In 2016, 8.5 per cent of the world’s population was aged 65 or over, but that number will spike to nearly 17 per cent by 2050, meaning over a billion people on the planet will be 65 or older. It is expected that the elderly of the future will be more active than previous generations but we tend to think about this in a physical rather than political sense and by doing so we miss one of the greatest challenges facing our societies: conflict between generations.
Differences of opinion are part of what defines one generation from the next, but in a world where the young have never known life without the internet our gaps and cracks seem to be widening. One of the more profound differences is that, unlike their elders, most young people do not believe that geography is destiny. Weaned on the world wide web and raised on social networks, they see themselves as part of a global network and conservative, protectionist viewpoints seem futile if not absurd.
Brexit provides a glaring example of this difference of worldview at play and emphasised the gap between the values of young and old. In the 2016 referendum, 75 per cent of 18–24 year olds voted to remain in the EU, compared to just 39 per cent of those aged 65 and over. The result was brutal for young people in Britain who now face a future with diminished access to Europe and a creeping sense that their parents’ generation don’t know about, don’t care for or totally disagree with their worldview.
We have never been in a situation where the numbers are stacked so heavily in favour of the elderly. They are rich thanks to the property market boom and they are in power thanks to their longevity, both of which make it easier for them to translate their worldview into everyone’s reality. A gerontocracy is a society where government is based on rule by old people and the real risk of any gerontocracy is that it is also likely to favour the interests of old people at the expense of the young. People with short-term motivations making decisions with very long-term consequences is a problem that sits at the root of many of our greatest environmental sustainability issues, and gerontocracy is the most significant social sustainability issue of our time.
“Reading the news on any given day we are are led to believe that the greatest conflicts of the future will be between religions, political classes or nations, but it may well be between generations if we don’t begin to bring the young and old together.”
What we need is a way of creating a future to serve the interests of all ages and that is incredibly difficult to do. One radical way could be to weight votes in favour of those who will be most affected by political decisions (usually the young). This would kick down the ‘one person one vote’ principle of democracy and reverse the bias but the risk of just displacing the problem or creating an even worse problem is too great.
If we are to accept that all votes are equal, then we need other strategies. One completely uncontroversial initiative that can happen right now is younger people becoming more politically active. The Brexit vote, in which only 36 per cent of 18–24 year olds cast a ballot, is a very painful lesson in what apathy can lead to. This globally aware younger generation needs to learn from the Brexit outcome right across the world, not just in the United Kingdom. Young people are much better at using the tools of the time such as social media to coordinate, mobilise and gain voice. Technology is on their side in the battle between generations and they need to use this unfair advantage to make their beliefs more present and heard.
On the other side of the coin, older generations must better appreciate their role as custodians of a world that will ultimately be inherited by others. This seems to be the hardest thing to change because we tend to narrow rather than broaden our worldview as we age, but education and a more informed, constant and respectful relationship between generations would help. If the elderly could appreciate that threats to their way of life were not as dire as perceived or that the compromise to be made was not so great in real terms, perhaps we could shift the needle just a little bit on decisions in favour of those who will live out the consequences for longest.
Reading the news on any given day we are are led to believe that the greatest conflicts of the future will be between religions, political classes or nations, but it may well be between generations if we don’t begin to bring the young and old together. There is a mythological story about the outdoor clothing and hiking gear company Patagonia that provides a clue to the sort of thinking capable of unifying these different tribes and taking the debate out of an over-simplified ‘us versus you’ dichotomy. Patagonia’s Board has a fictitious member who represents the interests of all people in 100 years’ time. When the Board are split on an issue they collectively discuss what this future member would want and the future member’s vote is then counted as the decider. This not only creates healthy discussion about differences in opinion, it also allows Patagonia to act in the short-term with long-term interests in mind.
We need to constantly test the poetic notion that humanity’s similarities are greater than our differences because there is no guarantee it is actually true. Mental exercises to show everyone at the table that it is not just about those who are present but also those who are yet to come are a great way to make better decisions.
Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005 he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings an humanistic understanding and casual style to property development. ‘Gerontocracies’ is an excerpt from his forthcoming book.
Illustration by Luis Mendo.