Societies that abandon their elderly members are immoral; ones that invest in their old while neglecting their young have no future. Our one man/one vote democracy, combined with demographic trends, threatens to make the United States a backward-looking society and an unproductive economy.
Some 15 years ago, I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times debating a paradox at the heart of our electoral system. Many of the seniors taking part in today’s elections will not live long enough to see the politicians they vote into office serve out their full term—not just their senators and presidents, but their congressmen, too.
On the other hand, children who are not allowed to vote will end up governed by politicians they didn’t elect and living with polices they had no hand in choosing. A kid who was four years old in 1980, when Ronald Reagan became President, and 16 when Bill Clinton was voted in, is now a 37-year-old adult whose life is, to a large extent, regulated by a Supreme Court majority appointed during his lifetime by presidents he had not elected.
While we all come into the world that has been shaped by previous generations, the demographic makeup of today’s electorate is becoming skewed. Average life expectancy is at a historic high and continues to go up. Older Americans increase in number, acquiring greater and greater influence in our electoral system, which gives one vote to every adult citizen and none to the children. The demographic imbalance was adjusted in 1971, when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 from 21, but the process has continued over the past 40 years.
The imbalance is exacerbated by the life stage of the huge baby boom generation. Retiring boomers will swell the number of retirees over the next decade and a half. Nearly 80 million Americans born in the 1946-64 period will retire by 2030. If recent trends in life expectancy continue, two decades from now there may be well over 100 million retirees, more than a quarter of the projected population and close to half of eligible voters.
This huge group will have a strong incentive to use its voting muscle to influence government policy. The average boomer, a study by Well Fargo found, has about $29,000 in retirement savings. This translates into a $190 per month, assuming a 5% rate of return and life expectancy of 84 years. Both assumptions are unrealistic, since interest rates are at zero and the actuaries are already projecting that boomers in their mid-fifties will live until the age of 94. Most boomers, even the ones with substantial savings, will likely outlast their money.
In my article, I suggested giving parents or guardians one extra vote for every one of their children. Perhaps while casting a ballot on behalf of the new generation, they would give a bit more thought to the kind of world those children would inherit.
A decade and a half later, we have a country that seems to run largely for the benefit of its senior citizens—and at the expense of today’s children, younger adults and future generations. True, we hear a lot about a relentless assault on Social Security, but those purported assailants have nothing to show for their efforts. Social Security—known as the “third rail of American politics” because politicians who dare touch it risk incinerating their political careers—is one of the very few social programs to avoid the knife in recent decades. Medicare, for its part, expanded massively with the Bush administration’s introduction of the prescription drug benefit, which is estimated to cost the taxpayer $727.3 billion through 2018.