More than being simply public health or environmental justice issues, COVID and climate change are symptoms of gerontocracy.
When Social Security was enacted in 1935, poverty was far more prevalent among the elderly than any other age group. That year, nearly 80 percent of Americans aged 65 or older lived in poverty. At present, fewer than 10 percent of Americans over 65 are under the poverty line. This resounding success is one of the most laudable transformations of American society since emancipation and women’s suffrage.
But our successes in alleviating the wretchedness and precarity of poverty for our elders wasn’t achieved in a vacuum. Today, people under 18 are more than three times as likely as the elderly to live in poverty, with all of its attendant illnesses, wasted potential and deaths of despair.
In a very real sense over the past century, a generational wealth transfer has been delivered to the elderly and away from the young.
I hasten to add: none of this is a call to immiserate the elderly. I have a lifelong, warm, loving relationship with my elders and consider my grandfather the lodestar for masculinity and parenthood. My grandmother was a Second Lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps and an all-around badass. Much of the benefit that accrued to these elders (through Social Security and otherwise) are outweighed by the service they gave to our country and planet, and by the love and care, they’ve demonstrated to us and our families.
But, surely, we as a society didn’t mean for elderly poverty alleviation to come at the cost of life prospects for today’s youth.
Surely, we aren’t so enamored of a comfortable old age for our elders that we’d abandon our children to a future in a disease-ridden, environmentally despoiled hellscape.
Surely, we’re not intending to create a zero-sum game between protecting the elderly and preserving a future for the young.
But maybe we do? Maybe we are?
I have spent over two decades working in global public health aimed at decreasing child mortality, and I despair of the world that we are leaving to our children.
By some estimates, the median age of COVID-19 mortalities in the US is higher than the current life expectancy at birth for someone born in 2020. More than just signaling that we are willing to hamstring our young by not investing in their futures, it means that we are, in Modest Proposal fashion, cannibalizing one impoverished group (the young) to feed the wealthiest (the elderly) by taking years of life away from the worst off and transferring these years upwards to well-off elders who already have had more years of life (and at a higher standard) than those born today can possibly expect.
A disproportionate share of the costs for our COVID response—from short-term privation and isolation to long-term decreases in job prospects, credit ratings and earning potential—are borne by people with extremely low risk of mortality or complications from SARS-CoV-2. In essence, young people are asked to sacrifice for the good of people who’ve already gotten more out of the world than we’re ever likely to get.
We live in the first generation in human history expected to live shorter, less healthful lives than our parents, and this deprivation is accelerating. Today’s 35-year-olds now have been subjected to two “once-in-a-lifetime” recessions, while today’s 80-year-olds suffered exactly zero GDP declines greater than 5 percent in their entire working life. And these same 80-year-olds, in the wealthiest tranche of society, will likely live out their retirement with the full complement of Social Security and Medicare benefits (based on their life expectancy).
In contrast, today’s 35-year-olds will get to watch the Social Security trust fund reserves become fully exhausted in 2037, and the Medicare Hospital Insurance trust fund become insolvent in 2026. (N.B. in both cases, these social safety net programs will be able to limp along at lower levels of benefits for years afterward. However, that we’re willing to give wealthy, aged people more safety net protections and resources than impoverished young people is both unjust and terrifying.)
And this debt to children born today—this intergenerational inequity—is, if anything, worse on the climate change front. In both the climate change and the coronavirus cases, a gerontocratic ruling class allocates itself the benefits from the status quo, and puts the costs on the youth’s tab. Today’s 80-year-olds have the highest carbon footprint of any generation, and have injected volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere, all of which will be around for decades for the rest of us to face. Gallingly, this age group is also the most likely to “disbelieve” the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.
Gerontocratic systems, from the Soviet Union to modern theocratic nightmares like Iran and Saudi Arabia, to the Roman Republic, do not end well. If we are consigned to a zero-sum struggle between the old and the young, perhaps it is time for the young to stop cooperating with evil. To paraphrase and repurpose Marx: children of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.