• Alaka BasuAlaka Basu
      Alaka M. Basu is Professor, Development Sociology, Cornell University, and a member of the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health
      Alessandro RosinaAlessandro Rosina
      Professor of Demography and Director, Center for Applied Statistics in Business and Economics, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore
      Andrea BrandoliniAndrea Brandolini
      Head of Statistical Analysis Directorate, Bank of Italy
      Bruno MasquelierBruno Masquelier
      Professor of Demography, University of Louvain, Belgium
      Cheikh MbackéCheikh Mbacké
      Associate Professor, Sociology department, Laval University
      Cinzia ContiCinzia Conti
      Researcher at Istat, Head of Unit on Foreign Presence and Social Dynamics
      Corrado BonifaziCorrado Bonifazi
      Director of the Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies, National Research Council, Rome Italy
      Ernestina CoastErnestina Coast
      Associate Professor of Population Studies, London School of Economics
      Wang FengFeng Wang
      Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, USA, and Professor at Fudan University, Shanghai, China fwang(at)
      Francesco BillariFrancesco Billari
      Professor of Sociology and Demography, Department of Social and Political Sciences, Bocconi University. • Personal webpage • francesco.billari(at)
      Gilles PisonGilles Pison
      Professor at Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle and Director of Research at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) (Paris)
      Gustavo De SantisGustavo De Santis
      Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Jacques VallinJacques Vallin
      Emeritus Research Director at INED, Paris; Honorary President of IUSSP
      John KnodelJohn Knodel
      Research Professor Emeritus, Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan (USA) and International staff, College of Populations Studies, Chulalongkorn University (Thailand)
      Letizia MencariniLetizia Mencarini
      Associate professor of Demography, Bocconi University - Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy & Collegio Carlo Alberto; P.I. ERC P.I. ERC project n. 313617 (2013-2018) SWELLFER
      Letizia TanturriLetizia Tanturri
      Associate Professor of Demography, University of Padova, Italy
      Massimo livi BacciMassimo livi Bacci
      Emeritus Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Monica Das GuptaMonica Das Gupta
      Research Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland, USA
      Paula Miranda-RibeiroPaula Miranda-Ribeiro
      Professor, Demography Department and Cedeplar, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil.
      Peter McDonaldPeter McDonald
      Professor of Demography in the Australian National University. Honorary President of IUSSP and winner of the Irene B. Taeuber Award
      Roberto ImpicciatoreRoberto Impicciatore
      Università di Bologna.
      Salvatore StrozzaSalvatore Strozza
      Professor of Demography, University Federico II, Naples (Italy)
      Stefano MolinaStefano Molina
      Senior Program Officer, Giovanni Agnelli Foundation, Italy
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    • N-IUSSP is a new IUSSP news magazine, which will disseminate scientific findings from demographic research carried out all over the world. The practical implications of current trends, the risks and potentialities of emerging situations, the pros and cons of specific laws are discussed in rigorous but plain language.

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Does population aging erode democratic support?
Vieillissement de la population : un risque pour la démocratie?

Uwe Sunde

Individual support for democracy in the population is essential for the stability of democracies. However, not much is known about how demographic change, such as population aging, affects attitudes in this respect. Uwe Sunde shows that support for democracy increases with age, but declines with expected proximity to death. This suggests that a reduction in life expectancy at given ages, for instance in the context of epidemics, might weaken this support.

After decades of world-wide expansion, the model of Western democracy seems to be slipping into recession. Traditionally, the emergence of democracy has been explained by socio-economic determinants at country level, such as income, education, or inequality (Lipset, 1959, Inglehart and Welzel, 2005). Only recently has attention shifted to the determinants of individual preferences for democracy, and here too, socioeconomic factors have been identified (Inglehart and Welzel, 2010). Individual experiences, such as lifetime exposure to democracy, have also been shown to affect institutional preferences (Fuchs-Schündeln and Schündeln, 2015).

Much less is known about the role played by demographic factors. Political scientists have only recently pointed up the close links between demographic change and support for democracy, focusing mainly on population aging related to the demographic transition, and migratory pressure (Goldstone and Diamond, 2020).

An interesting yet subtle point in this context is the role of individual age for democratic support. Do young individuals have less interest in democracy than older individuals who have a richer set of lifetime experiences? Or are the elderly more indifferent to the political regime, potentially because of a shorter expected life span? Do age and remaining length of life affect preferences for democracy in different ways?

From a conceptual perspective, it is natural to assume that the individual life horizon – the expected length of remaining life – should matter more for attitudes or preferences toward a particular political regime than age, simply because the related costs and benefits will be borne by individuals in the future. Historically, life expectancy indeed seems to have influenced institutional development. For instance, the mortality of colonizers has been isolated as a critical determinant of the quality of institutions, which tended to be more exploitative where survival was lower. Based on the conventional indices of political institutions, this differential still exists today (Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, 2001).

Disentangling age and individual life horizon

To explore the distinct roles of age and length of life for attitudes toward democracy, recent work has used data from surveys of more than 260,000 respondents from 93 countries across the world conducted between 1994 and 2014 (Lechler and Sunde, 2019). The individuals responded to a question on their attitudes toward democracy as a way of governing their country. These data were linked to life table information to obtain an objective measure of the length of remaining life for individuals of a particular age and sex in a given country. Life table data provide a source of variation in length of life that is credibly exogenous from the individual perspective. At the same time, the use of repeated observations for particular age cells allows identifying the differential effects of age and life horizon by exploiting variation in expected remaining years of life across age-gender cells over time within the same countries.

Demographics Matter

The findings show that age and remaining life years both matter for demographic attitudes. Figure 1(a) reveals that individual inclination toward democracy increases with age when holding remaining life years constant. Figure 1(b) shows that, conversely, a decline in remaining life years (i.e., moving leftwards along the x-axis) is associated with a lower support for democracy when holding age fixed. These results turn out to be robust to an extensive set of controls and robustness checks. In particular, they are robust to the inclusion of sex-specific age effects, controls for household size, education, income self-rated health, and years of experience with democracy.

These findings suggest that support for democracy increases with age, but declines with a greater proximity to death. Thus, individuals who anticipate a longer expected life span are more inclined to support democracy. Conversely, support is weakest among young adults with only a short life expectancy, as is the case in many developing countries. This might explain the difficulties in establishing democracies in environments where the population is exposed to poor health conditions or permanent threats due to civil conflict. At the same time, these results suggest that epidemics may threaten the stability of democracies through an erosion of popular support, particularly if the democratic institutions are unable to contain the health consequences in terms of declining life expectancy.


Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson. 2001. “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation.” The American Economic Review 91 (5): 1369–401.

Fuchs-Schündeln, Nicola, and Matthias Schündeln. 2015. “On the Endogeneity of Political Preferences: Evidence from Individual Experience with Democracy.” Science 347 (6226): 1145–8.

Goldstone, Jack A. and Larry Diamond. 2020. “Demography and the Future of Democracy”, Perspectives on Politics, 18(3), 867-880.

Inglehart, Ronald and Christian Welzel. 2005. Modernization, CulturalChange and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Inglehart, Ronald, and Christian Welzel. 2010. “Changing Mass Priorities: The Link between Modernization and Democracy.” Perspectives on Politics 8 (2): 551–67.

Lechler, Marie and Uwe Sunde. 2019. “Individual Life Horizon Influences Attitudes Toward Democracy.” American Political Science Review 113(3), 860-687.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” American Political Science Review 53 (3): 69–105.


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