Covid-19 and the Generational Wars

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.

 

Failed Generation?

A while back, I was listening to Krista Tippett interviewing the Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli (author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which I can recommend as a good primer for those of us who learned our last physics in high school). In talking about his past, Rovelli said this (in his charming Italian accent):

I spent my youth traveling and being a little bit revolutionary in the Italian politics of the time. And at some point, we wanted to change the world. I’m of that generation; we failed. And at some point, I just fell in love with physics…

Now, Rovelli is a little younger than I am, but apparently he saw himself as a child of the sixties – those days when we were going to “change the world.” He says “we failed.” And I thought that was worth thinking about.

And then in Sunday’s NY Times in an article about movies of the sixties, I read this:

“A revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao Zedong said, but this revolution was also a party, and left behind a legacy of hedonism. Rather than tearing down the consumer society, the ’68 students helped to open it up. Their generation is remembered more for its embrace of sexual freedom and personnel fulfillment, for a social transformation enacted in the realm of the personal.

We were the children of the “greatest generation” that fought the wars (World War II or Korea or both) that saved the world for democracy. Big shoes to fill and we tried to fill them in a way that often pitted generation against generation. Fights over the dinner table about draft resistance and whether girls should wear “dungarees.” Protests at the state house about civil rights and women’s rights. And, in many of these crusades, we did not fail. There were new civil rights laws, the Vietnam War came to an end, women wore jeans and entered the workplace in huge numbers. And yet.

We did not seem to learn any lessons from Vietnam. Black Lives Matter is not a given for many of our citizens. The ERA was never passed. Women went to the workplace, but still did most of the work at home. And the president who was most recently elected could not be more different from the young president who inspired us.

Rovelli is right; at some point we grew weary with taking on the world and fell in love – with our partners, our children, our careers, new technology and avocations. And here we are looking out over the environmental and political wasteland that somehow happened when we were paying for our children’s education, learning to use a scanner, and scouting out retirement locations. We had to make a living; we had to start trusting people over thirty when they were us. We let things slide.

And there was something we forgot (if we ever really knew it). There was another part of the boomer generation; these were the people who went to Vietnam willingly, who felt that integration and the sexual revolution were forced on them. While many of us gloried in what technology could bring us in the way of iPads and cell phones, many of them were losing jobs to robotic technology. While some us saw increased globalization as a way to have cool cars (remember the VW buses?) and exotic vacations, other saw their livelihoods move to Mexico or the Philippines. These members of our own generation – and their parents and children – would seem to have elected our current president, to have pressed the brake on change – hard and with the force of resentment. Read Hillbilly Elegy. Listen to Fox News (but don’t listen long).

When we rebelled, our parents did not agree with us, but they eventually came around. They loved us. But there was a big part of the boomer generation that found the change too hard and too fast. It hit at their basic values. Some took solace in religion, some in patriotism, and others in their own kind of rebellion, their own kind of Tea Party. Why couldn’t we win them over? Did they see that the college kids were just going through a phase and then returning (with their degrees) to a secure middle class life? How did we fail to connect?

Our generation accomplished much and we are still kicking. Old ladies in tennis sneakers are a powerful force and provide the backbone of many good causes. But somewhere we failed.

Many of us lament the fact that the younger generation does not seem to feel the need to change the world that some of us felt. Yet, we see the murmurings begin with the students from Parkland, from the persistence of Black Lives Matter. And, to be honest, our generation had the impetus of the draft at our back threatening our brothers or boyfriends or selves. But, you say, the young have an environment that is crumbling around them. It’s their world they are watching lapse into environmental and political chaos. I still believe they will act. But, whatever they do, let’s hope they do it in an inclusive way. Including all members of their generation. And us too. We still have our tennis sneakers.

This week’s story, “Common Enemy” (from the Sam Levenson quote “the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy”), is not about politics, but, well, I’ll let you decide what it’s about….