As Germany ages, 'grey vote' has younger generations worried

People sit in a voting cabin to cast their vote in an advanced postal ballot for the upcoming general elections at Steglitz-Zehlendorf district postal ballot polling station, in Berlin, Germany, on Sept 15, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (AFP) - Save for pensioners or invest in young people?

It's one of the most prickly debates across Germany ahead of next week's election, and with voters over 60 making up the biggest share of the electorate, politicians are pulling out all the stops to charm retirees.

But that is raising fears that in doing so, candidates may be failing to sufficiently invest in the future.

During their sole televised debate, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her main rival Martin Schulz both fell over themselves to pledge that moving up the retirement age to 70 was out of the question.

But during the 90-minute clash, there was hardly a mention of education or the digital economy - both weak links in Germany, where child poverty is also on the rise.

"Ageing is a very good thing... but of course, there will be repercussions on democracy," said Wolfgang Gruendinger, a 33-year-old historian and spokesman for a foundation that advocates the rights of younger generations.

The government will always find resources for a pension package, he said, even as it tightens the budget elsewhere.

"There are many policy areas in which... there'll be no change. It's almost like we're putting Germany in a glass jar to preserve it for always, while we are scrimping on the future," he said.

As the pace of Germany's ageing accelerates, the chances that policies would be tailor-made for the elderly rise as senior citizens' voices get louder.

The "grey vote" goes largely to Germany's two big parties, Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union or Schulz's Social Democratic Party.

The liberal FDP also manages to get a slice of this vote, a recent study by the DIW economic institute said.


Former president Roman Herzog had already warned in 2008 against a "pensioner democracy" which would be condemned to a slow death.

Warning political parties against "paying disproportionate attention" to the elderly as their numbers rise, Herzog said then that "it could end up in a situation where older generations plunder the younger ones".

The debate has been revived ahead of the elections on Sept 24, as those above 60 will make up the biggest proportion - 36.1 per cent - of the electorate, according to Germany's GDV federation of insurers.

Voters under 40 will make up less than a third (29.3 per cent), reflecting both Germany's low birth rates and rising life expectancies.

The disconnect could grow further as the baby boomer generation born after World War II continues to swell the ranks of pensioners.

In a study published at the end of August, Europe's data agency Eurostat found that Germany invested just 4.2 per cent of its gross domestic product in education in 2015, below the European average of 4.9 per cent.

In comparison, its deficit-hit neighbour France spent 5.5 per cent on education.


Erwin Bender, a recent retiree, said he was fed up with a debate that he says scapegoats older generations.

"It's always like that: When something doesn't square up, we say, who's responsible? Him!"

Bender, a former civil servant, heads a group of elderly representatives at the Neukoelln city hall, which manages several areas of southern Berlin where walking frames are a more common sight in the streets than baby strollers.

He argues that retirees' concerns are not so different from those of the rest of the population.

"Of course the elderly have their specific problems and they want the government to listen to them," Bender said.

"But safety in the streets or rent inflation also are concerns of the single mum or refugees."

Many pensioners also say that the budgetary squeezes faced by schools - many of which need to renovate worn-down buildings - or the desperation of parents unable to find nursery spots could influence their own votes as well.

"What's important to our grandchildren is just as important to us," said Werner Eichholz, 73, a former engineer.

They argue that rather than pit the interests of the elderly against those of younger voters, politicians need to ensure social cohesion through an equal treatment of generations.

A solution could be to lower the voting age, allowing people under 18 and even young children to have a say "if they are ready", Gruendinger said.

But on the question of whether to open the vote to 16-year-olds, Merkel, who is powering towards a fourth term in office, has a clear answer - nein.

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