I wrote this piece back in April for a journal’s rapid response CfP. It was understandably rejected—trying to fit too much into a very short word count. Given time and an occasion, I’ll expand it. But in the meantime, I’ll leave it here in case someone will find it useful. Like all disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic pushes on fault lines running through the structure of society. In normal times, these cracks may be all too easy to ignore. But under the pressure of crisis they become unstable, threatening to break society apart. This essay is about a particularly disturbing set of cracks widening in the time of the novel coronavirus: ageism and generational conflict.
Ageism is deeply entrenched in western societies, and in early March the director-general of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus charged that this was behind the lack of political commitment of some countries to control the spread of coronavirus. “If anything is going to hurt the world, it is moral decay,” he said. “And not taking the death of the elderly or the senior citizens as a serious issue is moral decay. Any individual, whatever age, any human being matters.”[i] In early April, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on governments around the world to combat ageism and ensure that older people retain access to necessary medical and social services.[ii]
In the United States, critics of ageism have decried the way that media accounts and the pronouncement of public health officials about COVID-19 revolve around age-associated vulnerability. In January and February, many articles appeared seeking to quell panic with some version of the claim that “COVID-19 only kills old people”; since early March, articles have warned that we must take social distancing guidelines seriously because it is “not just old people” who are getting seriously ill and dying from the disease. Geriatrician and best-selling author Louise Aronson, among others, pointed out that such accounts frame the lives of older people as less valuable, less worthy of concern.[iii]
By early April, advocacy groups had filed complaints with the federal government arguing that guidelines some states had formulated to deal with the agonizing prospect of rationing ventilators and other life-saving resources in the event that hospitals become overwhelmed by a surge of COVID-19 unfairly discriminated against patients with physical and cognitive disabilities.[iv]
Age studies scholar Margaret Morganroth Gullette criticized guidelines that explicitly or implicitly include age as a factor. For example, the guidelines produced by the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Critical Care Medicine use age as a “tiebreaker,” favoring younger patients over older ones who would benefit equally from a ventilator. Age-based criteria in triage guidelines are typically justified in terms of life-course justice where dying at an older age is given less moral consideration because the person has had a chance to live a full life. Gullette rejects such reasoning, arguing that the perceived value of potential future life is a judgment about the social worth of a person based solely on their age and should no more be used as exclusion criteria in triage than race, gender, or social class. She is also skeptical of the idea that older people volunteering to forego treatment to save scarce resources for younger patients – or to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy as Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick suggested – can be taken at face value. Just as other socially marginalized groups learn to internalize inferiority, older people begin to believe ageist messages and, given the intensity of ageism in the COVID-19 crisis, may come to accept the idea that they are expendable. That does not make it true or morally defensible.[v]
Generational conflict has also grown worse in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is important to disentangle it from ageism. As a set of negative attitudes toward the elderly, based solely on one’s chronological age, ageism in one form or another has been a fixed feature of the United States since at least 1900.[vi] Generational conflict may reflect or reinforce ageism, but is grounded in more specific social and political issues of a given point in history. In the United States, a conflict has been simmering, in the mass media at least, between millennials and baby boomers since the early 2000s over issues ranging from the economic opportunity to climate change.
The joking description of COVID-19 as the “Boomer Remover,” which began trending on Twitter in mid-March, may be ageist. But it is also much more clearly connected to specific grievances younger generations hold toward the baby boomers. Few #boomerremover tweets expressed hostility about older people simply for being old. Most of them were framed around the idea that baby boomers specifically were out of touch with the most pressing problems in the world today. Many were from millennials complaining that their older relatives were not taking social distancing guidelines in the emerging pandemic seriously enough. (On the other hand, a countervailing social media trope depicted young people recklessly partying in large groups with no regard for the possible harm this could cause to vulnerable people they came into contact with, particularly their parents and grandparents; so far as I know there are no data on whether there has been a significant generational pattern to following social distancing guidelines.) Many other tweets portrayed the elevated risk boomers faced as comeuppance for decades of obstruction to progressive political causes such as wealth inequality, universal health care, gun violence, and climate changes, and stressed the irony of boomers happily ignoring all of these concerns but becoming enraged because some teenagers started using a mean hashtag about them on social media.[vii]
Generational conflict inevitably trades on overly broad generalizations and stereotypes. Baby boomers have of course been prominent in the ranks of every progressive cause, just as plenty of younger people have supported conservative politics. The injustices and threats that concern many millennials are the result of social and institutional power structures that cannot be attributed to an entire generation. All that said, there is a core of reality to the millennial/boomer conflict that should not be dismissed. The generation gap has been one of the most striking features of America’s divisive politics since 2016, with younger voters tacking far to the left of older voters. One of the most important factors in the failed campaigns of progressive champions Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, in whom many young people had placed their political hopes, was how poorly they did with older voters.
Beyond frustration at what can reasonably be seen as a baby boom electoral roadblock to the progressive political agenda that a large majority of young voters support, millennials have good reason to feel especially concerned about economic security. Entering the workforce around the time of the Great Recession of 2008, they struggled to find stable jobs with good pay and benefits. Now the pandemic presents an economic crisis that will likely be far worse, and early data suggests that millennials are suffering a significantly greater loss of employment than older, more established workers in the baby boom generation.[viii]
COVID-19 should not be seen as an isolated event, but a nodal point in a cluster of seismic events – social, economic, political, and natural – that have been occurring over time to produce the public health and economic catastrophe we are currently experiencing. Ageism and generational conflict are part of that cluster. It is a cluster that will become more complex, unstable, and dangerous as we enter an era of increasingly frequent “natural” disasters associated with global warming. Ageism and generational conflict must be addressed in the vital conversations we are having now about justice in the COVID-19 pandemic, and they must be addressed in the broader conversations we will have about the meaning of a good individual and collective life in a future of growing climate chaos and risk.
[i] P. Barnes, “Did U.S. Response to Covid-19 Lag Due to Age Discrimination?” Forbes, March 13, 2020, March 13, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/patriciagbarnes/2020/03/13/did-us-response-to-covid-19-lag-due-to-age-discrimination/#5417b4c71784.
[ii] Human Rights Watch, “Rights Risks to Older People in Covid-19 Response.” Human Rights Watch, April 8, 2020 https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/07/rights-risks-older-people-covid-19-response#.
[iii] L. Aronson, “Covid-19 Kills Only Old People. Only?” New York Times (New York, N.Y), March 22, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/22/opinion/coronavirus-elderly.html?smid=tw-share.
[iv] S. Armour, “Plan to Ration Treatment Is Unfair to Frailest Patients, Advocates Say.” Wall Street Journal (New York), 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/rationing-plans-in-coronavirus-crisis-draw-growing-discrimination-complaints-11586430000.
[v] M.M. Gullette, “Avoiding Ageist Bias and Tragedy in Triage: Even a Lottery Is Fairer Than Triage by Age.” Tikkun April 14, 2020. https://www.tikkun.org/avoiding-bias-and-tragedy-in-triage.
[vi] T.K. McNamara and J.B. Williamson, Ageism: Past, Present, and Future. Routledge, 2019.
[vii] A. Whalen, “What is `Boomer Remover’ and Why is it Making People So Angry?” Newsweek, March 13, 2020. https://www.newsweek.com/boomer-remover-meme-trends-virus-coronavirus-social-media-covid-19-baby-boomers-1492190
[viii] A. Lowrey, “Millennials Don’t Stand a Chance: They’re Facing a Second Once-in-a-Lifetime Downturn at a Crucial Moment.” The Atlantic, April 13, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/millennials-are-new-lost-generation/609832/.