On Consequences of Europe's Age Pyramid

The largest problem of Europe is its age pyramid. The problem is political and it seems unique in the history.

On Age and Conservatism

My main premise and intuition are that people get more conservative with age. This is an anecdotal feeling: it’s surprisingly hard to find evidence for it. I found a reasonable US study from the 90s, but I had trouble finding something that would be well-designed and cross-cultural.

But it matches my observation. It’s not that people don’t change their opinions with age: it’s that the rate of change is slower than the rate of change of the environment around them, producing mismatch.

I also don’t mean it as people moving conservative in the right/left-wing sense, but rather people clinging on the “good old times”, often amended with “when things made sense”. Subjectively, the incidence of this rises after 501.

On Change

Historically, people over 50 were a small portion of the population: it seems to be around small in medieval Germany, matching what you see in modern Angola (under 10%). In modern Germany, it’s around 45%, attacking 50% in 2050. This has obvious consequences for the economy and retirement systems, but it seems to me that political consequences are under-appreciated.

I don’t see societies change because they choose to. They are dragged into changing, kicking, and screaming. Young people play a pivotal role, exactly because they don’t perceive “a change”, but rather “trying to figure out the best possibility with an assumed state of the world”.

I think it doesn’t matter if this happens in a democratic context or not. If young people form a vast majority of the society, they may note vote you out, but they may revolt you out. And it’s not the underdog revolt: age pyramid happens across all socio-economical classes.

This natural adaptation mechanism is broken now.

OK, Boomer

One of the contributions to the fall of Communism in my country was an obvious detachment of the aging ruling class from reality. There was a talk by the then-Chairman of the Party that got leaked and served as proof of incompetence, proof that those people should retire instead of staying in power. He was 66.

The Party was ousted and a new class of politicians was voted into power. Thirty years later, the same politicians are still there and this year, the PM and President are the same age as the PM and President back then. I think it illustrates the point nicely: the transition of power doesn’t happen on its own but under pressure. If a sufficient amount of voters are old enough, the pressure is not there and you can win with the “bring back good old times” motto.

But this makes young people an “unseen minority”. One of the goals of democracy is to make everyone feel represented. In this case, young people can rightfully disregard the whole system. “Whatever you say, boomer”.

The minority problem is not new in itself. But other unrepresented minorities are self-contained in their socio-economical bubble. At least in Europe, people still have kids across all classes and this will create a different kind of pressure.

Change of the age pyramid is not likely. There is no trend towards having more kids and exactly because of conservatism, there is not much approval for young immigration of people with different cultural backgrounds.

The Adaptation Gap

It’s hard to predict whether this dynamic will make young people snap, but I guess that the revolt will more likely be contained.

But change is an adaptation to reality. The rest of the world will not wait for Europe. There will be a growing gap into how well is Europe adapted and that will erode Europe’s current advantages.

I can see only one counter-trend. Young people will vote with their feet and move elsewhere. If this reaches critical mass, countries will try to maintain them. This can turn into despotism, but it’s as likely that there will be political changes designed to maintain them.

The Counterexample

There is a counterexample of a society with a heavy amount of elderly that is politically conservative and yet very adaptable: Japan. But I am not sure Europe will go the same way.

For one, Japan lived through two very radical transformations in living memory. Parents of the current elderly lived through Meiji Restoration. There are people alive that lived through the occupation.

But mostly, Japan is about the only culture in the world that developed until the 19th century without any Western influence2. The social contract is as different as it can be and I am not sure the lessons can be transferred.

The Current Affairs

Covid accelerated trends I saw before: the rise of nostalgia for good old times, the distrust of institutions, the feeling of not being represented in large portions of the population. As with every economical crisis, it increased an already problematic disparity.

I see the age pyramid as an important force pushing us towards conservatism and nationalism. It may be that the minority will snap, but until it happens, I don’t see this changing any time soon.

  1. The onset can happen much earlier. For example, as of me writing this, I am not 40 yet and I am already horrified by the consequences of crypto that I see unfolding. I am quite sure that rates me as conservative since younger people take the existence of crypto as an assumption and are just trying to figure out a reasonable world with crypto in it. Similarly, I do treat climate change as an assumption and try to figure out how to survive this, whereas I see older people often dispute the very existence of the change happening. ↩︎

  2. Sounds way better than “war” or “genocide”. ↩︎

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