The War of the Generations, by Baroness Perry of Southwark

‘Old Age is honourable’ – so says the old proverb. Do we still believe this today?

Of the many sad outcomes of this year’s battle with the Coronavirus, perhaps one which bodes most ill for the future is the divide which has opened up between the old and young in our society.

The numbers are stark; between March and mid-November, there were a sad 21 deaths from the virus amongst those under twenty; in the same period, there were 19,778 deaths amongst those over sixty – and more than half of those were over eighty. Being old in the face of this virus is a frightening condition indeed.

So – scientists and politicians have responded by lockdowns, fierce ‘tiers’ of restrictions in our lives and constant pleas to all generations to wear masks and observe the ‘two metre’  space rule. Such measures have proved devastating for business, have endangered the education of a generation and have been destructive for the social life of the young.

Criticism of the measures is widespread. Politicians who oppose them cite the damage to the economy and to the mental health and wellbeing of the nation. A glance on social media, however,  gives a frightening measure of the less restrained venom of some of the critics.

Yes, younger people have become ill and some sadly have died, but the numbers tell the story  – almost 20,000 of those over sixty have died against just over 20 below aged twenty. It is the old, by a giant mile of difference, who are being protected

The choice which politicians world-wide have faced – advised by scientists and other experts –  is, starkly put, how high a price must millions of the younger population pay in order to protect the old?

Politicians who oppose the restrictions are of course careful not to put the question in these terms. Look on social media, though, and you will see many in the public who do not hesitate to put the issue in the starkest of terms. Why, they ask, are we paying such a huge price in order to keep alive people who are going to die soon anyway? – people who no longer work? Who some will even openly say, are no longer of ‘use’?

Never before have the divisions in society been so clearly based not on class or race or political affiliation but on age – the perceived sacrifice of the young for the old  and the overt resentment of the costs to one generation for the welfare of the other. Attitudes previously hidden – perhaps because before the virus came along they were deemed publicly unacceptable – have emerged with  some force and seem to have been more widely shared than one could have imagined.

As I am ‘old’ it is not surprising that I am grateful to our politicians and their advisers that they did not decide to allow the old to die off in huge numbers from the virus. The assumption of those who would disagree is that life for the old is less valuable to us than theirs is to them. Not so! As the Roman scholar Cicero wisely said two thousand years ago ‘No man is so old as to think he cannot live one more year’. Life can be more precious when the years that remain dwindle down to a precious few. But this subjective sentiment is not enough.  For many reasons, apart from self interest, I believe the politicians’ choice was the right one, although the cost to the younger generation genuinely appals me.

On a personal basis of course, and if it were a choice of a life-saving ventilator or medication for me or a 30 year old, I would not hesitate to say give it to the 30 year old. But this is not a one-for one. It is a choice between thousands in a generation who have no personal choice.

Sadly, though the intergenerational resentment is not an entirely  new phenomenon. Although now more overt, the generational disparities have been a source of frustration for many years. In a multitude of areas the generation now in their sixties and seventies have enjoyed benefits denied to the younger population. These so-called  ‘boomers’ lived through decades of ever- growing prosperity and improved living standards. They had access to affordable housing, to free higher education with hugely increased access to such opportunity, to a National Health Service with capacity able to meet demand and to a world where the frightening threat of climate change had still not been acknowledged or understood.  Retirement age was earlier than today and the pension benefits of the over 60s are infinitely more generous than those that younger cohorts will enjoy A fortunate generation indeed. It is all too easy to see why the younger generation can feel resentful of their good fortune in contrast to their own.

This sixties and seventies generation, though, are key contributors today. Many are still in fulltime employment; many stand in as carers for grandchildren and many act as ‘Bank of Dad and Mum’ to give much needed financial support to the boomers. They have indeed been victims of the virus; 12,420 of 60-79 year olds have died in the period up to mid November2020. I would argue they are  an incalculable  loss not only to their grieving loved ones but to our society and our country.

The over – sixties generation, often classed together in debate are not a single or undifferentiated category. The experience of the eighty plus generation, who have seen the highest number of COVID-19 deaths, is  very different from that of the fortunate Boomers. Born before or during world war two this generation endured hardship unknown by any of those who came after. As children they suffered the terror of nightly air raids and the looming fear of invasion; shortages of basic comforts such as coal for heating and hot water; for many, absent fathers who were fighting against fascist dictatorships while their mothers struggled to cope at home; food shortages continuing through a post war period of rationing and austerity. This generation grew up without the medical advances of antibiotics or many of the vaccinations now taken for granted. There were few sophisticated diagnostic techniques. Foreign travel was a rarity until the 1960s and car ownership was confined to essential workers during the war years, while afterwards families waited for two or more years in the queue for a new car to be delivered.

Are these over 60 and over 80 generations so worthless? When we balance them in the scales against the damage of lockdown and restrictions to protect them, do we feel they should have been allowed to die in greater numbers?

Some would reply that we need and love our grandparents and owe them a debt for the bravery they have shown through the tough times of their early years. I agree. But I also think our debt is greater even than that. My favourite story is this:-

An elderly man is sitting on a bench in his local park when a group of noisy young teenagers arrive to poke fun at him. “Well, old man, when you were our age you didn’t have much of a life, did you? You didn’t have the internet, or space travel, or antibiotics or plastics and stuff? – Must have been a pretty boring way to live”. The man looked at them for a moment then smiled and said “You’re right! My generation didn’t have any of those things at your age. So – do you know what we did? We went out and WE invented them!

Now – what are you going to do for the generations after yours?”

Perhaps the oldies are not such a worthless generation after all?

Baroness Perry

December, 2020