Until a month ago, a deep generational divide was the new front line in our polarised politics. But COVID19 could be about to change that – if we get this moment right.
Here in the UK, the December 2019 general election saw voting split along age rather than class lines, with the Conservatives winning 60% of votes among the over-65s while Labour won less than 20%.
Age divides on specific issues were just at stark – Brexit, most obviously, but also immigration (a factor in nearly 20% of over-65 votes compared to less than 5% of 18-24 year olds), cost of living (an issue of less concern to over-65s than any other age group), or climate change (the most important issue for 32% of 18-24 year olds, but only 13% of over-65s).
In the US, too, age has become a key dividing line. In the 2016 election, 18-29 year olds preferred Clinton to Trump by a huge 55%-37% margin, while over-65s chose Trump over Clinton by 53%-45%. In German politics, meanwhile, last year’s EU elections saw 33% of under-30s vote Green, pushing the party to second place in German polls for the first time ever in a nationwide poll amid a similarly widening generation gap.
None of this is surprising. Young people have had a shocking decade – bearing the brunt of austerity while coping with student debt, high housing costs, job insecurity, low pay, difficulty saving, and steadily tougher dependency ratios. Many older people, meanwhile, have enjoyed protection both from their higher rate of asset ownership, and the political clout of being a large generation that’s much more likely to turn out to vote.
Now, COVID19 puts all this into an even starker light. Younger people are taking a huge economic hit in order to protect older people. It’s an extraordinary act of solidarity across generations, and one that has the potential to be deeply healing and reunifying at a point when many countries sorely need it. But whether that potential is realised depends very much on what happens next.
In one scenario, we could see young people’s sacrifice being decisively reciprocated. When the bill for COVID19’s vast bailouts comes due, for example, older voters could accept that they should shoulder their share of the burden and support a broader economic rebalancing in favour of the young. More broadly, older voters could put more of their substantial voting power behind the priorities of the young, above all by backing more ambitious action on climate change.
If, on the other hand, this reciprocity is not observed after the acute phase of the crisis, then the risk is that COVID19 sets the stage for a form of polarisation much worse than anything we have seen so far, with young people feeling that their sacrifices have gone unappreciated and ignored. Intergenerational terms of abuse (“OK, boomer“; “snowflakes“) were already proliferating before COVID19. Society can ill afford a resumption of those hostilities in yet more virulent form after a shock that cuts as deep as coronavirus.
While this is a story that will unfold months from now, this is a moment when early drafts of it will count for a lot. One of the ideas in The Myth Gap (a book I wrote about the power of collective stories back in 2017) that has stayed with me most is the sense that stories create our reality as much as they describe it, and can all too easily become self-fulfilling prophecies, especially in conditions of high uncertainty. Look at what happens during a run on a bank.
So it matters a great deal that we nurture and propagate stories right now about how generations are coming together in a Larger Us, and of how this is a moment when our interests across generations can realign, in which we can put the schisms of Brexit behind us, and rally around a new, hopeful, shared agenda.
For a beautiful example of that, take a look at Dorothy Byrne’s article in the Guardian today, in which she writes – as a 67 year old with underlying medical conditions – of her deep appreciation for the sacrifice young people are making. As she puts it,
The vast majority of people are doing extraordinary things to try to ensure those like me don’t die. Over the past weeks, I’ve been deeply moved by the sacrifices younger people are making. Initially, there was fleeting discussion about the elderly and immunocompromised being mere collateral damage in the government’s grand plan to cultivate herd immunity. Rightly, such talk provoked outrage.
Instead, what’s happened is something altogether more encouraging: society is taking part in a remarkable exercise to keep those like me alive. In my own street, many people have lost their jobs. Some with small businesses don’t know if their enterprises will survive. Three of my lovely young neighbours were immediately told they would be evicted. One might expect people facing hardship to turn inwards; instead, they came round and asked me if they could do my shopping.
You often hear about Britain’s intergenerational divide. Indeed, one constantly reads that the young resent the old. We were the lucky “boomer” generation who could afford to buy houses, graduate without student debt and retire on final salary pensions. But I’ve never bought the narrative that pits one age group against another. Younger people resent a political class that has failed them, yes, but they don’t resent me.
It’s common to love your grandparents. Right now, though, people are displaying a deep concern for other people’s grandparents too – and showing solidarity with older people they will never meet. There have been many days during this crisis when I have felt alone and worried. In these dark moments, I’m reassured by the many people who, out of concern for those who are old, frail or immunocompromised, have chosen to protect people like me, often at a huge cost to themselves.
Across the country, many of us recently stood on our doorsteps to clap health workers and carers. But as one old lady to the rest of the population, I’d like to say to everyone else: thank you.