The Failure of Democracy and the Coming Silver Age in Japan

The clash of generations stands on our way towards a shared prosperity. In recent years, our societies seem to have become more polarized on many issues and societal solidarity is seemingly diminishing due to the clash of interests, despite the growing global linkages within an increasingly democratized world.

In the aftermath of the abrupt Soviet implosion, liberal democratic values seem to have triumphed across the world as a preeminent way of organizing our political life (Fukuyama 1992). For centuries, democracy has been an ultimate solution to many issues in human affairs. It has defeated dictatorial aspirations and delivered hard judgments to those who pretend not to hear the voice of the people. But at present day, it appears that democracy can no longer provide any comprehensive meditation to the growing tension between generations. Even worse, the once-trusted democratic system seemingly has become a part of the growing problem, not a solution to it.

This concern is most evident in advanced economies such as Japan and Germany. The rapid aging of populations is increasingly deforming its liberal democratic system into so-called silver democracy, where the elderly have gained disproportionately dominant influence over the course of national politics and policymaking.

Scholars, commentators, journalists, and policymakers are all struggling to find out a way to address the issue through the existent democratic mechanism. But in my view, we cannot possibly resolve the dispute by using the same tool that is creating the very issue. If we are determined to end it, it is imperative to ultimately transform the tool itself.

Hence, it is high time for all of us to rethink, redefine, and reform the mechanism of democracy. As Charles Darwin once proclaimed, it is the fittest, and not the strongest, who survives and prospers. The future of democracy therefore depends on its adaptability, not on its proven strengths.

Silver Democracy and The Clashed Generations

First and foremost, democracy is a means to achieve our shared purpose, not an end itself. Led by American global endeavors, democracy seemingly has become a chief “exporting product” of the Western world in recent years. This worldwide spread of democracy comes from its promising potential to offer us a fairly stable, just, and flexible way of balancing different interests within our societies.

However, just means do not always guarantee just outcomes. This is particularly true in the deformed system of silver democracy. For example, Japanis by any definition the most rapidly aging country in the world with its elderly population (age above sixty-five) expected to reach around 30 percent of the entire population by 2020 and even 40 percent by 2060. As a result, the Japanese elderly has gained a disproportionately decisive influence over electoral outcomes. This is one of the “failures of democracy” where proposition of any policy that goes against the elderly interest would be tantamount to a political suicide.

In a fair representative democracy, the clash of interests is supposed to happen as an integral part of its constructive process; however in Japan, what is happening today is the clashed younger generations. Total expenditure for pension, health care, and elderly nursing now well exceeds the combined spending on other categories including education, defense, and youth. The rising costs for the elderly care has become more than tripled since 1980s to date, while spending on the youth and families has not increased comparatively. As a result, a large part of the unsustainable welfare system has become to be financed by ever rising public debt that will soon exceed 240 percent of Japanese annual GDP.

Nevertheless, the worst part of the Japanese crisis is neither its mounting debt nor politically marginalized youth; it is the perpetual inability of existent democratic process to address the issue within its current framework. Put differently, democracy is no longer a solution to the national crisis; conversely, it is a part of the enduring problem.

Democracy was once a tool to ensure a fairer representation of social interests. But now, younger generations are increasingly clashed by the very system that is supposed to ensure and champion the right of minority. Indeed, democracy has brought an unprecedented prosperity to modern human history. But in any silver democracy, the fundamental purpose of democratic system seems to be forgotten. Hence today, if we are determined to bring back a more just representation of generations, our democratic system needs to be radically reformed and adjusted to serve for its original purpose.

From Balancing of Interests to Linking of Interests

What we need today is the reintegration of interests rather than simple balancing. The very idea of balancing generational claims is a hopeless illusion since it assumes that interests of different generations are inherently in conflict. This approach has been already tried out and apocalyptic failures followed.

In international politics, the same idea of balance of power has led many nations to war. Diplomats once held on to the anachronistic but predominant idea that international order could be maintained through balancing behaviors, only to have accelerated the clash among divergent interests (Huntington 1998). Our democracy should not follow the same destructive path. Instead, our reform needs to focus on creatively linking the interests of different generations.

The robust growth of younger generation is the only way to resolve the current financial and democratic deficits. Hence, the real issue in contemporary silver democracy is not the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between generations; instead, it is the assumed divisibility of the indivisible issue.

Winning A Vote or Winning A Future?

At present day, challenges of aging society and shrinking population tend to be addressed as if these were two separate issues. But in reality, these are just two dimensions of the exactly same issue: sustainable social welfare. Spending on the younger should never be described as a counter-interest to the elderly, since a more dynamic and healthy younger generation is imperative to support the aged through personal, financial, and professional channels.

In turn, a more comprehensive and accessible social welfare is core interest of the young and middle aged; without such system, parents would need to spend more time for caring their older family members, while their working ability would also be more temporarily and spatially constrained. In short, Japanese silver democracy became a stalemate because its political officials cowardly choose to hide behind the comfortable curtain of “the elderly as priority” slogan. These officials are too busy at magnifying our conflicting interests between generations, and too sluggish to search for an intersection of these.

Hard facts tell us that Japanese pension assets will possibly dry up sometime between 2032 and 2038. But the foreseen clash of Japanese pension system is not only caused by its shrinking populations; its fundamental root is decayed legitimacy of its democratic process. In recent years, an increasingly larger part of younger Japanese citizens has become to refuse payment into the system. Once in search for a greater liberty, people cried out “No taxation without representation!” In our time, we shout out “No pension contribution without representation!”

The crisis of silver democracy is something much larger than an issue of economic unsustainability; it is more fundamentally about the decay of the principle that used to unite our society as one. By dividing issues and generations, we may win a vote; but never will we win a future.

Failure of Democracy

It is mindless to assume that the mere existence of democratic system assures our peace and prosperity ahead. A tool that has lost its purpose has no future. Likewise, democracy with its purpose forgotten is not only useless but even harmful. We have already made the same mistakes. When means and ends became confused, upheavals and bloodsheds surged. Socrates was democratically executed. The Nazi party made full use of Weimar Republic’s fair elections to climb up the ladder to power. American democracy infamously ignored the rights of African American until 1960s, while Swiss women’s voting rights were democratically refused until the 1970s (Zakaria 2003).

These examples manifest that democracy is not an accomplishment we can safely hold within our hands, but is rather a dynamic, continuing, and purposive process to propel our collective dream and shared progress. Democracy is like an army; it can be mobilized to defend our fundamental values or be abused to realize our aggressive desires. Democracy is like an airplane; with different purposes, it can be a safest vehicle for global journey or the most perilous bomb to destroy the World Trade Center.

As Edmund Burke once described society as an enduring partnership between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn, our democracy will be perished if its shared purpose is forgotten and the unity of our community is lost.

Beyond the Silver Democracy

The clash of generations is fundamentally a systemic issue of the democratic process. However, the daunting challenge can also offer us an unprecedented opportunity to initiate a reform. Propagators of the clash of generations talk about how our world is full of hopeless fragmentation and widening mistrust; society seems to be increasingly connected by empty networks where our emotions have no place to shine.

Today, many complain that nursing a child and caring an elderly is a burden on our shoulders. But the best part of our life is that the responsibility given to us is not a burden; it is a privilege. We care for our family and parents not because we are obliged to do so, but because we want to do so. We support our shared society not because we are compelled to do so, but because we choose to do so. The limits of democracy, in this sense, endow us a profound opportunity to rethink of its fundamental purpose.


Fukuyama, Francis (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.

Huntington, Samuel, P (1998). The Clash Of Civilizations And The Remaking Of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Zakaria, Fareed (2003). The Future of Freedom – Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Article image: Jason Goh / Pixabay

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