Are seniors shafting younger German voters?

September 8, 2009

Are young German voters getting the short end of the stick because the country’s political leaders fall over themselves to placate senior citizens?


Or is it simply a case of democracy pure when politicians listen attentively to what seniors demand because they are the group that votes more faithfully than any other age group?


That’s one of the hot issues at the moment in Germany ahead of the Sept. 27 election where voters 60 years old and above could decide the race between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives or Vice Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s Social Democrats. Voters 60 and over make up about 30 percent of the rapidly ageing electorate — 20 million of the 62 million voters in a country of 82 million.


And they’ve got clout. No age group goes to the polls in such strong numbers as the 60+ group — a full 85 percent of the seniors cast their ballots in the last election in 2005 and their turnout will likely be as high again later this month. No other age group comes even close and the overall turnout in 2005 was 77 percent. The lowest turnout was the 21-25 age group where 66 percent voted.


One interesting theory for their high level of participation, as was explained to me here for this story by the mayor of Goerlitz, Joachim Paulick. Goerlitz has become a haven for seniors and he said they vote in such large numbers because that they have lived through a world war, a Cold War and up to two dictators. “The seniors have gone through so much in their lives and anyone who’s endured (all that) has an intense interest in exercising their right to vote.”


The big taboo issue is pensions. And — the government gave seniors an unexpected 3-billion euro present in July by raising pensions 2.4 percent this year even though inflation has tumbled towards zero.


It takes a lot of courage to stand up to such a powerful group. But Jens Spahn, a 29-year-old member of the Christian Democrats in parliament, has faced the wrath of seniors and many in his own party for suggesting Germany cannot afford such pension increases: “Giving seniors a present ahead of elections will cost younger generations a lot of money in the medium and long term.” Spahn told Der Spiegel magazine that he’s been called “twerp” and many rude things by seniors, and party members, ever since. He said he gets about 10 pieces of hate mail each day.


Do any of the parties benefit most from the seniors? The conservatives used to win over 50 percent of the senior vote every election but that has slipped slowly but steadily in recent years as the SPD has made in-roads. Ex SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder managed to keep his job in 2002 by a slim 6,000-vote margin thanks in no small part to a late shift his way by the seniors. Schroeder skillfully whipped up fears of war in Iraq — a major issue for seniors who survived World War Two as children — and drove the conservative share of the seniors down to a record low of 45 percent

“They’re a ‘gray power’ that scares the daylights out of politicians and secretly dominates younger generations through their sheer numbers,” wrote Franziska Reich in Stern magazine recently. “Germany is turning into a ‘retiree democracy’.”


Is that a good thing? Or a bad thing? Or just a political fact of life in Germany?   


PHOTO: Chancellor Angela Merkel greets senior citizens at a rally in the eastern German town of Goerlitz. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch


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As usual, people who actually vote in an election determine the outcome. If the younger generations want to have more power, they should quit whining and vote. Also, they should run for elective office.

Posted by BMP | Report as abusive

Goes to the whole question of democracy doesn’t it?

As a form of government, it is very inefficient as “the people” who vote emotionally and with their tactical perspective of their wallets at the forefront. It’s a wonder democracy/republics work as well as they do.

Posted by Scott | Report as abusive

Personally I think that ageing populations are going to be a major challenge to all democracies that are experiencing a lack of population growth and greater life expectancy. Germany is not an exception here. It could be argued that the baby boom generation in particular has benefited from their demographic clout. Throughout the 1970s and thereafter government deficits provided this generation with cheap education and generous social benefits. Now that this generation is aging, governments are being saddled with the cost of elder care. As voters, seniors will insure that they will get the best care that the younger generation’s tax dollars can buy, while pushing for preferred treatment of senior’s pension incomes. In the extreme, the danger is that future generations of youngsters will realize that democracy is working against them as an interest group and some of them might tend to support more radical political alternatives. The one thing working in the younger generations favour is that seniors need them as a workforce and that countries may well find each other competing for a shrinking young workforce.

Posted by Michael Bunte | Report as abusive

Are seniors shafting younger German voters?
All the proof you need that you can’t trust a hippy.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

The US is undergoing much the same situation. A majority of citizens at town hall meetings are well over age 65, are drawing Social Security, are getting health care from Medicare, and are the children of the pre-civil rights era, are the children of staunch racists and xenophobes, are the illiterate children of illiterate civil war, secessionist, advocates. They are a scarey bunch. I don’t mean to say that the Germans of the same group are like the ones here, I do not beleive that to be the case. The US has bred a nasty, nasty group of seniors who are the precursors to the “Baby Boomers” and it isn’t a pretty sight. In past hard economic times, those with well padded pensions would let their jobs go to the younger generation, this current group isn’t doing that. Good luck to both countries.

Posted by Gerald Spencer | Report as abusive

I’ve met some people in both countries like you’ve described Gerald.

Posted by Erik Kirschbaum | Report as abusive