Intergenerational divides in the time of Covid-19
While staying with a host family in Pennsylvania during a weekend trip in the late 1990s, I found a statement knifed in the bed's headboard: "Here a battle was won by the Man of the house [date]". The next day at the breakfast table, I expressed my curiosity, and the mother laughed recalling that her son wrote it after he had earned his father's consent for his love marriage. I chuckled remembering a similar parley while convincing my family, who felt I was too young, without any solid grip on my career, to make such a personal commitment. One sardonic comment of an ageing family member—"you can't wait for having 25 maunds of ghee to make Radha dance"—has still stuck with me to this day. This adage, as I later discovered, implied that the chandeliers in the royal courthouse needed a huge amount of oil to fully light up so that Radha could perform.
As members of Generation X (born between 1966 and 1980), the nuptial decision of my future wife and I depended on the previous generation, the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1965). However, during my daughter's recent wedding, as one of the Millennials (born between 1981 and 2000), she made sure to have her own "25 maunds of ghee": the make-up artists, the videographers, the décor—well, the entire wedding planning. My wife and I shared a private joke: ours is a generation that gets thrashed by the ones both before and after.
The Millennials, as the social media influencer Simon Sinek succinctly put it, are known for being entitled and narcissistic, probably through no fault of their own. They are the products of bad parenting (we, the Gen-X, have constantly told them that they are special and gave them whatever they asked for), technology (overexposure to social media affecting their self-esteem; creating individual bubbles, failing to develop deep meaningful relationships and turning to digital devices than actual humans when in stressful situations), impatience (seeking instant gratification in life and not finding any fulfilment or joy), and work environment (a corporate culture where they are treated as numbers for short-term benefits without any vision of long-term gains). During this pandemic, another generation (Generation Z), born since 2000, has started appearing in the real world, literally with their masks on—and we are yet to learn how they will be accommodated in a workplace that is veering between the actual and virtual worlds.
Already, discussions on how the inter-generational divide will pan out during this pandemic are being conducted. All social indicators suggest that different age categories are affected differently by the coronavirus. While Covid-19 has upended everyone's life worldwide, countries with an ageing population have been hit hard the most; the virus has blitzed through a generation. Pictures of the dead appear regularly on the news portals to announce the latest victims of the virus—and the majority of them are above 50. The older adults are more vulnerable than the younger ones; hence, the first batch of vaccines was made available exclusively to the older generation. This idea added to the perception that the old ones are weak and in need of protection. While in a country like ours, we still have some semblance of reverence left for the elders, in many countries in the West, the lockdown is seen as restrictions on mobility to protect a particular age group. Two British newspapers recently made headlines over the age card. The Daily Express warns of a "Backlash against 'Ageist' over-50s Virus Plan" and the Daily Mail maintains, "Make the young socially distance before locking down over-50s, Boris is warned."
As a university administrator, I receive periodic messages from parents asking when the vaccines will be made available to their wards. The vaccine barometer has finally dropped down to 25+ age categories, and we are waiting for our young ones to be inoculated before being brought to campuses. We need the conditional "ghee" for the academic "dance" to happen.
The delay is causing repercussions and frustrations. Often, the intergenerational disparities are translated to mutual blaming. Older adults, for example, are more likely to follow health guidelines, whereas people in their 20s and 30s are known to be slack in their compliance. The millennials and Generation Z, who are in the early phase of their careers, are finding it difficult to get suitable jobs in a volatile market. They had to cut down their spending more than the people in their 50s and above. While the senior management can work from home, most early career jobs require face-to-face interactions, customer services or physical office presence. By the same token, the older generation has a relatively stable financial cushion than their young counterparts. Then again, there are many uncertainties looming large over the completion of studies of the new generations and their graduation for the market. The delay is going to impact the social fabric as many life decisions, including jobs, marriages and getting on the property ladder, will be delayed due to this slowdown. To make matters worse, many young employees who are in the early stages of their careers have been forced to get into a debt trap simply to keep themselves afloat.
Adapting to technology is another area where the breach between the generations is showing. Technology has allowed many young people to opt for non-traditional start-ups and become self-employed. Many of the older generation who were furloughed or made unemployed did not have the technological adaptability to survive in this neo-normal scenario. Suddenly, technological smartness is viewed through a new lens. It is more than an addiction to the internet.
At a policy level too, the young ones feel deprived. The relief measures taken by the government often ignore them. Yet the cost of vaccination will eventually fall on the Millennials and Generation Z, as the government will have to realise the expenses by taxing the ones who are in and will be joining the workforce in the days to come. At the same time, experiential evidence suggests that exposure to financial and health crises is affecting their personality and risk appetite. Based on previous crises experience, it is suggested that the effects of unemployment among those who have entire working lives ahead of them can be extremely detrimental. Their attitudes towards employment and earnings prospects can be impaired, leading to anxieties, depression and lack of motivation.
To step into a post-Covid world, we will need a huge amount of data related to this inter-generational issue. Unfortunately, we are still thinking in patches, just like the supply of vaccine doses, and not seeing what is on hold for us. We can't wait for all 25 maunds of fuel to be available before the performance starts: we need to make sure that the young ones are ready for their studies, their jobs and their families while the vaccines are being imported. These preparations and performances need to go hand in hand. The battle cannot be won until we tackle it at a multi-frontal level.
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).