Our present moment encourages the reconstruction of forgotten relationships and identities. From urbanites who left their Midwestern hometowns to college students who had begun to experience independence, many are now rediscovering their roots, the people with whom they grew up, the landscapes they left behind.
These chains that bind us to our communities and neighbors, usually hidden, now reemerge as palpable sources of humanity. Quotidian acts of kindness, like smiles exchanged behind scarves-turned-masks, illuminate our days. Indeed, this communal sense of gratitude has been the most efficient bulwark against the pandemic.
Yet COVID-19 has also exposed the cruelty of an individualistic culture gone mad. Six months ago, the lieutenant governor of Texas argued that senior citizens should be ready to “take a chance on [their] survival” to protect the American economic machine. At the time, his position seemed extreme. Now, it has been adopted by countless governments worldwide.
In New York, for instance, Governor Cuomo “placed nursing-home residents in unnecessary danger” by “prohibiting them from testing would-be residents for the virus.” Similar strategies have been adopted in New Jersey, Florida and nationwide; in fact, this phenomenon transcends our borders. Even in countries such as France and Sweden, hundreds of families have accused state-managed retirement homes of mistreating their patients. In short, the robust welfare states of Europe did not stop their governments from underfunding healthcare facilities for the elderly.
While unacknowledged, the reasoning is always the same. Since the old will die sooner than the rest of us, they have a generational responsibility to sacrifice themselves for our sake. Those who refuse are selfish, cowardly or narrow-minded.
The utility-obsessed rhetoric of economic thinking is on full display here. The elderly become a mass of anonymous nobodies, a dehumanized statistic on one side of an uncomfortable equation. Human worth is now measured by usefulness, and age is inversely proportional to productive potential. An elderly life is worth less, or even worthless. As distinctive stories disappear under the mighty weight of cost-benefit analyses, individual memories and voices find themselves relegated to oblivion.
The idea that the old have a duty to the young — and not vice-versa — would have baffled our predecessors. In his funeral oration, Pericles exhorted his contemporaries to revere their fathers and ancestors, to honor their efforts, to seek the unwavering “seal of their approval.” Centuries later, Montesquieu would argue that respect for the elderly is a precondition of democracy, a way to counterbalance what he called the “spirit of commerce.”
Prima facie, it seems strange that we should sacrifice those who have already accomplished something for those who have yet to accomplish anything. Our grandparents’ generation certainly did not have this mindset when they fought war after war to fix the mistakes of their elders. Yet as a society, we have become indifferent to the plight of the old. This attitude is the direct result of a political paradigm shift on both sides of the spectrum, one that extends far beyond COVID-19.
On the Right, the demands of neoliberal economics often overshadow the needs of the elderly. Conservative lawmakers smile at the sight of veterans and old people, but their smiles disappear when the most vulnerable among them ask for federal support. But to honor the past is to protect its representatives against the uncertainties of the present. No matter how convincing performative conservatism may be, an unconstrained embrace of laissez-faire economics is not compatible with a dedication to the happiness and survival of our grandparents.
On the Left, a different pathology plagues generational relations — namely, progressive condescension. Phrases such as “OK Boomer” serve to expose the triumphalism of our generation, that is, our tendency to think of our time as the culmination of human events. In a world guided by “progress,” the present has every right to judge the past with disdain and praise the new as inherently better.
Young people are increasingly reluctant to engage with the elderly. When met with opposition, they simply deplore the “stubbornness” of their “uninformed” grand-uncles and move on — without convincing anyone of anything. Naturally, generational divides have always existed. The difference here is that persuasion, a central pillar of democracy, is replaced by nothing but momentous eye-rolls.
As Yale students, we often delude ourselves into thinking that we make history more than history makes us. We create a thousand clubs every year because we cannot stand the weight of existing institutions, their rigid hierarchies and antiquated traditions. It is precisely because we love to “lead” and change the world for the better that we dismiss the voices and concerns of older generations. Of course, this kind of bourgeois condescension is by no means comparable to the more concrete tragedies faced by the elderly during the COVID-19 outbreak. But the coronavirus should make us reflect upon the need to protect and esteem this vulnerable segment of society.
In these frozen times, we find ourselves motionless, forced to abandon the perpetual movements of modern life. Perhaps now is the time to re-create dissolved generational bonds — not just to “respect” our elders, but to defend and honor them and their contributions.
MATHIS BITTON is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His columns run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .