There has always been a generational divide. In our hippie days, we called it a generation gap, but it was more than that. We didn’t trust anyone over thirty. As our baby boomer generation came into adulthood, moved into jobs, then into better jobs, and finally into collecting pensions, social security, and artificial hips, our children and our children’s children started to worry about who was going to pay for all this. These economic fears were on top of the more individual problems of who was going to go stay with Mom when she had her cataract surgery and how to get Dad’s driver’s license away from him.
In some ways, this is nothing new. When Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, he included the incident of the Struldbruggs, a select group of people who would never die. Their culture did not see them as a source of wisdom, but rather as an economic problem. Their society finally decided to declare them “dead” at the age of eighty, allowing heirs to inherit, taking away their right to vote, and leaving them alone to age while the world went on without them. This just as longevity was starting to increase in the Early Modern world. The younger generations first saw the “baby boomers” hold on to the limited upper-level managerial and professional positions. Then they realized that the retirement of the older generation (us) will be funded by the younger (through the Social Security system, Medicare, and other ways). The economic gerontophobia (yes, there is a word for it!) that Swift outlines is alive and well.
Then, as now, the elderly represent at least three threats. There is the threat that the old will not relinquish control and that their inability to keep pace with change and to release capital will impede progress. Then there is the seemingly contradictory threat that they will have to be supported (both economically and emotionally) in their old age. And finally the very presence of the aged is a memento mori, a threatening reminder of decay and mortality in a culture which does not want to think about these things. This unease is fueled by endemic expectations of scientifically produced and ever-increasing longevity, and juxtaposed with the hopes of the youth that technology will mean that they might, themselves, live long but never get old.
And now we have Covid-19, which is more of a threat to the old, but less of an inconvenience (we mostly don’t have jobs anyway and everyone knows we don’t go out much), and less of a threat to the young and more of an inconvenience (who mostly do have jobs, and may have young children in the house, or could still be looking for partners). I know the young can get Covid-19 and suffer greatly from it, but in Italy 95% of the deaths have been in those over 60 and 84% in those over 70. In the United States, 78% of the deaths have been in those over 65 and 92% in those over 55. Those are alarming statistics for the old, but perhaps empowering for the young.
When these younger folks were our children (or grandchildren), we gave them curfews and told them they couldn’t go to Florida on spring break. Quarantine rules must feel like déjà vu to some of them. How does this all play out? And back to our youthful distrust of anyone over 30. Are we reaping what we have sown?
I wrote an earlier post about whether the old could teach the young anything “(Teach Your Children Well?”), or whether everything had to be learned anew with every generation. Still a good question. In old England, even before Swift’s time, there was an instructional story of a man who made the decrepit old grandfather eat from a trough. One of the young children in the family starts building something, and the father asks what it is. “It’s a box for you to eat out of for when you are old like grandfather,” says the observant child. Thereafter, the old grandfather is treated better. But I am not sure that young people really believe that they are going to get old. Maybe, like our own death, it is too hard to believe. Or maybe we have all gotten too used to thinking in the short term.
Over a decade ago I wrote a novel, The Last Quartet (nod to Beethoven), about a situation that is the exact opposite of what we are facing. In a horrible epidemic, it is the old who survive and have to carry on with the world. I have posted the “Prelude” to this novel here. It is a thought experiment which might be of interest at the moment.
To start thinking about how our view of the aged has changed in the modern world, you might look at the abstract of a dissertation I wrote about the changes that started about the time that Swift invented the poor Struldbruggs.