The New Demographic
A chat with a science advisor for the National Institute on Aging gave me several things to chew over:
- There are more people alive right now than have ever died.
- 50% of those born today will live to age 100.
- 65% of 100-year-olds have Alzheimer’s.
- By 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be over the age of 65.
- In the history of the world, no nation has ever had a 65+ population proportion of 1 in 5.
Some of the policy implications leap off the page. Looking at (1), you can see why we’re encountering resource and pollution concerns now that have never before been impressed on the public consciousness. And if we’ve already projected that the year 2050 will see 70% of the world’s population living in cities, what other measures will we have to take to make sure everyone has a place to live, and lives well together? Putting (2) and (3) together, it’s clear that Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are about to increase manyfold in prevalence, and now might be the time to shift our research priorities so that we have treatments by the time we need them.
Here’s the kicker: Taking (4) and (5) into account, we need to act now to accommodate the coming demographic changes. Doing so, however, will require those prepping the policy outcomes to act on behalf of a demographic — and therefore a constituency — that has never existed before.
And we thought we had problems reconciling the conflicting interests of today’s demographics!
Which brings me to my point: Though we often think of direct democratic accountability as the highest good, it actually cannot solve all the problems encountered by a vibrant, enduring polity. The two- or four-year election cycle system pressures politicians to please today’s voters at the expense of those voters’ children, or even of those same voters’ future selves. Taxes, for example, redistribute wealth temporally as well as geographically — what else is an investment in roads, or DARPA, but an investment in our collective future? — with the counterintuitive result that we are, in some sense, disenfranchising (or at least constraining) future voters.
How, then, should politicians decide which constituencies they represent, and what should we permit them to consider, in addition to our votes, as they make their decisions? Perhaps we rely on pressure groups to represent the views of discrete and insular minorities, and of our possible future selves. But those groups will never constitute a majority — and in fact, since funding is zero-sum, they must be counter-majoritarian.
Instead, I like to think of our public servants as possessing some measure of the wisdom of the Sphinx, who, observing patiently for aeons, saw in us an animal that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three at night.
I’m in my twenties now. I’ll be forty before long, and sixty not long after that. I don’t have a great idea now what I’ll want then. But a good politician takes it upon him- or herself to know the 65+ population as well as that population know themselves, and to take those preferences into account when evaluating what 20-somethings say as they call into the office on Capitol Hill.
It doesn’t diminish the rich or the poor, the old or the young, the career military man or the union griever, the Harlem resident or the Wall Street trader, to say that we each have imperfect knowledge not only of what the polity needs, but of what we need ourselves. But it does require our leadership to simultaneously take into account, and judiciously balance, the preferences of each of these warring factions — and not just today’s preferences, which we’re mostly able to express for ourselves, but tomorrow’s as well; not just the spoken preferences, or those most loudly amplified, but those unheard, too.
Our statesmen must balance the present against the future, and be sufficiently well-informed to do so as accurately as anyone could. And we must demand that sagacity of them even as we issue directives at the ballot box.
“Know better than the rest of us. Teach us to know better, too.”