​​The Stats Guy: Demographic advice for self-interested politicians

Last week I was provocative and praised politicians. Let’s turn the cynicism up again for this week’s column. We will put ourselves into the shoes of a self-interested, egomaniac of a politician only interested in getting elected and doesn’t, therefore, care about the non-voting population of Australia.

How could such a politician (you decide whether this is a fictional character or not…) use ABS Census data to pick which policies to support and which cohort’s problems to ignore?

Morally speaking, our politicians should work hard to improve the lives of all people living in Australia. That’s a whopping 25.5 million people, as per the August 2021 Census count. Much easier to only focus on the 21.3 million residents that are also Australian citizens. Come to think of it, opportunistic politicians really should ignore the concerns of the five million citizens below the voting age of 18. That leaves us with only 16.4 million voting citizens. Phew, it’s nice to be able to ignore 36 per cent of the population. About 9.1 million residents in Australia don’t really need to feature in policy considerations.

So, how might a self-interested politician view the nation’s major challenges? Housing always is a nice case study, but this game can be repeated with any policy issue. Play along and think through migration or energy issues in the same way.

The students of Australia, essentially the Greta Thunberg generation, demand changes in climate change and social justice. Why bother dealing with such complex issues when these things aren’t demanded by people of voting age? There is nothing to be won here for our self-interested politician (remember that saving the planet or ensuring prosperity for all aren’t important goals for megalomaniacs). These issues will have to wait until Gen Z (born 2000-17) represent a sizeable share of voting-age citizens.

Millennials (born 1982-99) are a big generation that is completely of voting age, but thankfully, they too can be ignored. Phew, just imagine how annoying it would be for politicians to take seriously the housing crisis, the biggest issue concerning Millennials. Major reforms to the housing sector would need to be made. We all know tackling systemic issues is an unthankful job.

Driving down house prices to a level where Millennials can afford homes is not just extremely hard to achieve, it also would be a deal-breaker with the two biggest voting cohorts. Ignoring Gen Z and Millennials completely, evil politicians only need to improve things for Gen X, Boomers, and Pre-Boomers. That shouldn’t be too hard…

Gen X (born 1964-81) might be a small generation with an inferiority complex but they make up the biggest cohort of voters (32 per cent). That’s because there weren’t all that many migrants filling up the ranks of Gen X as they went through their 20s. Today, Gen Xers are usually mortgage holders (53 per cent live in a mortgaged dwelling), still have kids that depend financially on them, and will soon have to care for their own parents too.

Nobody is at more severe risk of burning out than dear Gen X. Also, nobody is at a higher risk of defaulting on their mortgage. The mighty voting block of Gen X (only 26 per cent are renters), as well as Baby Boomers and Pre-Boomers have no interest in falling house prices. Only a small share of the older generations are renters, the majority own their homes outright.

Keeping house prices nice and high buys you the support of Gen X and older generations – that’s 69 per cent of the voting public and a real invitation to ignore Gen Zs and Millennials (never mind that they are the kids of Gen X and the Boomers). Pleasing Gen X will also include pushing their pet projects of gender equality and work-life balance. I expect big progress in these fields from all sides of politics. Even the most sinister politician can’t afford to have Gen X against them.

While Baby Boomers (born 1946-63) are slowly leaving the world of work, they will still vote just as the Pre-Boomers (born before 1945) do. Self-interested politicians should listen extremely carefully to the concerns of the 65+ block. Increasingly these concerns will be about healthcare. This might well be a great opportunity to overhaul the health system from the ground up.

Only the most slithery politicians will be able to avoid tackling major healthcare reforms. We will want to entice workers to join the healthcare system. Without migrants there is no plausible scenario of filling all the aged care jobs that we will need (after all, we are doubling the 85+ cohort in the next 12 years). The wicked healthcare problem might lead even the most self-minded politicians to put some effort into doing nice things for non-citizens.

Even through the cynical lens of imagining only self-interested politicians managing the nation, there is reason to be optimistic about the future – at least for the older generations. The younger generations will want to proactively engage with the political system to push for the change they want to see because selfish politicians aren’t incentivised to solve things like climate change or the housing affordability crisis.

Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher is a co-founder of The Demographics Group. His columns, media commentary and public speaking focus on current socio-demographic trends and how these impact Australia. Follow Simon on Twitter or LinkedIn for daily data insights.

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