Covid-19 is not a ‘generation war’

We need intergenerational solidarity more than ever.*

The Covid-19 pandemic will have huge consequences: for human life and health, for the global economy, for people’s livelihoods. Coping with these consequences largely depends on developing a strong sense of social solidarity: drawing on the ties that bind us to our communities, friends, and families, and setting aside petty differences and grievances.

This can mean many things, and will need to take many creative forms. But however we do it, we must bring young people into the project of meeting this challenge, by encouraging the best in them rather than presuming the worst.

On 13 March, the charming phrase ‘Boomer Remover’ started trending on Twitter. As Andrew Whalen writes in Newsweek, the term ‘has since become a battleground for generational warfare on social media’, with some appearing to celebrate the disease as just desserts for the sins attributed to the Baby Boomer generation. For example: ‘And now that coronavirus has reared its ugly head, we are once again seeing the generational rift between Boomers and “millennials”,’ writes Samira Sood in The Print:

‘It’s no secret that COVID-19 most likely moved from bats to pangolins to humans. And why are bats coming closer and closer to human habitation? Because of deforestation. Something that young people around the world have rallied against, in climate strikes that Boomers dissed “as useless millennial activism.”’

These ugly, stupid sentiments are exactly what you would expect from self-appointed generation warriors. So determined are they to bolt their own sense of grievance onto any fashionable disaster, regard for compassion goes out of the window along with respect for the facts. Covid-19 seems to be striking down predominantly elderly people (many of whom are much older than Baby Boomers) and those with pre-existing health conditions. It’s not a sin-seeking ‘Boomer Removing’ missile, but an impersonal infection that is picking off people most vulnerable to respiratory illness.

So we should treat ‘Boomer Remover’ with the contempt that it deserves. At the same time, though, we should be very careful of overreacting; of presuming that the world beyond the Twittersphere is full of young people gleefully celebrating the possible demise of their grandparents or great-grandparents. ‘[W]hile the trending topic has generated lots of anger, its early mentions on social media were mostly apocryphal anecdotes, rather than people wielding the name as an expression of anger directed at people over 55’, writes Whalen – observing that:

‘Since all generational narratives assign stereotyped attributes and flatten massive demographics into loose age categories, the trending use of Boomer Remover as a nickname for coronavirus inevitably involves sweeping statements and attacks, guaranteed to leave everyone feeling aggrieved, misunderstood and ill-used.’

As strategies of ‘social distancing’ encourage an increasing intimacy with the endless coronavirus coverage on the internet, and the echo chambers and rumour mills of social media, there is a danger that the shrill minority voices of generation warriors come to be interpreted as an expression of young people’s response to Covid-19. And as far as I can see, that is not the case.

Most young people whom I talked to, at least up until last week, were fairly sanguine about the effects of the disease upon their own health, but concerned about its potential effect on those who are more vulnerable it. They were aware that the human cost of this global pandemic may well include a close family member; they were willing to participate in measures designed to restrict the spread of the disease. And – if we let them – young people will play a crucial role in helping us all get through this. The danger is that defensive generationalist thinking will become its own barrier to responding to the crisis in the calmest and most effective way we can.

For all the fear, chaos, confusion, and politicised bitterness generated by the global response to Covid-19, it has also revealed some highly positive instincts. There is a desire to control the disease, to treat it, and to find a vaccine for it as quickly as possible. There is a sentiment that just because the death toll is likely to be much higher amongst older people, that does not make it OK. And there have been some inspiring community initiatives springing up to find practical ways to help people who are isolating – all based on sentiments of trust and social solidarity that are usually notable by their absence in these atomised times.

At the same time, attempts to contain the virus have ushered in draconian responses that, political leaders acknowledge, are unprecedented in peacetime. Measures such as lockdowns, curfews, and school closures have a huge impact on people’s everyday freedoms, and may continue to do so for some months. As different societies struggle to contain the spread of this virus, there is no obvious, easy, or ‘right’ answer about how to do that.

It is hardly surprising that young people, in particular, might kick against these restrictions – whether through insensitive meme-sharing or illicit socialising. Blaming Millennials for being ‘irresponsible and selfish’ for going out to bars and restaurants is no better than singling out the Baby Boomers, as the ‘rebellious children of the 1960s’, for putting themselves and others at risk by their alleged reluctance to obey the imperative to stay at home.

There may well be a public health rationale for social distancing measures, and for these to work, people need to obey them so far as possible. But individuals are also having to weigh up the contradictions in advice, and the demands of their own circumstances. Drawing on crude generationalist stereotypes to pillory people for their perceived ‘irresponsibility’ will only inflame divisions between the generations, at a time when we need intergenerational solidarity more than ever. Building this solidarity requires that we do three things.

  1. Give working people the space to keep the show on the road

In the UK’s strategy to date, the ‘over-70s’ have been clearly identified as a separate category, and the prospect of mandatorily isolating them has a number of problems: not least, in being a blunt instrument that does not distinguish between fit and healthy pensioners and those who are more at risk. But even so, it sends an important message about responsibility and care. Most ‘normal’ policy talk is about needing to reduce the ‘burden’ of pensions, encouraging ‘productive’ ageing by getting pensioners to continue working or to fill the gaps in childcare and eldercare provision, or taking away apparently undeserved ‘perks’ such as the free TV licence.

Now, we are being encouraged to step up and look after our pensioners, because it is the right thing to do: and the working population is charged with responsibility for keeping social and economic life going. People are receptive to taking that message on board, but they are struggling with the implications. If avoiding exposure to the virus is the main priority, why is it all right to go to work but not to a pub or restaurant? If schools are to close, who will look after the kids? Dropping groceries at the end of Grandma’s path is well and good, but what if she becomes sick and actually needs to be looked after?

These are the granular, personal decisions that everybody will have to take in their own way – and they need, as much as possible, the freedom to decide how they will navigate them. Generalised lockdown measures that isolate households from all of social life surely pose as much danger to those who are particularly vulnerable to the virus as do strategies that seek to balance people’s ability and desire to care for those in self-isolation, while keeping their own lives going as well.

Caring for elderly and sick people cannot be reduced to simply trying not to infect them, and the state can only do so much in providing the kind of support that individuals need at the point when they need it.  The best people to make the judgements about the relative risks involved are the individuals trying to do the caring.

Over the past week, we have seen this space for judgement quickly narrow – as a result of official restrictions, a zealous over-interpretation of those restrictions, and demands for more prescriptive guidance from government on how to behave. There is a real danger here that, far from pulling together to get through this crisis, communities will internalise the message that the only responsible thing is to hold back: for families to lock themselves down to avoid infecting others, rather than working through the more nuanced implications of social distancing advice, and shouldering some responsibility for actively managing the crisis.

If everybody retreats to their bedrooms, our ability to do the things that everybody agrees are crucial – such as enabling key workers to carry on doing their work – will be severely hampered. Now UK schools have closed for most children, it raises some vital questions about our expectations of students at secondary schools and universities, and the message we send to them.

  1. Involve teenagers in the project of getting through

One message would be based on the assumption at the heart of the ‘generational conflict’ idea: that the safety of the kids should be our first priority. We could encourage teenagers to stay in their bedrooms, symbolically cocooned within their own social media peer groups, and flatter their frustration with the cancellation of exams, the cancellation of holidays abroad, the lack of stuff to buy, and the extent to which their freedom is curtailed. This would both patronise young people, and inflame resentment.

Another message, which has gathered a head of steam in recent days, has been to scare young people into behaving responsibly. On Friday, the Director-General of the World Health Organization delivered a widely-reported ‘stark message’ to young people, warning them:

‘You are not invincible, this virus could put you in hospital for weeks or even kill you. Even if you don’t get sick the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else.’

This warning is rapidly being interpreted as a demand that young people must stay apart from each other, for their own good and everybody else’s. But what are the implications of that? Children of ‘key workers’ will be coming into contact with the virus through their parents, and these children need to be looked after, presumably by parents with other kids. Scaring healthy families away from each other will only increase the demand on schools, who are already struggling to manage the tension between their responsibility to the community and the demands of social distancing and self-isolation.

As parents across the world are finding, it is not easy to get young people to accept advice on social distancing. But terrifying them into submission is actively irresponsible. It evades the challenge of explaining, calmly, how they can play a part in minimising the spread of infection, and why they should do that; and cuts them adrift from the necessary public project of working through this crisis.

A more positive and constructive message would be that we want, and expect, young people to play an active part in mitigating the social consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown. Fit, healthy, energetic teenagers should be encouraged to get involved in the local initiatives to help with shopping, dog walking, looking after younger children in the community… There are so many things that will need doing. It’s not a lot to ask of them, and it could even be very good, in pulling them out of the self-absorbed peer group dynamics that commentators often bemoan. But this will not happen if they are paralysed with fear.

  1. Promote an open and honest discussion

Above all: we need to talk to teenagers, and listen. They are going to be confused, bored, frightened, resentful, and possibly bereaved. They know the implications of this crisis go much wider than the virus itself, and we need to be discussing that with them.

Covid-19 is a serious public health threat, and it is right to take measures to minimise its impact. But we should also acknowledge that there is so much we don’t know about this novel virus or how best to deal with it. On the other hand, we do know that the negative economic and social implications of the lockdown response are likely to be huge – and may have ramifications for a long time to come. Younger generations, while potentially being less affected by the virus itself, face being deeply affected by the social and economic effects of the global response.

That is why we need to have open discussions about the various dimensions of this crisis. If it is framed as simply a necessary public health response to a virus that is particularly deadly for older people, this is likely to become wrapped up with existing generationalist narratives claiming that young people’s economic futures are being sacrificed to the needs of the elderly. That would be a terrible misreading of the situation.

As Phil Mullan argues, the economic and political tensions that have framed the response to Covid-19 have been building up for some time. The virus, and the response to it, may become the catalyst for a major economic crisis. But if, as seems likely, the virus becomes presented as the cause of a recession, we will evade understanding and confronting the deeper structural problems that meant that a crisis was already on the cards.

We are not just going to ‘bounce back’ to the status quo ante once a vaccine is developed, or the disease has run its course – we will all have to engage in an urgent project of rebuilding social and economic life. This means understanding that we are all in it together, and also that we have different roles to play. Young people need to be allowed to play their role – and as adults, we have to take responsibility for helping to work out what this should be.

* This article was written before the announcement of the UK lockdown. First published by spiked, 24 March 2020.

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