Old age is the stage of life closest to the end of the human life cycle; one likened to a second infancy as often as it is considered a prerequisite for wisdom. Not everyone will live to be a child a second time or wisen up the first. Human lifespan has stayed constant for over 2000 years, but life expectancy has varied considerably throughout history. At birth the longest lived paleolithic man could hope to live to 54, but the longest lived Boomer can hope to live to 124.
Ageism is discrimination in favour of, or against, individuals on the basis of their age. Typically discussion of ageism is concerned with discrimination against the elderly, and is characterised by focus on the erosion of their agency and their vulnerability to abuse and neglect. To address the erosion of the agency of the elderly governments world over give them tax breaks, subsidized access to medical care, retirement benefits, and other privileges. To address their vulnerability to abuse and neglect states enact legislation protecting the right to care from young or middle-aged kin, build nursing homes, and organize community level interventions. Such economic and legal policies designed to prevent the erosion of the agency of elders and remedy their vulnerability to abuse and neglect may be characterized as issuing from a gerontocratic position. In summary a position that privileges the interests of the elderly above those of children, and, young and middle-aged adults.
65% of the Indian population is under 35 while only 8.6% is over 60. One would think a democracy operating on majoritarian organizational principles would lead to policies that are if not biased in favour of the young, as in jejunism, at least not biased against them as in protectionist gerontocracy. Yet Indian society is staunchly gerontocratic. The elderly in India enjoy i. lower tax rates and bigger tax deductions, ii. travel discounts, iii. higher interest rates on investments, iv. separate queues at banks, hospitals, and other public utilities. So much for economic remedies to the erosion of agency that accompanies aging in Indian society. As for legal remedies to elder vulnerability the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act 2007 provides Indian seniors a safeguard against neglect and abuse from young and middle-aged adult kin.
The antithetical position to gerontocracy is jejunism, privileging children, and young and middle-aged adults, and pushing for annulment of economic as well as legal policies in place to protect the elderly in India. This is not the position I’ll argue for. I’ll argue for a qualified jejunism which—leaving legal policies deterring abuse and neglect unchallenged—questions the wisdom of gerontocratic protectionism on economic and political grounds.
Gerontocratic economic policies like lower tax rates and bigger tax deductions, higher interest rates on investments, subsidized travel, and separate queues assume that all things considered society is better off providing these advantages to their elderly. But, arguably society is worse off for these policies. The elderly have longer careers behind them and so have substantially larger savings than young and middle-aged adults who have much shorter work histories. A high tax rate on the larger savings pool of retired workers would increase government revenues more than would the same tax rate as applied to the smaller savings pool of early and mid-career workers.
Higher interest rates on the savings of the elderly more often stimulates consumption rather than investment or capital expenditures. Older people are less likely to start businesses and more likely to increase lifestyle expenditures, for instance by going on a cruise, or living off of fixed income generating instruments, unencumbered by work responsibilities than are young and middle-aged adults. Young and middle-aged adults who’d more likely make capital expenditures like founding businesses or buying stakes in existing businesses with such extra interest earnings would also be more likely to increase the future value of those interest earnings. Since they have a longer part of their career lifecycles still before them young and middle-aged workers’ intrinsic motivation to maximize the return on their investment incomes—and their time—is present and pressing. All things considered, a higher future value realised on interest earnings is better for society than a lower future value on the same sum. So, it should be young and middle-aged workers who should be getting the higher interest returns if social welfare maximization is the goal of interest rate policy.
Travel discounts and separate queues for the elderly grant them enhanced mobility and speed of access assuming saving their time is justified on account of their having less of it. This intuition seems to fit with the economic idea that an increase in the scarcity of a commodity ceteris paribus increases its value. But, the fact of the matter is more subtle as the value of a person’s time isn’t dependent only on how much of it they have but also on what they can achieve in that time. The elderly as a norm are able to do less with their time than are young and middle-aged adults. Furthermore, as the elderly have less to look forward to in the late stages of their career lifecycles their motivational drive to add economic value to their use of their time is muted. Grandma may be in a hurry to get back to her knitting, but her getting to it on time or later than she intended won’t materially change the world for better or worse. By contrast a young doctor held up in a bank queue can handle that many fewer patients on account of the delay, and thereby can exert a diminutive influence on the patients’ as well as his own productivity. Perhaps, a young medical professional deserves a special queue more than the geriatric knitter?
The policy influence exerted by entities lobbying for the interests of the elderly preferentially over those of children, young and middle-aged adults in democracies is also questionable on political grounds. Presumably, the elderly will be disposed to vote for parties most committed to delivering protectionist economic and legal policies which can often only be implemented at a cost to young and middle-aged adults. For instance, demands for free medical care for elders can only be met by funding the expenditures incurred with higher tax collections from young and middle-aged workers. But this is not in the best interests of a society where the elderly are a slender segment of the total population. Another related consideration against the continuation of political franchise for the elderly in a democracy arises from their intrinsically shorter life expectancy. Since seniors are less likely to make it from one election cycle to the next policies of governments they elect may end up sacrificing the productivity of young and middle-aged subjects in the interests of a vanishing electorate. Moreover, given their heightened propensity to be outlived by the governments they elect, the ability of seniors to make good on their civic responsibility to assess the performance of elected governments is impaired. Since the exercise of this ability is a requisite component of performing one’s civic duties it would appear seniors are especially ill equipped to play the part of good citizen.