (New York University Medical Center) noted that the cost of caring for the elderly is disproportionally high compared to the cost of caring for the young. To meet this burden, Riles explained the US government created Medicare—insurance for the elderly funded by taxing the young. Christopher Ford, moreover, asserted that intergenerational wealth transfers in America are more sweeping than Jun would have it. That is, the government borrows from future generations—the productive class’s children, and their children’s children who are, by definition, politically voiceless—to support those currently alive.

Do People Act in Accordance with the Class to which they Belong?

Overall, forum respondents agree that Jun’s assertion of a productive/non-productive dichotomy is a thought-provoking and important matter. Forum respondents, however, are cautious over whether such dichotomy sufficiently portrays the current state of contemporary societies. Harris Kim (Ewha Womans University), for example, contended that advanced age does not necessarily imply more political interest, participation, or power. As Kim explained, the effect of aging on voting is curvilinear. Older people are thus only more likely to vote to a certain point. Moreover, in the case of South Korea, Amy Levine (Pusan National University) noted that a significant number of capable and educated youths purposely remain unemployed in hopes of finding work at “prestigious” companies. Conversely, many elderly citizens continue to remain highly productive by taking on so-called “dirty, dangerous and difficult” jobs. What one may deduce from these examples is that people may not necessarily act in accordance with the class to which they purportedly belong.

Perhaps that reason for this is that the elderly/retired do not comprise a coherent class. Fleur John (University of New South Wales) questioned the extent that generational aggregations shape people’s decision making. In describing class-consciousness generally, John explained childcare in Australia, where young and low-paid workers share the burden of childcare with unpaid grandparents. Although the two groups do not seem to experience a sense of “groupness,” John asserted that this might change if other factors besides age create a connection between the groups. Christopher Ford, moreover, asserted that the functional significance of the term “elderly” is indeterminate on its own. Such a term, however, could crystalize around a particular definition in response to outside circumstances, e.g., government policy. Ford offered the example of military retirees between 55 and 62. Although this group of retirees never maintained a class identity, such an identity immediately developed in response to Congress’ attempt in 2013 to reduce their pensions. Harris Kim added to the conversation by noting that the connection between age and political participation often is reduced or even dissipates when economic class is taken into consideration. Accordingly, if people do not self identify as a class, Eric San Juan (Georgetown University Law Center) questioned how such people can premise their rational decision making on class interests.

Will the Elderly/Retired Act for Self-benefit?

Even if a coherent class of the elderly/retired exists, forum respondents were still skeptical that such class will maintain a myopic, self-interested outtake on life. Such development is reflected in Taisu Zhang’s (Duke Law School) comments regarding late Imperial and Republican China’s relative economic success. While elders were in charge of supervising socio-political life during these eras, Zhang noted that there is little, if any, evidence that such elders promoted their own narrow self-interest over the welfare of their descendants. Daxiao Shi, moreover, asserted the prevalence of bequest motives, i.e., the elderly will unlikely squeeze the young at the risk of the economy collapsing. Although the elderly may certainly oppose certain policies, they may also vote to support others that mitigate burdens on the productive class at their expense. Shi noted that Japan recently increased its consumption tax rate to finance deficits, despite that such policy increases the tax burden of the retired.

Other forum participants added to this argument by voicing their suspicion of the extent that the elderly actually benefit from an inter-generational wealth transfer from the productive younger generation. Luke Nottage (Sydney Law School) pointed to Japanese crime statistics involving a significant percentage of the elderly repeatedly committing trivial crimes. Such instances, which Nottage described as “social suicide,” led him to believe that only some elderly in Japan benefit from such a wealth transfer. Leigh B. Bienen (Northwestern Law School) added to Nottage’s point by asserting that the American elderly are terrified of becoming an economic burden to their children, and also fear being unable to afford medical treatment. Accordingly, many choose to quietly manage their own deaths.

Is the Problem Peculiar to Democracy?

Jun’s contention perhaps calls for reevaluating the meaning of the term democracy, as many forum respondents questioned whether aging societies pose a problem to future generations, particularly if such societies are democratic. The views of forum respondents were somewhat divergent. Some forum participants seem to define the term democracy in hard terms. Jia-Guo Wang (Meridian 180 Member) Wang, for example, noted that if an aging population presents a danger to a system of governance, such system is not an authentic democracy. Thomas Riles expanded on this notion through his description of American Medicare. Although Riles stated that sustaining Medicare in America burdens the young, he contended that in a true democracy the elderly and young can compromise. Unfortunately, Riles clarified his belief that America’s system is not a true democracy, at least in terms of Medicare, where legislators are influenced by concerns of the medical industry rather than the vote.

Other forum respondents described democracy as an evolving institution. Christopher Ford, for example, argued that such a problem may be cultural rather than systemic, not of democracy per se, but of democracy at this particular point in its development. In America’s case, Ford points to a new meme of prioritization that tends to prize present-day indulgence over almost everything else. This cultural problem may also be apparent in other countries. It is certainly apparent in South Korea according to Amy Levine’s depiction of South Korea’s newly educated youths who often refuse jobs they believe are below their stature.


Ultimately, none of the forum participants discounted the importance of Jun’s contention. All seemed to agree that the world is encountering, and will continue to encounter, a serious problem as societies age and as the non-productive class increases in numbers. In order to understand this problem, however, policy makers may be required to move beyond framing it into a mere productive/non-productive dichotomy. That is, rectification conceivably necessitates that policy makers establish a more developed understanding of human nature— perhaps policies should be created to strengthen bequest motives; or, perhaps a political decision-making process differentiating the voting power of citizens is necessary.