Going Grey: The Mediation of Politics in an Ageing Society by Scott Davidson

Sarah Harper on the changing approach of the media and governments to ageing populations

March 14, 2013

Thatcher’s children are alive, well and voting. The experience of industrial strife during the 1970s, followed by the rise of Thatcherite economics, has shaped the political intentions of a whole generation of older voters, much in the same way that the introduction of the welfare state created a generation committed to collective social welfare and community solidarity. That is the claim made by Scott Davidson, whose thesis rests on the intriguing question - as this section of the electorate moves from middle age to “grey” - how ageing issues translate into the arena of inter-party competition.

The latter half of the 20th century saw the more developed countries, and in particular those of Europe, experience population ageing to a degree unprecedented in demographic history. As both fertility and mortality rates fell, so the median age of the population increased. By 2000, there were more people over 60 than under 15 in Europe, and by the end of this decade, half of the population of the region will be aged over 50. Rising alongside these demographics is the public’s fear that this shift will lead to unsupportable economic burdens because of the need to finance pensions and long-term care.

Understanding the reality of such demographic issues is vital for governments. Public spending on pensions, high dependency ratios between workers and non-workers, rising healthcare costs, and a slowdown in consumption are all phenomena that can be addressed by policy, given the political will.

Yet, as Davidson explores, the political will may not be forthcoming, owing to assumptions about the voting intentions of large swathes of the population. On the one hand, images of the “grey burden” are highlighted in media stories promoting the view that the NHS, and even our economy, will collapse under the strain of health and pension demand. This negative discourse, however, arises not from empirical evidence but from the fear of the media organisations themselves of allowing their brands to appear too senior-friendly, and their desire to court younger viewers and readers. On the other hand, political parties have demonstrated no desire to associate themselves with such messages of inter-generational conflict. While their electoral offices may segment the electorate by age, they also increasingly recognise that we do not vote on age lines, but along a complex spectrum influenced by socio-economic status, gender, life course and our commitment to others - especially the generations within our family networks.

The result, argues Davidson, is a move by all UK parties towards “age- neutral campaigning”. Parties, like media groups, do not want to be associated with a brand that appeals to older voters but may repel younger ones, and vice versa. As Davidson concludes, while the main political parties are reorientating themselves towards satisfying the needs of older voters, this will be presented to the electorate in a manner that does not isolate younger voters.

While Davidson presents a somewhat eclectic scanning exercise of the various stances shown towards the ageing electorate by UK media and political organisations over the past 50 years, he disappointingly does not grasp the real issue at stake. As population ageing moves across the globe over the coming decades, it leads to global imbalances in skills, growth, and potentially in political and economic power. The burning political question then is not so much how UK voting will be affected by age divisions within its national boundaries - but more how UK politics will adjust to a global arena where we have become old, when the majority of the world is still young.

Going Grey: The Mediation of Politics in an Ageing Society

By Scott Davidson
Ashgate, 206pp, £55.00
ISBN 97814094339 and 472421 (e-book)
Published 1 December 2012

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