Italy’s elderly elite short changes its children and destabilises Europe

Older does not necessarily mean wiser. Dan Kitwood/PA

In the midst of its worst depression since 1861, Italy appears to be witnessing the collapse of another government - the 62nd in 68 years. Add ungovernability to economic depression, and Italy is becoming a threat to Europe.

The two key politicians in the Italian drama are the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano as well as the inescapable former Prime Minister and sentenced criminal Silvio Berlusconi. They are 88 and 77 years old respectively.

Rule by elder

Gerontocracy - rule by the elder - is a soaring trend in most rich countries. The newly published Intergenerational Justice Index offers a measure of balance among generations. A worst case is Italy. With an average age of 59 years, Italian men of power are the oldest in Europe. Italy is the only country in which citizens only begin to enjoy their full political rights when they are 25, and where the government is determined by the oldest portion of the adult population.

In most European countries, low fertility and ageing of the population are shifting the intergenerational balance in favour of the elderly. From 1990 to 2005, the age of the average OECD median voter increased three times faster than in the preceding 30 years. The time when voters aged 50 and above will comprise more than half of voters has come for some European countries (for example, Italy and Germany) and is coming for most of the others. A future conflict over societal resources will play itself out more and more along generational lines, with elders increasingly gaining the upper hand over a shrinking percentage of younger citizens.

The Intergenerational Justice Index aggregates four indicators: public debt per child, youth poverty, social spending per capita for the elderly and the per capita ecological footprint. According to its authors, most OECD countries enjoy prosperity to a considerable extent at the expense of their children and future generations.

Lessons from Italy

As a warning to all countries subjected to this trend, it is worth taking a look at the Italian gerontocracy and its consequences.

According to the think tank Centro Europa Ricerche, the decline in real available income in Italy, per capita since 2007, was greater than in the two worst Italian depressions of 1866-1871 and 1929-1935. Each child is currently born with a huge public debt, a growing proportion of tax income goes to service increasing state debt, productivity has staggered for a decade, GDP per capita shrank for six years, tax evasion and the black economy are one fifth of GDP, while unemployment, inequality and poverty continue to grow. Tens of thousands of young graduates emigrate each year.

Italy also hosts the third oldest population in the world. This fact, abetted by an archaic electoral legislation, ensures that both parliament and the government are dominated by the elders.

Among 29 OECD countries, Italy is 27th in both its overall Intergenerational Justice Index and imbalance of social spending. Social spending for the elderly is seven times higher than for the remaining population, compared to three times in several other nations. Italy has the fifth highest poverty rate for young people. Public debt per child is €220,000, the second highest in the OECD.

The rich elderly and poor young

In Italy pensioner parties and trade unions disproportionally represent the interests of the elderly. Sociologist Marco Albertini has noted that being old in 1977 Italy entailed a higher than average risk of low income, while in 2004 this risk was lower than average for the elderly and higher for those below 40. Albertini also points out that in the current phase of transition between two pension systems, young workers are, in fact, paying contributions for two pensions: their own future pensions and those of current pensioners.

Most income and assets of wealthy elderly Italians were accumulated during the decades of rapid economic growth after World Wat II. These assets are almost certainly greater than many current young people can expect, as Italy’s youth live under job insecurity, underpayment, unemployment and GDP decline.

“With an average age of 59 years, old Italian men of power are the oldest in Europe”, says a report by the University of Calabria. According to that report, the average age of university professors is 63, while only 78 out of 16,000 are younger than 40. The average age of bankers and bishops is 67. During the past three election periods before 2013, only 2 of 2,500 members of parliament were younger than 30, while 25 to 29 year-olds make up 28% of the population.

Vote early

While the world’s most common voting age is 18, the voting age for the senate in Italy is 25. Of 50 million citizens aged 18 and older and allowed to vote for the chamber of deputies, 4.3 million (8%) are not allowed to vote for the senate, whose vote of confidence is mandatory for any government. Given the disparate electoral bodies of the two chambers, their political majorities are often at odds. This was the case in the February elections that forced an unnatural government of left, right and middle parties, the 62nd still-birth in 68 years. Had 18 to 24 year old citizens been able to vote for the Senate, Italy would now have an equal political majority in both chambers and a more stable government.

Nowadays, most decision makers tend to disregard the future negative impact of their decisions, especially in ecological, technological and financial matters, making choices aimed at maximizing short-term benefits.

The Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations advocates the right to vote from birth, exercised by parents for their children, until they come of age. Other organisations and authors either embrace this proposal or are in favour of the right to vote at age 16, as in Austria and Brazil.

Seven decades of political gerontocracy in Italy effectively guaranteed a corresponding societal gerontocracy. The social cost is unsustainable.

As a first step to mitigate this crisis, lowering the voting age from 25 to 18, is a simple measure that could be done immediately at zero cost. Generational balance and political stability in Italy will certainly benefit. The chance of yet another acute crisis, destabilising the whole of Europe, would decrease. And the last thing Italy needs is another crisis.