The last several weeks have seen an important development in Britain’s political discourse. Explicitly stated, it is as unsettling as it is new, and at odds with long-received ideas about the universal worth of human life. In a sentence it is this: that the old are less valuable, and their lives less worth saving, than the rest of us.
There have been two particularly notable expressions of such thinking, although it infuses many conversations about what is an appropriate strategy in dealing with coronavirus. The first is a thread by the BBC.
It states, in no uncertain terms, that, “many people who die from Covid-19 would have died anyway”, with the next tweet – presumably meant to reassure us – stating that 10% of people aged 80 or over will die in the next year anyway, and that the risk of them dying “if infected with coronavirus is almost exactly the same”. The tweet goes on to say that while this does not mean there will be no extra deaths, there will be “a substantial overlap”.
The implicit point is that action by government shouldn’t be weighted against the number of people dying because, statistically speaking, they were likely to die regardless. A further subtext, at least for parts of the right, is that this is a good reason to get the economy moving again; economic growth is more important than the lives of elderly people.
On Sky News the same argument was made in the context of a predicted 20,000 UK deaths. Once more we were informed that a large percentage of fatalities would have happened anyway – so the sense of loss should not be as deep, nor its impact overstated.
Discussing older people dying as a result of political decisions or inadequate healthcare infrastructure, in such a way, is likely to become an increasingly common feature of politics, particularly in wealthier countries. Why? Because as I write in Fully Automated Luxury Communism, demographic ageing is – in the short to medium term – an even bigger challenge to the continued functioning of market capitalism than climate change.
In 2018, for the first time in our species’ history, the number of humans over the age of 65 outnumbered those under five. Before the end of this century there will be more people over 65 than under 14. The explanation for this is simple: by 2015 the average person, wherever they were born, could expect to live to 75 – an improvement of four decades on even the early 20th century. Simultaneous with such an outstanding improvement in life expectancy has been a drop in birth rates.
While longevity and fewer children are hallmarks of an advanced society – testament to our success as a species – unlike literacy or clean drinking water both are accompanied by downsides, specifically in caring for an ever larger number of the ‘oldest old’ – who have complex healthcare needs – while the working age population shrinks.
While over the short term, raising the age for retirement, a strategy already deployed in the UK and elsewhere, might offer a quick fix for that, it is likely that over the next decade certain nation states and leading thinkers will begin to dismiss the idea of retirement and state pensions altogether. For an ageing species, the argument will go, such luxuries just aren’t affordable.
Before the coronavirus, lower growth was already rubbing up against higher spending in most advanced economies. Between 2016 and 2030 Britain’s over-65 population will grow by a third, while its ‘oldest old’ – those over 85 – will double. That means the costs of health and long term social care, the state pension, and other elderly benefits, are expected to increase annual spending by 2.5% of GDP every year over the next decade.
For all the talk of balancing the books since 2010, these shifting demographics – combined with an already broken economic model – will mean permanently large deficits. That’s after Britain exits the current pandemic, at which point it will likely be holding the highest levels of debt to GDP – not resulting from war – since the mid 19th century.
In 2013, Standard and Poor, the credit ratings agency, predicted that within a generation 60% of countries they analysed would see their credit status reduced to junk as a result of demographic ageing. A larger study, published three years later, put that figure at a more palatable 25%. Importantly, however, the spread of those countries transcended cultural values or economic development, with China, Russia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia all at risk. That same study concluded that by 2050 six states would have net debt levels in excess of 250%: Brazil, China, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the US. Again, those kinds of numbers have no precedent in peacetime.
Thus as a political challenge, ageing – just like climate change – will be here to stay, long after any vaccine for coronavirus is successfully deployed. Capitalism, a system based on permanent growth and profit, can’t sit alongside societies increasingly marked by demographic ageing. Necessary returns on investment require decent-sized working age populations and a ceiling on ‘dependents’.
It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that the ‘dementia tax’ was the political issue that transformed the 2017 general election – and it won’t be the last time the politics of ageing makes or breaks a government. Since 2016, dementia has been the leading cause of death in England, a condition with far more costly care needs than heart disease, cancer or stroke.
For the right, the response so far has been to essentially privatise the costs of such a shift, yet that has proven difficult as older voters constitute a major part of their electoral base, while using housing equity to pay for social care is at odds with a powerful myth of modern conservatism, namely home ownership and passing on one’s property.
What we are now seeing in the emergency state of the pandemic, albeit only in glimpses, is the kernel of another, more brutal, response. Its logic is that the elderly matter less than GDP growth, and that the economy itself – which often seems synonymous with the public good or even civilisation (it’s neither) – is of greater importance than treating all citizens equally.
This may not be the politics of Logan’s Run – the 1967 book, and later film, which based a future utopia not on post-scarcity but mandatory euthanasia for over-30s – but is a clear break with enlightenment ideals of universal equality and dignity.
As demographic ageing intensifies over the coming decades it’s a question we’ll have to answer both as a society and species. What do we care about more, looking after the old, or maximising GDP? Because just as with stopping runaway climate change, we almost certainly can’t do both.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.