Reinhard Messerschmidt (2017)
In: Loffeier, Iris/Majerus, Benoît/Moulaert Thibauld (eds.)(2017): Framing age. Abingdon: Routledge.
Abstract. Embedded in a long tradition of demographic dystopias, which Spanish demographer Andreu Domingo (2008) examined in the popular literature of the last two centuries, contemporary discourses of demographic change raise a variety of questions. Over 20 years ago, gerontologist Stephen Katz stated that ‘popular and professional discourses which currently accentuate the demographic features of aging populations are characterized by their alarmism’ and named this phenomenon ‘alarmist demography’ (1992, p. 204). He situated such alarmism in governmental narratives on the aged sub-population and its collective dependency, where popular media and think tanks ‘depict the elderly emptying the coffers of the welfare state and creating a tax burden beyond the means of the labour force to support’, giving the appearance that ‘the growing aging population is threatening to create an economic crisis with profound consequences for healthcare systems, social security programmes, industrial and intergenerational relations’ (ibid., pp. 203–204). This chapter will resituate in the present what he could see so clearly in the past. 1 Demographic change, typically understood as the ageing of the population (Schimany, 2003) with respect to its subsequent shrinkage (Kaufmann, 2005), has become commonplace in German social-science and mass-media discourse since the turn of the millennium. Although the ‘fear of population decline’ ebbed and flowed over the past century, according to Teitelbaum and Winter (1985, p. 1), ‘depending both upon demographic realities and perceptions of the links between population change and economic, social, and political power’, the ‘flow’ of contemporary discourses should be understood in the context of strategies of governmentality addressing individual and population ageing. In fact, the current flow can be interpreted as resulting from the prevailing economization of the social (Bröckling, 2007) and embedded in specific programmes of governmentality, such as the growing entrepreneurship of the self(s), which can no longer expect social care from the state. Declarations that social security systems are endangered and consequently need to be increasingly privatized are legitimized by demographic claims to knowledge of the future, which we will refer to as ‘future knowledge’ (Hartmann & Vogel, 2010). This can be interpreted as being part of contemporary ‘neosocial governmentality’ 20 (Lessenich, 2008) or the ‘neosocial market economy’ (Vogelmann, 2012). As this chapter will show, privatization of benefits (for insurance companies, the financial market, and the ‘silver economy’ driven by the rising consumption by older people and for age-specific needs) contrasts with the socialization of costs (e.g. prolonged working life/later retirement, ‘active’ and productive ageing, direct or indirect cuts in social insurance). Nevertheless, governmental programmes and associated governments of the self are not necessarily successful (Bröckling et al., 2010), because individuals can always partially or entirely reject the related discourses.
Furthermore, Alain Desrosières discussed the problem of tension between realism and conventionalism specifically regarding the criteria for quality in official statistics and concluded that differentiation based on structuralism-inspired compromise solutions10 can help people to ‘understand the often obscure debates and controversies triggered by statistical arguments, both in the public arena and in the social sciences’ (2009, p. 321). With respect to central demographic concepts, such a debate would only be obscure if consequential reflection upon the boundaries of this construction is neglected. This differentiation is compatible with the epistemological position that Ian Hacking (2002) described as ‘dialectical realism’. It accommodates the specific character of demographic (future) constructs as discursive games of truth intertwined with power relations, avoiding the trap of epistemic relativism.
Link to the book