In his book The Anthropology of Childhood, David F Lancy, an anthropologist who specialises in the study of childhood across cultures, compares the difference between a “neontocracy” – a society where young children are highly valued, such as in the UK or US – to a “gerontocracy”, where children are given the lowest status in the social hierarchy, which is a cultural position often found in agrarian societies.
According to Lancy, in agricultural communities elders are venerated as being at the top of society. In the UK or the US, however, the order is reversed, and the elderly languish at the bottom.
Lancy’s point is that the US and UK have some weird ideas about childhood. Or rather “Weird”: Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. In Weird societies, children are not valued in economic terms as they are in gerontocracies – where they are loved, yes, but also set to work as soon as possible. In neontocracies, children are perceived as nothing other than cherubs.
Viviana Zelizer, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, believes that the meaning of childhood changed in North America as affluence increased: “While in the 19th century a child’s capacity for labour had determined its exchange value, the market price of a 20th-century baby was set by smiles, dimples and curls.”
This idea of the modern West as neontocracy is compelling. It is true that, when parents can, they heap material bounty on their children, using every holiday as an opportunity to give them presents – with richer parents often devoting vast resources towards their children’s education and enrichment.
It’s also true that we consider youth to be a source of insight, rather than foolishness. At the end of every year, liberal publications advise twenty-somethings on how to withstand the problematic opinions voiced by older relatives over Christmas dinner (“It’s Your Responsibility to Challenge Bigoted Relatives Over the Holidays” advised Teen Vogue, for instance, in 2019).
Young people are tasked with providing moral guidance to their elders – despite their obvious lack of experience – while silly old granny is sent to the naughty step.
The neontocracy framing, however, doesn’t entirely work. Yes, we fetishise youth culturally, and aspire to its freshness and pertness. Economically and politically, however, the situation is quite different.
The grey vote has enormous power in Britain. In the 2019 general election, the over-65s had the highest turnout of all age groups. Their longstanding Tory preference consistently boosts the party’s standing in the polls, with the Conservatives currently leading Labour by 37 points among the over-65s.
Unsurprisingly, this government is therefore disinclined to redirect money away from its key supporters. Old-age benefits such as the Winter Fuel Payment and free bus travel in England and Wales are still not means tested – despite the over-65s owning almost half of the UK’s housing wealth, and it being predicted that a third of 20 to 35 year olds will never own their own homes. Meanwhile, the 10 per cent increase in National Insurance, which will take effect from April 2022, will hit the working-age population almost exclusively.
This trend has not gone unnoticed, by any age group. A recent advert for Nationwide Building Society featured an older couple chuckling about their decision to remortgage their home and spend the money on holidays rather than pass it on to their children. The comments under the video were filled with rage: “Yet another reason why we hate this generation.”
All of this resentment has been made worse by the pandemic, as the lethal danger of Covid posed a much higher risk to the elderly. David Spiegelhalter, the chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University, states that the danger of Covid-19 to children is “tiny”, with under-15s more likely to be struck by lightning than die of the virus, and under-40s more likely to die in a car accident than of Covid-19.
And yet lockdown measures have hit the young hard. In the UK, we have generally been kinder to our children, with school mask mandates, for instance, lifted for this academic year. But other Weird countries have been brutal, wrestling kids into masks and closing outdoor playgrounds. Research confirms that the psychological and behavioural impact of lockdown on children has been overwhelmingly negative.
A strange kind of neontocracy, then. One in which young people are simultaneously admired for their moral inspiration, but also disregarded in political decision making. It is not the case that one age group has all the power and the other none. Rather, versions of both gerontocracy and neontocracy now run side-by-side.
Or perhaps it’s less side-by-side than head-to-head. A relatively poor and disenfranchised generation, with their best years robbed from them by lockdown, can grasp onto one form of power. Yes, you might never be able to own your home, but at least you can “challenge bigoted relatives over the holidays”.
Cultural power acts as a form of compensation when you lack more substantive kinds of agency. But it’s a thin and watery form of compensation, and one that cannot last long, since there is always someone younger and fresher ready to take your place. Economic power is far more preferable, if it’s attainable – the problem for most young people, of course, is that it isn’t.
This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks