January 27, 2021

While Covid-19 has been scything through Western society, in the past year an altogether different – and possibly more insidious – threat has been brewing: the prospect of a conflict between the young and elderly. As soon as the pandemic struck, commentators seized upon fears that the heartless young would shrug off the pandemic as a “Boomer Remover” and refuse to curtail their sociable behaviour. As a researcher of generational conflict, my own concern was that politicians would adopt a different yet equally divisive logic that has become dominant over the past decade — one which holds that the elderly are an unsustainable burden on our society.

Initially, however, the opposite seemed to be true. The Government’s official messaging dictated that the entire population had a moral duty to “save lives”. In response, younger people, by and large, complied with the restrictions and showed high levels of concern about the deadly impact of Covid on the elderly. Yet when we look more deeply at the rhetoric underpinning today’s emergency measures, and the rumbling discussion about how we will pay for them when the bills come pouring in, a familiar theme emerges.

For the past few decades, debates about population ageing have been increasingly framed around the presumption of diminishing social resources, with retired people having taken more than their “fair share” while younger generations are left to pay off public debt from their shrinking wage packets.

This has given rise to an outlook of generationalism — the exaggeration of generational differences to account for economic, political, and cultural problems. It is essentially a prejudice masquerading as economic and social analysis, one which relies on cherry-picking data from particular historical moments and drawing on poorly conceptualised categories to make crude generalisations.

Take the most widely-aired example of the generationalist outlook: the claim that the cohort born in the two decades following the Second World War  — the “Baby Boomers” — were uniquely blessed by the post-war economic boom, the developing welfare state, world peace, rising house prices and “gold-plated” pension schemes. According to this narrative, the Boomers’ determination to live life to the full, and refusal to die before their time, has resulted in a series of policies designed to protect the elderly at the expense of the young. Therefore, argue the generationalists, the only solution is to redistribute wealth and power from the old to the young.

I have written extensively about the problem of generationalism, and its negative impact on old and young alike. The tale of untrammelled Boomer privilege skates over the significant differences of class, gender, and ethnicity. Nor is there any mention of difficult historical moments — the Sixties are always talked about, the Seventies barely mentioned. Such mendacious myth-making fosters resentment among the young, who soon find themselves trapped in a generationalist narrative. Told that older people “had it all”, it’s only natural for younger generations to lower their expectations about what they can expect society to do for them.

Generationalism also has a pernicious impact on policy thinking. Since the concept of “intergenerational equity” was first formulated, in the USA in the 1980s, social policy scholars have used it as a smokescreen for less palatable arguments about the need to restructure welfare states — in particular, by limiting entitlements to older people. Dig into today’s grandiose claims about “generational fairness” and little has changed. They generally amount to little more than what I have termed “granny-mugging”: the demand to abolish the “triple lock” on state pensions, to scrap free TV licences and bus passes, and to make older people pay more for social care provision.

None of this, of course, will help younger people. Indeed, given that the children of today are the pensioners of the future, such penny-pinching reforms are likely to hit them hardest in the end. More broadly, by presenting economic and social problems as conflicts between generations, we avoid tackling far more profound causes of inequality, such as sluggish economic growth and inadequate welfare infrastructure.

Far from pushing back against this approach, the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed its dangerous consequences. As a disease, Covid-19 causes disproportionate suffering among the elderly. Yet in social and economic terms, the lockdown measures could cause disproportionate suffering among the young.

This has given the pandemic many of the ingredients for a generational conflict. In fact, it seems to me that generationalism already underlies two dangerous myths about our response to Covid-19. The first is that the extraordinary social experiment known as “lockdown” was done to protect the elderly. The second is that the focus of future policy should be about paying off the consequent debt.

Thus channelling these myths, Martin Daunton, emeritus professor of economic history at the University of Cambridge, is able to argue: “To tackle the intergenerational divide, society’s protection of  Baby Boomers by locking down the economy must be matched by social and economic policies to compensate the young.”

It bears noting that Daunton presents lockdown as an attempt to protect the “Baby Boomers”, rather than the more vulnerable 80-plus cohort. This is a classic generationalist’s sleight-of-hand. Nobody wants to look as though they are having a go at Captain Tom, so the “Boomer” category is routinely deployed to capture both the relatively fit Boomers and the growing numbers of very old people.

More importantly, the myth that lockdown has been about protecting the elderly can be dispelled by considering how they have actually been treated in the past year. During the first wave, the scandal of discharging Covid-positive patients to care homes revealed how literally policy-makers had taken to heart the imperative to “protect the NHS” — even if it resulted in the virus spreading among the most vulnerable.

In that spirit, the “stay at home” orders were essentially an instruction to elderly people that if they ventured outside, they would not only be responsible for their own deaths but could also add to the burden on hospitals. Now, with vaccines offering a release from almost a year of isolation, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer instructs that they must not act with “wild abandon and go off to the bingo halls”.

Yet it is the notion that it should be down to the elderly to “compensate the young” once the pandemic subsides that is the most callous of the generationalist blows. Elderly people did not choose to be ravaged by Covid-19, and nor did they design lockdown as the predominant response. Insofar as lockdown has brought disproportionate disadvantages to the young, politicians should be taking responsibility, as well as considering how to address them going forwards. Engaging citizens of all generations in a discussion about social policies would certainly be a good start.

For when we emerge from this crisis, it should be with a determination to confront the policy problems that Covid-19 has so cruelly exposed. The effective collapse of state education, soaring levels of unemployment, increases in poverty and the inadequacy of housing — all have been starkly revealed in the past year.

Solving these issues requires going beyond the divisive approach of generationalism, as demonstrated by the success of our age-stratified vaccination strategy — which, after all, is a clearly focused attempt to protect those most at risk from Covid-19. But when the time comes, the energy expended on protecting the elderly needs to be matched by a concerted attempt to free the young from lockdown. For if it isn’t, I fear that post-pandemic Britain will be shaken by a malign sense of generational injustice. And that really will be unhealthy.