Deservingness Heuristics and Policy Attitudes toward the Elderly in an Aging Society: Evidence from Japan

Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211016061
How does population aging affect public support for gov-
ernment expenditure on the elderly? Rapid demographic
changes that many countries have faced in recent decades
have highlighted concerns about the sustainability of the
welfare state. While a growing number of senior citizens
have increased this group’s need for government support,
a sustainable welfare state requires an adequate depen-
dency ratio. This is because social expenditures for the
non-working population should be covered by the taxes
levied on wage earners. However, in many advanced
industrial countries, population aging and low birth rates
have upset this equilibrium and have posed fundamental
public policy challenges.
Understanding policy attitudes toward programs for
the elderly is important because public support in democ-
racies is essential for successful policy reforms, which
are necessary for addressing a demographic slowdown.
Previous studies have shown that programs related to old
age are more popular than welfare programs for other
marginalized groups, such as the unemployed, or the
working-age poor (Gilens 1995; Huddy, Jones, and Chard
2001; Larsen 2008; van Oorschot 2000, 2006). This is
because, unlike the latter groups, which are perceived to
be able-bodied and shirking their responsibility, aging is
considered a universal, unavoidable risk that everyone
faces in their lifetime. The universality of aging automati-
cally justifies social welfare directed at the elderly with-
out any need to prove the worthiness of welfare recipients.
As a result, recent studies argue that deservingness heu-
ristics are less useful in mobilizing people’s support for
the elderly (Goerres, Karlsen, and Kumlin 2020).
As the policy needs of elderly people have increased
with the demographic shift in many advanced industrial
economies, however, the burden on the working popula-
tion has grown ever larger. Against this backdrop, others
posit that as a high old-age dependency ratio makes state
resources scarce, age becomes an important source of
social division that reshapes welfare politics. The elderly
are inclined to support expanding pensions and health
care spending over expenditure on work-related pro-
grams, while younger people prefer the latter programs
1016061PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211016061Political Research QuarterlyKweon and Choi
1 University,
2Dongguk University, Seoul, Republic of Korea
Corresponding Author:
ByeongHwa Choi, Department of International Trade, Dongguk
University, 30, Pildong-ro 1-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul 04620, Republic of Korea.
Deservingness Heuristics and Policy
Attitudes toward the Elderly in an Aging
Society: Evidence from Japan
Yesola Kweon1 and ByeongHwa Choi2
Deservingness theory contends that spending on the elderly is widely supported across age groups because, unlike
other groups such as immigrants or the unemployed, senior citizens are perceived as morally worthy of social aid.
However, through a survey experiment in Japan, a prototypical aging society, this study shows that in a state with a
large population of senior citizens, there is a significant age gap in policy preferences with the working-age population
demonstrating stronger opposition to government support for the elderly. To induce empathetic policy attitudes
toward the elderly, therefore, effective issue framing is necessary. However, emphasizing economic need is not
enough; it is only when both the elderly’s economic need and effort to work are emphasized that we see a positive
attitudinal change among the working-age population. In addition, we find that the economically secure are more
sensitive to senior citizens’ economic need and effort to work in determining their policy support. By contrast, the
economically insecure exhibit unqualified support for the elderly. These findings demonstrate that deservingness for
the elderly is not innate, but is driven by conditional altruism. Furthermore, our work emphasizes the importance of
issue framing in generating intergenerational solidarity in a rapidly aging society.
population aging, welfare deservingness, redistributive support, survey experiment, Japan
Sungkyunkwan Seoul, South Korea
2022, Vol. 75(3) 591–606
592 Political Research Quarterly 75(3)
(Ansell and Gingrich 2018; Browning 1975; Sinn and
Uebelmesser 2003; Sørensen 2013). This similar pattern
is also found in younger and older political elites’ policy
behavior (McClean 2019). While some are of the view
that younger people would still have an incentive to sup-
port government spending on the elderly in anticipation
of their future benefits (Svallfors 2008), in a rapidly aging
society like Japan where the country faces substantial fis-
cal constraints, the increasing number of younger popula-
tions feel significantly less confident than the older
generation about their standard of living in old age (Pew
Research Center 2014). Rather, as population aging
intensifies, the young and the old are likely to become
competing groups with incompatible policy interests.
Given rapid population aging and limited fiscal
resources, which can potentially cause intergenerational
conflicts, in what conditions do working-age people posit
more empathetic attitudes toward the elderly? This paper
seeks to answer this question through a survey experi-
ment in Japan, a prototypical graying society. Our study
finds that a large age-based divide exists in Japan.
Younger people, in general, show significantly lower sup-
port for government assistance to the elderly than older
citizens. Opposition to state support for the elderly is par-
ticularly strong among younger people with secure
employment and advanced labor skills. This is the group
of people who are most likely to contribute to the welfare
state with relatively little personal gain. Yet, a heuristic
that emphasizes the economic need and effort of senior
citizens reduces the age gap in popular support for gov-
ernment aid to the aged. Especially for economically
secure youth, in addition to emphasizing economic need,
when the elderly poor are presented as “workers” taking
responsibility for their own economic situation by partici-
pating in the labor market, we observe a positive attitudi-
nal change, indicating the operation of conditional
altruism (Fong 2007).
The findings of this research have important implica-
tions not only for the study of age-based social cleavages
but also for research on policy attitudes. First, earlier
studies emphasize the high perceived deservingness of
the elderly (Gilens 2009; Goerres, Karlsen, and Kumlin
2020; Huddy, Jones, and Chard 2001; Laenen 2020). As a
result, although many have examined the effects of
deservingness heuristics, the focus has mainly been
placed on support for the working-age poor or immi-
grants (Aarøe and Petersen 2014; Alesina, Miano, and
Stantcheva 2018; Fong 2007; Jensen and Petersen 2017;
Slothuus 2007, among many). Few have studied their
effects on support for the elderly, or even when they do,
they have found the ineffectiveness of deservingness heu-
ristics (Goerres, Karlsen, and Kumlin 2020). By contrast,
our research demonstrates that in aging societies, where
resources have been increasingly scarce, the elderly do
not automatically trigger empathetic public attitudes, and
individuals are driven by age-based self-interest. More
importantly, we show that as with other marginalized
groups, heuristics that emphasize the economic need and
effort to work are necessary to garner intergenerational
support for government assistance to the elderly, espe-
cially from welfare contributors.
In addition, previous studies point out multiple fac-
tors—self-interest, prospective self-interest, and empa-
thy—that influence the formation of other policy
preferences. Nevertheless, we know little about in what
condition each motive activates and who is more respon-
sive to altruism as opposed to self-interest. In this regard,
through a sensitive analysis, we demonstrate that eco-
nomically insecure young people are more driven by pro-
spective interest, yielding a high level of support for
elderly-related government spending, regardless of
deservingness heuristics. By contrast, economically
secure young people, major welfare contributors, have
low levels of support for government spending on the
elderly, and they are more sensitive to deservingness
Policy Attitudes toward the Elderly
in Aging Societies
The world is rapidly aging. Figure 1 lists ten countries/
areas with the highest old-age dependency ratio estimated
in 2019 and projected in 2050. As of 2019, Japan stands
out in its rate of population aging with more than 10 per-
cent difference with the second oldest society, Finland.
Although the share of senior citizens in Japan, the case
this focuses on, currently outnumbers any other advanced
economies, population aging is not a unique challenge for
Japan, however. In 2050, the gap between Japan and
other countries is expected to be much smaller, with
South Korea, Spain, Greece, and Italy expected to have a
dependency ratio greater than 70 percent. The accelera-
tion of population aging that many advanced industrial
countries have faced has exacerbated labor scarcity and
increased the burden on government welfare efforts in
advanced industrial countries.
How are public attitudes toward the old formed in the
face of a high old-age dependency ratio? Theories in the
extant literature answer this question by pointing to three
conflicting motivating factors—empathy, and current and
prospective self-interest. First, informed by literature on
altruism and welfare deservingness, the intergenerational
solidarity hypothesis predicts that the public, even the
younger generation, tends to support increased govern-
ment assistance to the old due to the general stereotype of
senior citizens as deserving members of society. Unlike
groups such as the unemployed, because everyone ages,
people, even working-age individuals, can easily identify

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