Is pen­sioner pop­ulism here to stay?

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - OPINION - EDOARDO CAMPANELLA

Fu­ture of the World Fel­low at the Cen­ter for the Gov­er­nance of Change at IE Uni­ver­sity in Madrid

The right-wing pop­ulism that has emerged in many Western democ­ra­cies in re­cent years could turn out to be much more than a blip on the po­lit­i­cal land­scape. Be­yond the Great Re­ces­sion and the mi­gra­tion cri­sis, both of which cre­ated fer­tile ground for pop­ulist par­ties, the ag­ing of the West’s pop­u­la­tion will con­tinue to al­ter po­lit­i­cal power dy­nam­ics in pop­ulists’ favour.

It turns out that older vot­ers are rather sym­pa­thetic to na­tion­al­ist move­ments. Older Bri­tons voted dis­pro­por­tion­ately in favour of leav­ing the Euro­pean Union, and older Amer­i­cans de­liv­ered the U.S. pres­i­dency to Don­ald Trump. Nei­ther the Law and Jus­tice (PiS) party in Poland nor Fidesz in Hun­gary would be in power with­out the en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port of the el­derly. And in Italy, the League has suc­ceeded in large part by ex­ploit­ing the dis­con­tent of North­ern Italy’s se­niors. Among to­day’s pop­ulists, only Marine Le Pen of France’s Na­tional Rally (for­merly the Na­tional Front) – and pos­si­bly Jair Bol­sonaro in Brazil – re­lies on younger vot­ers.

Next spring, this age-driven vot­ing pat­tern could in­flu­ence the out­come of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tion. Ac­cord­ing to re­cent stud­ies, older Euro­peans – es­pe­cially those with less ed­u­ca­tion – are more sus­pi­cious of the Euro­pean project and less trust­ing of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment than younger Euro­peans. This is sur­pris­ing, given that mem­o­ries of the Sec­ond World War and its legacy should be fresher for older gen­er­a­tions. Nev­er­the­less, their skep­ti­cism to­ward demo­cratic EU in­sti­tu­tions may ex­plain their re­cep­tive­ness to au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers. Most likely, a grow­ing sense of in­se­cu­rity is push­ing the el­derly into the pop­ulists’ arms. Leav­ing aside coun­try-spe­cific pe­cu­liar­i­ties, na­tion­al­ist par­ties all prom­ise to stem global forces that will af­fect older peo­ple dis­pro­por­tion­ately.

For ex­am­ple, im­mi­gra­tion tends to in­still more fear in older vot­ers, be­cause they are usu­ally more at­tached to tra­di­tional val­ues and self-con­tained com­mu­ni­ties. Like­wise, glob­al­iza­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal progress of­ten dis­rupt tra­di­tional or legacy in­dus­tries, where older work­ers are more likely to be em­ployed. The rise of the dig­i­tal econ­omy, dom­i­nated by peo­ple in their 20s and 30s, is also push­ing older work­ers to the mar­gins. But, un­like in the past, crum­bling pen­sion sys­tems can no longer ab­sorb such labour-mar­ket shocks. The re­sult is that older work­ers who lose their job are con­demned to long-term unem­ploy­ment.

More­over, pen­sion­ers now have rea­son to worry about threats to their re­tire­ment ben­e­fits from their own chil­dren. Young peo­ple, frus­trated with so­cioe­co­nomic sys­tems that are clearly tilted in favour of re­tirees, are in­creas­ingly call­ing for fairer in­ter­gen­er­a­tional re­dis­tri­bu­tion of scarce re­sources. For ex­am­ple, Italy’s Five Star Move­ment, which gov­erns in a coali­tion with the League, re­cently called for a “cit­i­zen’s in­come” that would be avail­able to all unemployed peo­ple re­gard­less of age. So, while right-wing pop­ulists have at­tracted older vot­ers, left-wing pop­ulists have gained a fol­low­ing among younger gen­er­a­tions.

By back­ing right-wing pop­ulists, older vot­ers hope to re­turn to a time when do­mes­tic af­fairs were in­su­lated from global forces and na­tional bor­ders were less por­ous. At the heart of to­day’s na­tion­al­ist pol­i­tics is a prom­ise to pre­serve the sta­tus quo – or even to re­store a myth­i­cal past.

Hence, na­tion­al­ist politi­cians of­ten re­sort to nos­tal­gic rhetoric to mo­bi­lize their older sup­port­ers. For his part, Mr. Trump has pledged to bring back jobs in the Amer­i­can Rust Belt, once the cen- tre of U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ing. Like­wise, there could be no clearer sym­bol of re­sis­tance to change than his pro­posed wall on the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der. And his crack­down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and ban on trav­ellers from pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries sig­nals his com­mit­ment to a “pure” Amer­i­can na­tion.

Sim­i­larly, in con­ti­nen­tal Europe, right-wing pop­ulists want to re­turn to a time be­fore the adop­tion of the euro and the Schen­gen sys­tem of pass­port-free travel within most of the EU. And they of­ten ap­peal di­rectly to older vot­ers by promis­ing to lower the re­tire­ment age and ex­pand pen­sion ben­e­fits (both are flag­ship poli­cies of the League).

In Bri­tain, the “Leave” cam­paign promised vin­di­ca­tion for those who have been left be­hind in the age of glob­al­iza­tion. Never mind that it also touted the idea of a free and in­de­pen­dent “Global Bri­tain.” The Brex­i­teers are not known for their con­sis­tency.

At any rate, to the ex­tent that to­day’s pop­ulist wave is driven by de­mo­graph­ics, it is not likely to crest any­time soon. In grey­ing so­ci­eties, the po­lit­i­cal clout of the el­derly will steadily grow; and in rapidly chang­ing economies, their abil­ity to adapt will de­cline. As a re­sult, older vot­ers will de­mand more and more so­cioe­co­nomic se­cu­rity, and ir­re­spon­si­ble pop­ulists will be wait­ing in the wings to ac­com­mo­date them.

Can any­thing be done? To stem the na­tion­al­ist tide, main­stream par­ties ur­gently need to de­vise a new so­cial com­pact that ad­dresses the mount­ing sense of in­se­cu­rity among older vot­ers. They will need to strike a bet­ter bal­ance be­tween open­ness and pro­tec­tion, in­no­va­tion and reg­u­la­tion; and they’ll need to do so with­out fall­ing into a re­gres­sive pop­ulist trap.

The an­swer is not to suf­fo­cate global forces, but to ren­der them more tol­er­a­ble. Cit­i­zens of all ages need to be equipped to face cur­rent and fu­ture dis­rup­tions. In this sense, it is bet­ter to em­power the el­derly than sim­ply to pro­tect them. Most ad­vanced economies can­not af­ford mas­sive new ben­e­fits for an over­sized in­ter­est group. And be­sides, a pol­icy that makes peo­ple re­liant on some form of ex­ter­nal sup­port is mo­rally ques­tion­able, at best.

In­stead, gov­ern­ments should fo­cus on up­grad­ing older work­ers’ skills, cre­at­ing more op­por­tu­ni­ties for older and younger gen­er­a­tions to work to­gether, and hold­ing dis­rup­tors ac­count­able for the so­cioe­co­nomic con­se­quences they gen­er­ate. Sub­si­dies to the most vul­ner­a­ble should re­main a last re­sort.

In many ways, older vot­ers’ in­fat­u­a­tion with pop­ulists is a cry for help. It is up to en­light­ened politi­cians to re­spond to it con­struc­tively.

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