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Pensioners and Populism

NEW YORK – If Donald Trump loses the US election, will the tide of populism that threatened to overwhelm the world after the Brexit vote in June begin to wane? Or will the revolt against globalization and immigration simply take another form?

The rise of protectionism and anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain, America, and Europe is widely believed to reflect stagnant incomes, widening inequality, structural unemployment, and even excessive monetary easing. But there are several reasons to question the link between populist politics and economic distress.

For starters, most populist voters are neither poor nor unemployed; they are not victims of globalization, immigration, and free trade. The main demographic groups behind the anti-establishment upsurge have been people outside the workforce: pensioners, middle-aged homemakers, and men with low educational qualifications receiving disability payments.

In Britain, where detailed analyses of the votes actually cast in the Brexit referendum are now available, the group most directly affected by low-wage competition from immigrants and Chinese imports – young people under 35 – voted against Brexit by a wide margin, 65% to 35%. Meanwhile, 60% of pensioners who voted backed the “Leave” campaign, as did 59% of voters with disabilities. By contrast, 53% of full-time workers who participated wanted Britain to remain in Europe, as did 51% of part-time workers.