There is an unusual feature of the Covid-19 virus. This quirk is aggravating a source of social tension that has been growing increasingly urgent. It is this: most diseases have a u-shaped mortality curve, posing the greatest risk to two groups, the very young and the very old. This coronavirus does not.
David Spiegelhalter, the chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk at Cambridge University, suggests that the risk posed to children by Covid-19 is “tiny”, with under-15s more likely to be struck by lightning than die of the virus. Young adults are slightly more at risk, but not by much. Seroprevalence surveys suggest that this age group are more likely than any other to have already come into contact with and recovered from the virus, which makes sense given the daily habits of young adults who are disproportionately likely to live in cities and to have work and social lives that bring them into contact with large numbers of people. Almost all young people experience Covid-19 as a mild illness, and often suffer no symptoms at all, meaning that the age-mortality graph for this disease looks less like a u-shape, and more like a hockey stick.
And here is the political problem. Many young people feel resentment towards the generation born between roughly 1945 and 1965, otherwise known as ‘boomers’, a word often spoken with derision by young adults, and sometimes with a snarl.
Boomers, according to the narrative popular among my peer group, had it easy. Boomer landlords sit atop the housing market and exploit their young tenants; boomer students enjoyed free tuition courtesy of the taxpayer while today’s students pay through the nose; boomer public sector workers are living the high life on gold plated pensions while their descendants suffer the effects of austerity; boomer voters gave us Brexit, against the wishes of the majority of the young; boomer job-seekers benefited from an economy that offered opportunities that today’s millennials, coming of age in the wake of the 2008 crash, can only dream of.
There are flaws in this narrative, of course, since the image of the complacent boomer doesn’t always fit with reality. A quarter of baby boomers don’t own their homes, the vast majority didn’t go to university, and almost a third can expect to enter old age with no financial security, since they have no private pension to call on. Plus younger members of the boomer cohort are likely to suffer terribly as a result of job losses, with a quarter of a million over-50s predicted to never work again.
But the narrative is nevertheless attractive to a generation feeling the sting of downward social mobility. And now we have a new, even more enraging component to add to this tale of boomer entitlement: the fact that the lockdown has disproportionately protected the over 55s, who are at risk from a virus that is dangerous to them, but not to their children or grandchildren, while causing devastation to the economy. And it is not boomers who are predicted to foot the bill.
This framing relies upon abstraction. Even the young people most sceptical about the need for lockdown, and most resistant to its strictures, have no desire to put their older relatives in harm’s way because, as with all unpleasant political problems, it is difficult to support a policy when the costs must be borne by people you personally know and love.
But when the fear of death has lifted and this crisis ends, how will its story be told? We could well be suffering the consequences — economic and others — of these last six months for decades to come, and the precautionary principle that persuaded so many people that lockdown was a necessary evil will not have the same persuasive power once the panic induced by the pandemic recedes in the collective memory.
For a group of young people already comfortable with the vocabulary of ‘privilege’ and ‘oppression’, it might not take much to definitively add ‘boomers’ to the list of wrongdoers, alongside other reviled groups. And we might find that the generation who lost out most from lockdown will adopt a divisive myth about the crisis of 2020 that goes something like this: “Boris Johnson’s government destroyed our futures in order to protect Tory voting boomers.”
All it needs is a grain of truth. A longstanding Tory preference among older voters is as strong as ever, with the Conservatives currently leading Labour by 34 points among the over 65s. And children and young adults have endured some unique harms as a result of lockdown, with the closure of schools and the A Level fiasco doubtless leaving some permanent mark on students in this cohort. Meanwhile, surveys suggest that the mental health of the young has been particularly badly damaged by the experience of lockdown. And all this before the forecast global depression even arrives with its full and terrible force.
The boomer narrative doesn’t require perfect accuracy in order to thrive. The fact, for instance, that the approach adopted by the British government was similar to that of most other Western countries, and a good deal less restrictive than some, will not necessarily counteract the mythological power of a story of old betraying young.
The inaccuracy, for instance, of the ‘lions led by donkeys’ account of the First World War has done little to undermine its potency. The phrase was already in use during the war, was quickly adopted in the years immediately following, and then further popularised in 1961 by Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, a book that excoriated the British leadership on the Western Front. The musical Oh What A Lovely War! and television series Blackadder embedded the image of heartless old generals sending brave young men to their deaths and, despite the best efforts of revisionist historians, this remains the popular view of the conflict. When a story is compelling enough, inconvenient details tend to be forgotten.
At the very beginning of lockdown, Max Hastings, a military historian who understands the power of popular narrative, wrote with impressive candour about the coming generational conflict. Echoing the sentiments of the most resentful twenty-somethings, Hastings described his own generation as collectively “monumentally selfish”:
“Despite our affluence relative to the young, the grey vote has fought tooth and nail against the BBC’s sensible termination of our free TV licences; deterred politicians from means-testing free travel passes; resisted fiscal curbs on our pension privileges, and the entirely just depletion of personal resources to fund care home costs.”
Expressions of this kind of anti-boomer sentiment will only grow louder without some kind of government intervention. The proposal to end the triple lock on state pensions in order to pay for this crisis may go some way towards repairing the generational rift. As Scott Corfe, the research director of The Social Market Foundation, said in response to this proposal, “[t]here is a clear case for intergenerational reciprocation when it comes to meeting the fiscal costs of the crisis in the years ahead.”
It might also become necessary to increase taxes on assets, or even introduce a means test for pensions — a controversial proposal in the UK, although long established in Australia — in order to settle the lockdown bill. And we should expect those moves to be resisted “tooth and nail”, just as Max Hastings describes. This isn’t an easy problem for the Government to solve, and the age profile of Tory voters disincentives action.
But the effects of this crisis demand some kind of action, if we are to avoid a toxic narrative of exploitation which casts millennials as vulnerable lions, and boomers as entitled donkeys. Covid-19 could have had a classic u-shaped mortality curve, or it could even — like the 1918 flu — have been most dangerous to working age adults. Instead, by a stroke of dumb luck, the young turned out to be peculiarly resistant to this virus. And now, without some effort to remedy the generational inequality feeding the anti-boomer narrative, that flap of the butterfly’s wing could have ugly political consequences.