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COVID-19 and the Problem of Generations

Authors: Peter Kelly, James Goring, Meave Noonan

Every afternoon the Australian Government Department of Health issues an updated infographic that provides a snapshot of the state-of-play of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia.

The image above is from May 9. It shows a number of things, including that recorded infections indicate that COVID-19 cases are fairly evenly spread across different age-groups between age 20 and age 79.

It also shows, in common with most data from around the world, that the largest number of deaths from COVID-19 are clustered in the population older than 60, where males are over-represented in numbers of deaths in that population.

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This apparent generational divide in the health and mortality outcomes of COVID-19 infections has produced diverse commentary – from various disciplinary perspectives – about the ‘ethics’ of allocating health on the basis of age; about the ways in which young people’s livelihoods, education opportunities, and health and well-being are being compromised to ‘save’ their ‘grannies’; and about the relative value of human life.

(We will do a post shortly about the ‘moral economy of COVID-19’ in which the value of human life is understood largely in economic terms that privilege the ‘productive years’ left in a life).

COVID-19: Boomer Remover?

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In a diverse range of media discourses, age and gender have been represented as strong predictors of who lives, who dies, who is responsible, who needs to make sacrifices during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In some spaces , terms such as ‘caremongering’ have emerged where communities have engaged in volunteering, donations of essential items and assistance to their elderly.

In early April, WHO regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge stated that ‘Supporting and protecting older people living alone in the community is everyone’s business’.

But there have also been debates about ‘ageism’, neglect and ‘sacrifice’ that represent young and old generations, ‘millenials’ and ‘boomers’, as having distinct experiences, and also responsibilities and challenges during the health crisis, and during the social, economic and policy crises that are merging. As we indicated in an earlier post, a variety of sources note that young people are likely to be ‘hit harder’ by the economic consequences of COVID-19. 

These sorts of challenges are captured elsewhere in representations of the ‘Boomer v Millenial war’ where young people are figured as ‘snowflakes’ who choose ‘avocado on toast’ over home-ownership. While ‘Boomers’ as those who ‘stole the millenial’s economic future’ – ‘the theft of a decade’. 

In the age of COVID-19 this kind of commentary is captured in the ‘Boomer Remover’ meme that has gone viral in a number of forms.

Writing in The Guardian, John Harris has described how discourses such as those that spur generational divisions (in the UK) have been amplified during the crisis. It has been suggested that these discourses of generational ‘war’ fail to capture the ways in which precarity crosses ‘the generational divide’. Harris (2020) argues:

Not much more than a month ago, a charity called the Centre for Ageing Better published a report called Doddery But Dear?, full of grimly familiar cultural observations. “Metaphors such as ‘grey tsunami’, ‘demographic cliff’ and ‘demographic timebomb’ present old age in terms of crisis,” it said, “reflecting a perception of old age and the ‘baby boomer’ generation as a societal burden.” Two years ago, research published by the Royal Society for Public Health found that a quarter of people aged 18-34 believed it was normal for older people to be unhappy and depressed – and across all age groups, nearly a third of people surveyed agreed with the statement “being lonely is just something that happens when people get old”. Strikingly, two-thirds of the respondents said they had no friends with an age gap of 30 years or more.

Ideas and assumptions about getting old, about being elderly, come into the foreground (for ‘young people’?) during COVID-19 when there are reports of neglect (see this report on one Spanish aged-care home); the massive outbreak at Newmarch House, Penrith in Sydney’s west which ‘threatens to overtake the Ruby Princess as the nation’s deadliest wave of the coronavirus’; and the ongoing Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in Australia.

Organisations such as ‘Every Age Counts’ point out the ways that COVID-19 has brought into the foreground the limits of a generational paradigm in considering the economic, health and wellbeing consequences of the crisis:

Language used by the media and spokespeople describing a cohort of people spanning up to four decades of life as ‘the elderly’, entrenches a stereotype that all older people are more or less the same as each other.

In other commentary, older people are being called on to take a disproportionate impact of the economic fallout of the pandemic. At its worst, we are seeing discussions about the possibility of age-based rationing of limited healthcare treatments.

Too often, there is the implication that older people’s lives are more expendable than other members of the community, their contributions less valuable, their deaths less tragic.

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Granny-killer metrics don’t add up in Australia’s costly coronavirus battle

Andrew Probyn is a political editor on Australia’s ABC network. In an article published in early May he canvassed a number of issues that interest us here, including debates about the merits, the economic, social and cultural costs and consequences of the public health response to COVID-19. In much of this commentary there is a tendency to say that ‘young people’ may not be as ‘at-risk’ as ‘old people’ in relation to the virus and its health consequences, but they are a bearing an ‘out-sized’ economic and social burden to save ‘their grannies’:

Australia bought itself time by acting quickly, unlike many of the Europeans and the Americans. The smart and humane thing to do is to use that advantage to carefully and cautiously draw down the economic restrictions while protecting lives — and yes, even the grannies and grandpas.

So, when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg addressed the National Press Club on Tuesday, he was keen to put a few things straight.

“Some observers claim the Swedish model of handling the virus with significantly fewer restrictions is the model of success,” Frydenberg said.

“Respectfully, I disagree. Sweden has 40 per cent of Australia’s population but 70 times the death rate. The numbers speak for themselves.”

There’s growing concern in government that a view is taking hold in some conservative quarters, influenced by the likes of broadcaster Alan Jones, that restrictions need to be dramatically lifted to save the economy from ruin.

Jones, holed up in his Southern Highlands safe house, is among commentators who’ve endorsed the views of Nobel laureate Michael Levitt, Professor of Structural Biology at the Stanford School of Medicine.

Probyn then quotes from a video interview with the 73 year old Levitt:

“We’ve caused pollution. We allowed the world population to increase three-fold in my lifetime, even more, we caused the problems of global warming, and now we’ve left your generation with a real mess in order to save a relatively small number of very old people.

“This is a virus designed to get rid of the baby boomers. Quite frankly, I’ve had a great life … I’d much rather have young people than live for a very long time.”

Applying granny-killer metrics to the fight against COVID-19 has to be read to be believed, if you don’t have time to watch Professor Levitt’s full half-hour interview.

Click on the image for a link to the full interview:

Generations and an ‘inter-generational ethics of care’

We will return to the ‘generational’ characteristics and consequences of COVID-19, in particular the economic and social responses to the pandemic, in future posts.

At this time we want to reference work we have done in a forthcoming book chapter, where we explore the emergence of the School Strike for Climate (SS4C) movement in which the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has played a leading role.

In that chapter we situate SS4C in discussions of the Anthropocene, and the ‘dithering’ that characterises the ways in which many individuals, communities, businesses and governments continue to ignore the challenges that emerge from the impact of human activity – driven by the logics of capitalism – on earth systems: oceanic, atmospheric, terran.

When we start to think in these terms then we can start to understand why so little is being done in the present to act on the trouble that we are in, and what our futures may hold. For capitalism – as a globalising system whose core logics are about creative production, destruction and exploitation; are about the extraction of value from anything that can be commodified; are about the reduction of the concept of ‘value’ to that of purely economic gain or profit; are about the pursuit of individual interest at the expense of any sense of the collective good – there is still so much to exploit in Canada’s tar sands, or at the Adani coalmine site in Queensland, or in the Arctic as the sea ice melts, or…

A major part of our analysis centres on the ways in which the concept of ‘generation’ can inform our thinking about the environments and systems that older generations are bequeathing young generations, and the ways in which SS4C emerges as a collective response by younger generations to this ‘dithering’.

That thinking – which is reproduced below – offers a way to respond to the tendency in much of the COVID-19 commentary to pitch generations against each other in a zero-sum-game where one generation’s gains are another generations’ losses. Where young people, young workers, are sacrificing their futures to save their grannies!

This ‘intergenerational’ concept of sustainable development was widely adopted, including at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. One of the key principles of the Rio Declaration was that ‘development today must not threaten the needs of present and future generations.’

Over time, however, the definition of sustainable development evolved into a more practical approach, focusing less on intergenerational needs and more on the holistic approach linking economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. (Sachs 2015, p.5)

The concept of ‘generation’ has figured prominently in sociologies of youth for many years, and debates about this concept have re-emerged in recent years. Johanna Wyn and Dan Woodman (2006, p.497), for example, argue that the concept of generation can illuminate ‘processes that shape, constrain and create opportunities for successive cohorts of young people, and for understanding the significance of their distinctive priorities and subjectivities, in the context of changing political, economic and social forces’. They argue that the changing political, economic, social, cultural and governmental conditions of the postwar period have been critical to the emergence of a ‘post-1970’ generation whose experiences in education, employment, relationships and household formation are qualitatively different from those of the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation (Wyn and Woodman 2006, p.501). 

Wyn and Woodman’s work has been critiqued in a number of ways. Alan France and Steven Roberts (2014, pp.215-230), for example,  propose taking an ‘ecological approach’ to what they argue are the ‘nested’, micro-relationships that underpin young people’s everyday social practice with macro-governmentalities that are shaping those relationships. 

They argue that the ‘macro-processes’ that young people are encountering in terms of neoliberal, global capitalism are of a similar character to earlier forms of ‘industrial’ capitalism, and that a social generational framework has a tendency to focus on the differences between generations, rather than on the commonalities in experiences of different generations. 

For France and Roberts, different age cohorts have been united in their experience of the ‘hostile realities and conditions of the new economy’, and people (young and old) often respond to these challenging circumstances through collective/family action and support rather than as individuals.

Our sense is that in ‘assembling generations’ (Latour 2007) we should think not only in terms of difference and commonalities, but also in terms of entanglement. When we first look at the SS4C we might see generation against generation: for instance, a placard at a SS4C protest in Melbourne in 2019 claimed that ‘old men don’t understand climate change’. 

Or we may see older generations supporting younger generations. Our intent, however, is to complicate the picture about generations by suggesting that generational entanglements are suggestive of relationality, complexity, ambivalence – we become together. 

Importantly, in the context of the crises of earth systems, and the ways in which our pasts and presents are exploiting and using up our futures, using up young people’s futures, before they arrive, a generational perspective should provoke an ethic of care to the possibilities of futures and generations. An ethic of care that is suggested by the concept of sustainable development. 

Yet, even on the evidence of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, such an ethic of care continues to be thwarted by the very real probability that for the logics of capitalism ‘sustainable development’ is, indeed, an oxymoron

‘despite progress in a number of areas over the past four years, on some of the Goals, progress has been slow or even reversed. The most vulnerable people and countries continue to suffer the most and the global response has not been ambitious enough’ (UNDESA 2019).

At the end we want to suggest that a sociological imagination for the Anthropocene would seek to complexify and refrain from dis-entangling what it is that we might ‘see’ in the form of the youth collectivity called SS4C. Would also not romanticise what it is that we are looking at in SS4C as a form of young people’s collective action. The crises of earth systems, and what we should do in the context of these crises, what young people should do (We don’t want your hope! We want you to act as if our house was on fire!), are too catastrophic for romanticism or optimism.

Such an imagination would also be generative and suggestive – rather than prescriptive or dogmatic. There is much work to do here in developing these possibilities in the field of youth studies in the context of these crises. We will finish, however, by suggesting that in SS4C we might see a glimmer of what Rosi Braidotti (2013, p.192) identifies as an ‘affirmative politics’ that is informed by a ‘posthuman ethics’:

The pursuit of collective projects aimed at the affirmation of hope, rooted in the ordinary micro-practices of everyday life, is a strategy to set up, sustain and map out sustainable transformations. The motivation for the social construction of hope is grounded in a sense of responsibility and inter-generational accountability…Hope is a way of dreaming up possible futures: an anticipatory virtue that permeates our lives and activates them. It is a powerful motivating force grounded not only in projects that aim at reconstructing the social imaginary, but also in the political economy of desires, affects and creativity that underscore it.

There is hope in something like SS4C for how we can ‘dream up’ possible futures in which generations ‘become sustainable’ together. In which an ethic of care shapes the diverse entanglements between young and old, between generations.

This ‘ethic of care’ was already ‘in-the-wild’ when COVID-19 emerged and started spreading. It needs to spread widely and rapidly too!

By Peter Kelly

I lead the UNESCO UNEVOC Centre in the School of Education at RMIT University.

3 replies on “COVID-19 and the Problem of Generations”

Excellent article Peter and highlights the absurdity of allowing things to be driven by capitalism to the detriment of human growth, social development and community wellbeing. Intergenerational dialogue is fundamental aspect of this and should not be expendable on the economic altar of ever-expaning corrosion and erosion.

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