Due to demographic change, Germany is increasingly developing into a so-called “gerontocracy”. A reform lowering the voting age to 16 is supposed to counteract this. A recent study by ZEW Mannheim examines the question of whether such a reform is ambitious enough to anchor future-oriented interests more strongly in current politics. The study suggests that lowering the voting age does little to change a central limitation of democracy: If voters care only about their narrow interests, then policies will tend to be strongly shaped by the present and, in this case, an ageing society. Intergenerational altruism among voters should be encouraged and more investments should be made to improve voters’ education about long-term policy challenges.

Picture of a ballot paper at the drop-off.
Voting age reform can have only a limited impact on the design of future policies.

Germany is getting older and so are its voters: The most recent federal elections, for example, were dominated by people over 50, who made up 60 per cent of the electorate, while only 14 per cent of voters were under 30, compared to 19 per cent in 1961. This demographic change may have serious implications for the political system in Germany. Based on data from the Eurobarometer and the German Internet Panel (GIP), a recent ZEW study has examined the extent to which old people have different policy preferences than young people. Using past state-level reforms of the voting age in Germany, the study then investigates the potential implications of these age gradients for democratically adopted policies.

Preferences do vary by age. For example, the expansion of renewable energy or the relevance of digital technologies are areas that mainly younger voters tend to care about. The older generation, on the other hand, is more in favour of the debt brake and tax increases to support the pension system. Higher public spending on education, typically thought of as a policy targeting the youth, is widely supported across all age groups. Tax-financed redistribution policies and further European integration also appeal to old and young age groups, while middle-aged voters tend to reject these. “Overall, these political preferences are not always linear and sometimes go in unexpected directions, in contrast to a view that sees voters as simple, self-interested actors,” ZEW economist Dr. Zareh Asatryan explains.

The study suggests that lowering the voting age would have little impact on shaping future policies. “A voting age of 16 would bring about 1.5 million new voters aged 16 and 17, but they make up only 2.5 per cent of the electorate. Important policy goals of the future, such as climate change, cannot be left to only a small group of young voters. At the same time, the German population continues to age, while the voting age cannot be lowered much further than 16,” says Zareh Asatryan. So, if democratic participation is strictly limited to voting for policies that only benefit the narrowly defined self-interest, then this is a recipe for disaster in the long-term. However, the study’s findings suggest that people’s preferences are much more nuanced compared to a view that sees voters as selfish and unsophisticated. “In particular, intergenerational altruism is important to people, and the data shows that this has improved in Germany and Europe in recent decades. Improving voter education on long-term issues combined with further promotion of intergenerational altruism may be the more promising path forward,” says Zareh Asatryan.



    Demographic Change

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