In The Great Leveler, a book that attracted considerable attention, historian Walter Scheidel argues that throughout human history, deadly pandemics have been one of four events/triggers (along with large-scale wars, state failure, and revolutions) that tend to bring greater equality. According to him, the Black Death pandemic of the mid-14th century wiped out about a third of Europe’s population and reduced significantly inequality by raising the price of labor. Scheidel believes that under certain conditions the COVID-19 pandemic could play the role of a “leveler” also in our societies (depending on how serious the pandemic turns out to be, the mutations of the virus, how well vaccines work, etc.), and argues that “less equal countries face darker choices between carrying on as before and experiencing real change” (see The Guardian, 30 April 2020).
The notion of COVID-19 being a leveler has received little support from either the research community, policy makers, or the broader public. One of the few exceptions was Madonna who (in)famously posted an Instagram video from a rose-petal sprinkled bathtub in one of her multimillion-dollar estates, calling the virus “the great equalizer” as it does not care about how rich, how famous, or how smart you are. On the contrary, most point out that COVID 19 exposed deep socio-economic cleavages and inequalities in our societies (and also across societies), as the pandemic affected people differently depending on age, income and assets, gender, race, type of occupation, where they live, whether they have easy access to vaccines, and the quality of healthcare services they are covered by. An Oxfam report entitled “The Inequality Virus” argues that because of the COVID pandemic “inequality risks being supercharged, at a huge human cost”. The report estimates that the collective wealth of the world’s 10 richest people had grown by $540 billion between 18 March and 31 December 2020. President Biden, in his remarks on 22 January 2021, called the COVID pandemic “a once-in-a-century public health crisis that’s led to the most unequal job and economic crisis in modern history”. Most recently, leaders of the G7 countries warned that the pandemic could result in inequalities being entrenched.
The differential impact of the virus across age groups and generations is of particular salience, as persons over age 60 tend to have worse symptoms and higher mortality compared to younger people. This raised concerns that older persons are the main victims of both COVID-19 and the measures undertaken to control its spread—a point eloquently made by Aleksei Golubev and my friend and colleague Alexandre Sidorenko in an article published last year in Advances in Gerontology. The COVID pandemic exacerbated negative stereotypes and ageism, as documented in a number of studies, including the recently issued Global Report on Ageism (prepared by the World Health Organization and other UN agencies). An article published several months ago argues that the “discourse surrounding the pandemic has strengthened the homogeneous view of older adults as vulnerable, has socially stigmatized being an older adult, and has exacerbated hostile and benevolent expressions of ageism”. The hashtag #BoomerRemover is one of the most unfortunate emanations of this. This is of serious concern, including because of the potential social and economic costs of ageism.
Others point out that ageism, defined as “the stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination towards people on the basis of their age” can be directed towards any age group, and refer to the results of the European Social Survey, which indicate that people under age 30 report higher exposure to discrimination based on age compared to other age groups, and that younger adults (people in their 20s) elicit more negative feelings among the public compared to people in their 70s. Broadly similar findings have been reported also based on the MacArthur Foundation Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS) survey. Data also show that young people have borne the brunt of job losses and income squeezes triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, as they are more likely to work in the worst-impacted sectors, and are more affected by the casualization of labor markets (see for example OECD Employment Outlook 2019). Moreover, young people tend to live in smaller dwellings, which could affect how they experience a lockdown (my calculations based on IPUMS International data indicate that in Spain in 2011 the average living area per person was around 34 square meters for people aged 20-29 and over 55 square meters for those aged 70-79; the respective figures for Romania were 16.2 and 24.7 square meters). Last but not least, as shown in the OECD Employment Outlook 2020, a generation of young people are likely to experience throughout their lives the implications of the disruptions in their education caused by the pandemic and the measures to control it, while those just entering the labor market face the highest unemployment since the Great Recession in the 1930s.
The COVID pandemic is thus likely to leave both older and younger generations feeling victimized. This can impact intergenerational relations and solidarity, which have already been affected adversely by demographic, economic and other shifts. An example of these shifts is the need to reform the social security arrangements, and especially the pension systems in many developed countries. These systems emerged at different times since the end of the 19th century, when populations were demographically younger and growing. This, along with the unprecedented economic expansion and increasing incomes after the World War II, made the pension systems “the greatest Ponzi game ever contrived”, as put by Paul Samuelson, who is hailed as the “foremost academic economist of the 20th century” and won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1970 (three years after he penned the piece on social security quote above, which was published in Newsweek on 13 February 1967). For decades these systems enjoyed growing number of contributors (because of the pyramidal age structure in young and growing populations) who were making increasingly larger contributions (because of the increasing incomes).
This allowed several generations of beneficiaries to draw out of the pension systems significantly more than they contributed. No Ponzi scheme can last forever, though. As cohort succession changed with the shifts in age structure, the number of new contributors started to dwindle, while increasing life expectancy meant that current beneficiaries draw more than originally expected. Governments are thus facing the challenge of how to salvage the pension systems and continue covering benefits committed to under different circumstances, without undermining intergenerational solidarity and making younger people feel shortchanged. This challenge will be compounded as Governments seek ways to cover the costs of the COVID pandemic. Issues of intergenerational fairness are likely to resurface, as are the shifts in intergenerational relations and in the power balance in our societies that were triggered by demographic change and brought to the surface by the pandemic.
The effect of demographic change on intergenerational relations and on the political weight of different generations has been a contentious issue, at least since Sam Preston’s famous 1984 Presidential Address to the Population Association of America. Sam, one of the foremost contemporary demographers, argued that family change and population ageing have altered the relative welfare and political weight of younger and older generations. He pointed out that in USA older persons were faring better than children in terms of poverty rates and government expenditures, and linked it to them being politically more active, and being able to rely on 3 self-interested sources of political support (“the elderly themselves; the working-age population who are in a general sense ‘voting’ on behalf of elderly persons who might otherwise need family support; and the working age population who are voting on behalf of themselves when they reach old age”), while the only ones voting on behalf of children are their parents.
Along similar lines sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen introduced in his 1999 book Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies the concept of “chrono-politics”. He argued that in our societies a “new, asymmetric ‘chrono-politics’ appears to be displacing the old political frontlines when it comes to welfare state support”. According to Esping-Andersen, this is driven by the fact that the “median voter” is ageing, and by the mounting need for financial cuts in welfare spending, which involves competing interests and necessitates trade-offs. A number of researchers have corroborated Preston’s and Esping-Andersen’s conjectures. For example, Julia Isaacs from the Brookings Institution estimated that in the mid-2000s the US was spending on per capita basis 2.4 times more on older persons than on children, a ratio that rises to 7 to 1 for federal budget allocations. Markus Tepe and Pieter Vanhuysse in a paper published in 2010 found a general pro-elderly welfare state bias in the OECD countries that they studied.
Preston’s and Esping-Andersen’s conjectures have also been widely criticized. For example, a 2018 article entitled “Pro-elderly welfare states within child-oriented societies” points out that the statistical visibility of the transfers to older and younger generations is asymmetric in the systems of national accounts. Transfers to older persons are near-fully observed, while those to children much less, which creates an impression that welfare spending is unduly skewed toward older persons. Children receive much of their net transfers in the form of unpaid household labor, while older persons are net providers of both time transfers and private transfers, but large recipients of public transfers. The authors find that contrary to popular perceptions, children in Europe receive more than twice as much resources per capita compared to older persons. Most of these resources come from intra-household transfers, though. The question that the authors raise is why investments in children have not been socialized to the same extend as those in older persons, if children are “ever-scarcer public goods in aging societies”.
The Millennials and Gen Z are also challenging the perception that younger persons are less politically active. They are often dubbed the “voting generations”. The voting record during the 2020 US Presidential elections indicates that young voters’ turn-out was higher than that of previous generations at the same age. For example, according to provisional estimates by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 53 to 56 percent of people aged 18-29 voted in the 2020 compared to 45 to 48 percent in the 2016. Notwithstanding this political mobilization, the voter turnout among younger persons continues to trail that among older persons, around two-thirds of whom vote. This, along with the increasing proportion of older persons as part of population aging, resulted in the proportion of young voters in the total votes cast barely increasing from 16 to 17 percent between the 2016 and 2020 US Presidential elections (according to CIRCLE’s estimates), irrespective of the sharp increase in turnout among young voters.
There are other aspects of demographic change that also impact intergenerational relations. One of them is the increasing average generation length driven by the postponement of fertility. As I have argued elsewhere, different generations are likely to relate differently in terms of emotional attachment, compatibility of interests, etc., if the age difference between parents and children is 20 years versus 35, or even 50 or more years (as is increasingly the case with assisted reproduction). Longer generational length will also shorten the generational overlap (i.e. the time when different generations co-survive together), resulting in what Gunhild Hagestad calls “vertical deprivation”. Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, argues in her seminal book “Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding” that we are what we are because humans evolved as cooperative breeders. This promoted prosociality, lead to our cognitive divergence from other primates, and to our unique ability to empathize and cooperate with others. She asks whether this ability will decline in societies where fertility is low and children are no longer raised in cooperative kin networks. This could be thought of as “horizontal” deprivation, which is intertwined with and possibly re-enforces the “vertical” one in affecting intergenerational relations. I have explored these and other related issues in more details in the recently published The Sexuality-Reproduction Nexus and the Three Demographic Transitions.
In short, we are in the midst of unprecedented demographic change, which among other things weakens the traditional tenets of intergenerational solidarity, thus potentially affecting the cohesiveness and resilience of our societies. The COVID-19 pandemic, by virtue of its differential impact on people of different ages, brought this to the surface and shone a light on the vulnerabilities of our societies. It also put further strain on the generational contract that has cemented our societies over millennia. The pandemic is thus a wake-up call to take more seriously both demographic change and social and economic inequalities.
Neither of them is likely to be easy for politicians to handle. As a population scholar, I am in a better position to speak about demographic change. An article in The Economist last year observed that “Demography is a canvas onto which politicians can paint their deepest worries”. Low fertility, population decrease, migration, and population ageing are now at the center of the political attention and discourse, especially in Europe. A good illustration of this is the appointment of a European Commission Vice-President for Democracy and Demography. Several European countries have established ministerial or other Cabinet-level posts dealing with demographic change. For example, the current Serbian Government includes a Minister of Family Welfare and Demography (post held by Radomir Dmitrovic, a conservative former journalist, member of the right-wing Serbian Patriotic Alliance). Neighboring Bulgaria had a Deputy Prime Minister for Economic and Demographic Policy.
Way too often though, demographic issues are instrumentalized by populist politicians and framed with nationalistic/ethnocentric overtones, or used as an excuse for policy failures. One reason for this state of affairs is that demographic change easily triggers anxieties, even social stress (as could be the case with migration, if not adequately managed), and is particularly propitious to securitization (on this, see for example Suzette Brooks Masters’ Managing Fear and Anxiety about Demographic Change and Immigration in Polarized Times, and Ariel Abulof’s article on Deep Securitization and Israel’s “Demographic Demon”). Another reason is that the long-term nature of demographic change fits poorly within the short-term nature of political thinking that is bound by election cycles. The pension systems and their reform is a case in point. Economists and others were aware by the 1960s that the systems were not sustainable in their then form (as the earlier quote from Paul Samuelson attests), but instead of reforming/adapting them as early as possible, pension systems were used in the 1970s and 1980s to address labor market imbalances through early retirement (as documented by Jonathan Gruber and David Wise in their authoritative study on Social Security and Retirement around the World), because this was politically expedient at the time.
As I mentioned above, the COVID-19 pandemic tested the resilience of our societies. There are aspects of the response to the shock that it triggered where we excelled. The speed with which vaccines were developed is probably the most salient example, but not the only one—according to Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, two years’ worth of digital transformation was achieved in just two months as a response to the pandemic. The pandemic seems also to have boosted public interest in data and science—Gary Lineker, the famous footballer, famously tweeting “The only positive I can think of during this entire pandemic nightmare is that some of us may have learnt to read a graph.” At the same time, as I argued in this piece, the pandemic shone a light on cleavages that were appearing below the social surface because of demographic and other shifts. If our societies are to remain resilient, these cleavages need to be tackled by putting in place adequate mitigation and/or adaptation measures. After all, resilient societies are those that are cohesive, where inequalities do not tear the social fabric apart, and where intergenerational solidarity is strong.
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