For those of you who are unaware of what a gerontocracy is, it is a society in which the ruling class is primarily made up of people who are generally older than the rest of the population. For millennia, this was a seen as an ideal model for republican governments. For example, in Classical Athens one of the pre-requisites for being a voting member of the Boule (the legislative upper house) was being at least 30 years in age. While this may not seem very old, it is worth remembering that life expectancy in Classical Athens was 35. This ideal continued in the republican traditions of Ancient Rome, with the senior ranks of government (the Cursus Honorum) each having their own respective age requirements and Consul (the highest rank) having an age requirement of 42.
The enlightenment’s infatuation with Greco-Roman history produced new republican governments, most famously the First Republic of France and the United States. Both of these republics sought to emulate Greece and Rome and had (and in the case of the United States still have) gerontocratic requirements for public office. In revolutionary France, members of the National Convention were required to be at least 25 years old in a time when the life expectancy in France was, in fact, the same. In the United States, the Constitution was drafted to include a requirement that the President was to be at least 35 years old and Senators at least 30 years old. While maturity requirements continue to be imposed Constitutionally in the US, France imposes no such rules but still French governmental representatives are older than the general population. This point has also been made in the United States and is unquestionably evidenced by both the elderly disposition of the last two presidential candidates and the Congressional leaders.
In contrast, Great Britain has never attempted to emulate a Republic but rather represents a Constitutional monarchy. Great Britain’s governing bodies, nonetheless, reflect an even greater differential over the general populace further reflecting contemporary gerontocratic rule. Currently, the average age of the UK population equals 40 yet the members of the House of Commons have a mean calculated age of 51 with 21 MPs over 70. While youth representation within government has long been an issue in UK politics, Covid-19, a virus that disproportionately effects elderly people over 50, has shone an intense light on the potentially considerable shortcomings of the gerontocracy. In fact, the UK governmental Covid-19 response, in my opinion, clearly illustrates how the gerontocratic make-up of the British Government has resulted in policies that mortgage the future lives of the young to unfairly extend the well-being of the elderly.
Unfortunately, to make a similar point publicly in the UK is to invite the epithet “Granny Killer” or other similar superlatives. When Lord Sumption brought up the concept of factoring quality of life when prioritising lives during his appearance on The Big Question debate, he was labelled “disgusting and inhumane”. While I don’t necessarily share Lord Sumption’s opinions, I do think it is important that the generational impact of government policies be discussed without devolving into churlish name calling, or claiming that I want the old to die, I don’t.
It is just extremely hard to stay silent when we see that the government has spent over £100bn on the furlough scheme, while recent university graduates ,of which only 18% are currently employed, were left to contend with Rishi’s paltry and ultimately ineffective £2bn Kickstart scheme. The abject failure of the Kickstart scheme has been evidenced by the Labour Party which stated that of the 600,000 unemployed young people at the start of the pandemic only 3% found jobs through the scheme. Let us also not forget that the A-Level scandal where, because of the elimination of testing as a result of the pandemic, young adults were unfairly robbed of University places. That said, even those young adults who successfully navigated the A-Level scheme, were ultimately faced with the attending university and paying for full tuition for the privilege of being locked in a room with limited to no social contact and forced to eat substandard delivered food. Food which was organised by the government at a cost per student of £170 per week.
Now the latest potential policy in the seemingly endless Covid-related policies that disproportionately affect the young is the widely discussed (and feared by many) newly proposed vaccine passport. A vaccine passport would in effect ban young people under 49, who according the BBC will not be vaccinated until the end of July, from travelling and, potentially, attending cinemas, theatre, sports events, restaurants and pubs while the elderly can presumably return to normality. Thankfully, on this occasion, it seems that strong push back from MPs such as Mark Harper have resulted in the Prime Minister publicly claiming that no vaccine passport will be put in place until “ all are offered the vaccine”. It is worth noting, at this point in time, that Boris’ words have no more value to me than the air used to compose them. It should also be noted that there is nothing in place legally that would stop private companies from implementing vaccine passports themselves.
With all of these policies in place and others including the highly disruptive closure of schools and the resulting lack of social contact for young children, it is unsurprising that young people, especially in the UK, have experienced an increase in suicidal though and self-harm. According to the British Journal of Medicine, suicidal thoughts in young men aged 18-29 have risen from 12.4% (pre-pandemic) to 14.4% throughout the three lockdown. In the general population, such thoughts have risen from 8.2-9.8%. Though perhaps the most pronounced and worrying change can be found in the even younger population where, according to one survey done by the British Journal of Psychology, 7% of children below the age of 17 attempted suicide in 2020 and 24% admitted to self-harming within the past year.
What the pandemic has shown is that representative democracies are only as fair as they are truly representative of the electorate including its age distribution. In the UK, our deliberative body is clearly not representative of the people. The lack of adequate young person representation in the House of Commons has, whether intentionally or subconsciously, resulted in heavily one-sided polices that prioritise the health of the older portion of the population at a huge cost to the young.
Written by Evan Robert Miller
Evan Robert Miller is a columnist at DecipherGrey.