The Scotsman's formula for mutual understanding and tranquility is not made for an ideal world, but rather the broken one we inhabit.
Covid-19 has proven to be a very discriminatory killer. While it can infect and sicken people of all ages, it is at its most deadly among the elderly. Throughout the world, the number of older people who have died from the disease far outnumber younger victims. Here in America, approximately 80 percent of the deaths have occurred among those aged 65 and older. If we include those 55 and older, that accounts for 92 percent of the deaths in the US. Comorbidity factors explain many of the other deaths. In Italy, the numbers are even higher, as 90 percent of the deaths are among those 60 and older. Unsurprisingly, folks 65 and older die more frequently from all sorts of things than younger people. However, Covid accounts for almost 10 percent of all deaths among those 65 and older since February. Among younger people, Covid is responsible for only about one percent of all deaths. Since February of 2020, more young Americans have been killed by pneumonia or the flu although admittedly these data are only for this year.
And yet despite months of evidence from countries all over the world showing us who is most at risk and who is not, politicians continue to follow policies that are based on the assumption that all of society must be sheltered because of risks, both direct and indirect, to the elderly. These policies have disproportionately impacted the young, and it’s not at all clear that these policies are effectively preventing further spread of the disease or keeping elderly people from risk: As older Americans self-isolate in senior living facilities or their homes, they are coming into less contact with their younger relatives and friends anyway. Multigenerational households appear to be those most at risk; however, these are also the households that rely on multiple members of the family working to survive. Preventing the young from working may be quite costly in terms of the potential trade-offs. Much of the economic hardship and destruction, social disruption, and public shaming has been directed conspicuously toward younger Americans. Younger Americans have seen their schools closed, any attempt to pursue their social lives publicly castigated and questioned, their jobs in the restaurant and retail sector vanish, and their graduations and transitions to living independently from their parents blocked. All of this despite the fact that young, healthy people simply are at nearly zero risk of dying from Covid.
The arguments for why these policies are in place range from vague hand waving about the safety of grandparents and at-risk teachers to broader claims about social responsibility and shared sacrifice—although the sharing as it currently operates is hardly even or fair. Many of these arguments are coming from politicians and policymakers who are not in their teens and twenties, and who are not being asked to sacrifice years of their educational lives for the elderly. Noble as it sounds to forgo your life to save your grandparents, how much do generations “owe” each other? Do the young have a responsibility to make such heavy sacrifices for older citizens?
Political Power Across Generations
Perhaps if the relative power and wealth of the different generations were equal, such sharing might be justified. But that’s simply not the case. Elderly Americans comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of American society. The number of Americans aged 65 and older has more than doubled since 1950. There are now approximately 52 million older Americans. This trend is not uniquely American, as countries throughout the world are watching their fertility rates decline and life expectancies expand. But the dynamics are particularly striking because not only are there more elderly people in the world, the elderly themselves are aging. In 2016 there were more than six million Americans aged 85 and over. To provide some context, there were approximately 577,000 Americans 85 and older in 1950. We are not merely seeing more retired folks, we are seeing people who are living longer, and correspondingly consuming more in healthcare as they age and work less. They certainly should not be blamed for their desire to avoid death, but this phenomenon is not without social costs. And those costs are borne by the younger members of society.
This growing part of the population is also the richest. In fact, the median net worth of someone 65 and older is now approximately $250,000, as compared to less than $25,000 for those 35 and under.
These net worth estimates include things like investments, homes, and cash. They do not include government benefits. So we need to understand that Social Security and Medicare allow the elderly to maintain their wealth advantages. Setting aside the very important discussion we eventually will have in this country over the future of these entitlements, they are in effect transfers from younger, productive Americans, who are poorer, to wealthier less productive ones.
Mancur Olson’s seminal work on collective action helps explain how this rather distorted generational gap in power and wealth is maintained. Olson was interested in the dynamics that were needed for groups to organize, particularly in response to public goods. He identified two factors that helped to predict when groups effectively organize and successfully lobby the government for benefits. First, the benefits had to be “selective”—in other words, only available to a small part of the society. These selective incentives make it possible for these smaller groups to organize politically because they are motivated to do so. Additionally, a segment of the population is easier to organize than the larger group. AARP now boasts 38 million members nationwide and is widely recognized as one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in America.
Olson’s second main point is that the costs of these benefits have to be diffuse, which means the costs are spread out over larger segments of the society. Once organized, the smaller groups, for example lobbying organizations or labor unions, fight fiercely to maintain the benefits and the larger group paying the bill faces higher hurdles to organize since the organizational “costs” to politically animate large numbers of citizens are too high. Since the larger group also lacks the selective benefits, we see imbalances in the way groups approach political action. There is a reason why Social Security and Medicare are called the “third rail” of American politics. If a politician so much as touches it, she’s dead.
By contrast, younger Americans are politically unorganized, poorer, and facing much more uncertain futures. Younger Americans are more likely to be carrying significant student loan debt. The American government is obliged to pay the elderly and yet it holds the debt of the young. While in theory student loans should help the young gain income in the future, the size of the debt and the shrinking value of a college education raises concerns about that historically robust assumption. So the gap between much richer, older Americans and much poorer, younger ones is quite possibly going to become even starker and more pronounced. All this may help explain why younger generations are saying that Covid has negatively impacted their financial security at a much higher rate than older generations.
Additionally, younger Americans, particularly millennials face more headwinds than other age cohorts. They left school during the housing and financial crisis of 2007-08. They suffered disproportionately during that economic collapse and didn’t receive the generous bailouts given to banks and other “too-big-to-fail” financial entities. They are now facing a second large, destructive wave of job losses and economic uncertainty. They are marrying later, not buying homes at the levels previous generations did, and carrying more debt. Married couples who own homes and stay debt-free can accumulate wealth, as older generations managed to do. Add in the policies under Covid and the young are struggling mightily.
Now it probably shouldn’t be surprising that a wealthy, growing part of society is receiving a lot of support and attention from policymakers to protect them from a pandemic, even if it comes at a cost to other, less wealthy, smaller segments. However, the impact this is having on younger Americans should be cause for some concern, particularly when we see the growing support for socialism among the young.
It seems to me that there are two reasons why we have not been told the truth about Covid risks and why the young are being castigated for acting rationally. First, politicians have failed, spectacularly, at protecting the politically powerful, older segment of Americans from the virus itself. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the disastrous decision by Governor Cuomo in New York to return elderly residents to their senior living facilities after they had tested positive. And as a way of obfuscating its failure, now the state of New York is not counting Covid deaths as being from senior living facilities if the deceased was living in a facility but died in a hospital. Instead, the Governor has written a popular book touting his “leadership” during the crisis. No policymaker would want to highlight the fact that 10 percent of all elderly deaths this year have come from Covid while politicians took few proactive steps to prevent those deaths. Instead, it is much easier to point fingers at people who don’t wear masks, young people who want to act like young people, and working-class Americans who simply want to go back to work and are willing to live with the risks. If they aren’t protecting the elderly from the virus, they are at least protecting them from the consequences of mitigation measures at the expense of others.
The second reason is that the young have historically been ignored by politicians. The young are less likely to vote, less likely to contribute to campaigns, and have less wealth—particularly so nowadays. However, the consequences of inflicting the costs of these relatively ineffective Covid policies on the young come with tremendous risks.
Surveys of young people showing pessimism about their futures and support for socialism didn’t come out of nowhere. After seeing their parents’ and their own lives destroyed during the housing crisis, that same generation of younger people in Europe and the US are now being told they have to put their lives on hold for a group of people who are older, wealthier, and more powerful. They cannot possibly see this decision as fair or correct. There is an obvious distinction between asking those who are at risk to isolate themselves and asking those who have little or no risk, are poorer, and are losing educational ground and social skills to “share” in the sacrifice when the society is so skewed politically and economically. Immunocompromised individuals regularly forgo activities in large settings. What the young are hearing from policymakers today is that they, the ones who are not compromised, must forgo their lives for those who are at risk. This raises legitimate questions among the young about the justice of the system. And this is supposedly a system based on liberalism, with free markets, rule of law, and representative government.
When such a system loses a sense of fairness and balance, those who believe they are being wronged will eventually act out. Politicians and public health officials are fast losing their grip on their authority and prestige. Some balance is needed to allow those who are essentially at zero risk from Covid to go out and live. They are the ones who will be creating jobs and businesses, building social capital, and reinvigorating the West. By trapping them in their parents’ homes and locking them out of life we are losing critical time to build their connections to a system of living that has made the world materially better, safer, and freer. Instead of gaining faith in the system, many young Americans have been out on the streets protesting and rioting out of frustration with a system they view as unfair and unjust. This generational injustice won’t help. The risk here is not simply Covid: the risk is alienating an entire generation from our political, social, and economic institutions that maintain the liberty we currently have.