Covid has turned the world upside-down in some strange ways in relation to age, time, and money. Let’s start with the money. We old folks – with our social security, pensions, savings, and Medicare – are perhaps a little better off than some. We don’t have jobs to lose, children to feed, college loans to pay off. We are in appreciably more danger in other ways than the younger folks (see earlier post), but we are arguably a little more economically secure for the time being.
In relation to money, old folks have a long history of being classified as covetous, miserly. Going back to Horace (Ars Poetica), the old man is described by his “desire for gain, miserliness, lack of energy, greediness for a longer life, quarrelsomeness, praise of good old days when he was a boy, and his condemnation of the younger generation.” Famous examples of old misers might include the fictional characters Ebenezer Scrooge and Silas Marner.
Of course, in times when there was no provision for the elderly except perhaps the good will of one’s children (remember King Lear?), it made sense for old people to hang onto their money. Neither do the old have the time or energy to start again. When Benjamin Franklin admonishes a “Young Tradesmen” to “[r]emember that time is money,” one can only wonder if the implication is that the old – with little time left – are poor by definition?
Incidentally, time and money are intimately related – as was most apparent in the early Christian church’s opposition to usury. One of the Christian arguments against usury was that all time is God’s time, and that charging interest is profiting from something that belongs to God. For many years, the term has been used only for the crime of charging exorbitant interest, but there was as time in the Christian church when no interest at all was allowed, when belief in usury was a heresy. But where would the modern economy be without usury?
Similarly, using probability tables to predict life expectancy for annuity and insurance purposes assumed that someone was betting on one’s death, and that someone (other than God) was sure enough of when our “number would be up” to put money on it. When life insurance came into being in the 18th century, there were many who thought that it also was a heresy, a presumption. Only God could know when our time was up.
Here is the paradox: We older people have time, and yet we are running out of time. Retired and quarantined, we have oodles of hours on our hands when we might not be able to count on years, or even months. It is a strange situation. One might consider Wendell Berry’s view that “time is neither young nor old”:
I know I am getting old and I say so,
but I don’t think of myself as an old man.
I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse.
As we watch some young people flaunting the quarantine rules and endangering the lives around them, our lives, it seems that perhaps they think they have plenty of time. They do not think that Covid will kill them (and statistically they are correct), and they do not think about dying much at all. Neither did I at their age. And yet, the elders – who are busy trying to make peace with the nearing end – see the possibility that the “truce of old age” (St. Benedict) will soon be broken, our lives will be precipitated into immediate danger. Usually, as in war time, it is the young who are in danger, fighting for the elders and others at home. This time we are the potential casualties. It is a topsy-turvy world.
For more perspective on how Covid is exposing (and creating) stress between the old and young, see my post, Covid-19 and the Generational Wars. This situation is taking on a new dimension as we begin to open the schools. Children and young adults seem to be at low risk, but how about older teachers, custodians, librarians, and bus drivers? For a fictional take on the generational gap, you might try “Common Enemy.”