“YOLO grandparents” and “immortal boomers”: Are older people less afraid of coronavirus?

Millennials are exasperated by their elders, but younger people are actually more likely to flout government advice.

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Leaving my flat yesterday evening to buy some milk, I walked past the pub on the corner of our road. The usual bunch of regulars – mostly male and middle-aged or elderly – were drinking inside.

It felt like a strange sight after days spent indoors watching repeated warnings against socialising, and for older people to stay indoors. (One of the punters was wearing a mask – I didn’t peer in long enough to find out how he negotiated his pint.)

This experience appeared to be echoed online: people exasperated by the attitude of their parents and grandparents towards the threat of coronavirus.

“My struggles with a lackadaisical boomer today,” revealed Washington Post foreign correspondent Ishaan Tharoor about his father Shashi Tharoor, an Indian MP.

“[He] insists on going to Parliament with hordes of other people pressed together in close quarters even as Indian government enacts significant measures to begin imposing social distancing. This is nuts… It’s not only dangerous for him, but his whole household, including my elderly grandmother.”

The Daily Beast editor-at-large Molly Jong-Fast wrote a piece for Vogue about her frustration with her 78-year-old mother, writer Erica Jong, who wasn’t concerned about Covid-19 because “I’m not in the target age”.

“Like many Baby-Boomers, she thinks she’ll be fine because she doesn’t feel old and she writes books and has all the energy of someone in her 30s,” she writes. “And while I applaud her, I foresee this being an enormous problem.”

“This is purely anecdotal, but is anyone else noticing a trend of baby-boomer parents who aren’t taking this seriously as their kids because they think they’re immortal and want to keep going out for dinner and don’t think of themselves as ‘old’? (Hi, mom.),” tweeted New Yorker staff writer Michael Schulman, who then reported on his own warnings to his parents to stop eating out, and recounted other similar clashes between baby-boomers and their children.

“I still think of my parents as the grownups, the ones who lecture me about saving for retirement and intervene in squabbles with my little sister,” he writes. “It took a pandemic to thrust me into the role of the responsible adult and them into the role of the heedless children.”

His New Yorker colleague, Ben Wallace-Wells, noted: “The YOLO grandparent emerging as a real character during this outbreak.”

“Anecdotal, I know, but a jog this morning through my sleepy little village reveals lots of seniors sunning themselves, and bugger-all kids out. The isolation message is getting through to the younger generation, but senior Swabians just don’t care,” observed journalist Mike Stuchbery in Stuttgart, Germany.

A British historian specialising in generations, Dr Eliza Filby, called this phenomenon, “that difficult moment when you have to start parenting your parents. Millennials are at that tipping point.”

Anecdotally, it seems older generations are taking the coronavirus threat less seriously than younger people. Theories abound as to why this is – a feeling of invincibility and superiority among a gilded generation whose members don’t yet identify as old; memories of wartime among elderly people; disdain for millennial “snowflakes”.

Yet polling in the UK paints an entirely different picture.

Young people are actually twice as likely to flout the government guidance and refuse to self-isolate if they have symptoms, according to YouGov polling from 16-17 March. (10 per cent of 18-24s, 11 per cent of 25-49s and 10 per cent of 50-64s would not self-isolate, compared with only 5 per cent of 65+ respondents.)

When asked what the most important issue is facing the country, 64 per cent of 65+ people answered “coronavirus” compared with 33 per cent of 18-24s, 55 per cent of 25-49s and 58 per cent of 50-65s, in YouGov polling from 12-13 March.

The polling also shows that across the board, the older you are, the more concerned you are about the coronavirus outbreak.

“Young people are significantly less scared about contracting the virus,” says YouGov research manager Chris Curtis. “That was true a little bit last week, but actually increasingly the data we’ve been getting through has been showing the same thing.”

Another generational divide he’s noticed in the data shows that “young people are also significantly less trusting of the government”.

That 50 per cent of 18-24s compared with 30 per cent of over-65s believe the government is “underreacting to coronavirus” is a demonstration of this higher level of distrust, rather than a suggestion that older people are less cautious (indeed, the same proportion of 18-24s as over-65s believe the government is “overreacting”, at 8 per cent each).

Young people tend to be more critical of the government’s handling of the outbreak than older people: 28 per cent of 18-34s thought the government was handling it well, compared with 70 per cent of over-65s, according to Ipsos MORI polling from 13-16 March.

“Young people are more likely to say the government’s response is wrong, they’re more likely to say they don’t have confidence in what the government’s doing, they’re more likely to say they don’t think the government’s being honest about the current situation,” observes Curtis.

The “main driver” for these generational differences in attitude is party politics, he says. “Older people are far more likely to support this government and the Prime Minister. We also see it on political breaks; Labour voters are significantly more critical of this government than Conservative voters, and we know that correlates with age.”

Only 34 per cent of Labour voters compared with 77 per cent of Conservative voters declared themselves confident in the government’s ability to handle the coronavirus outbreak, according to the 12-13 March YouGov polling. Just 30 per cent of Labour supporters thought the government was handling it well, according to Ipsos MORI’s 13-16 March polling.

Mistrust among young people is a “real concern” for the government, warns Curtis. “We’ve seen this in the data already – it could potentially lead to young people being less likely to follow government advice,” he says. “This isn’t a normal situation for a Conservative government, where they go ‘we don’t have to care about young voters’ – actually they need buy-in from them just like the rest of the population.”

After all, in Italy – the European country worst-hit by the virus so far – Italian teens had to be warned to stop meeting to drink in piazzas. “Enough frequenting crowded places and bars, enough nightlife, enough gatherings,” said the mayor of Bologna, Virginio Merola, on 9 March, urging them instead to help out their families and the elderly.

“Leaving the flock is the most rebellious and alternative act, in the literal sense, as opposed to joining the flock.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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