Before Covid at least two relevant phenomena – the lengthening of the average life span and the climatic question – have created fertile ground for antagonism between generations. Which has existed since the dawn of the centuries above all on ethological grounds (the young people of the pack telling the old men: facts from the side that I arrive). But it also threatens to take on a strong economic and political component.
The indefinitely retired, in excellent health and in excellent mood even after the end of his working life, has become the subject of feverish calculations on the sustainability of welfare. The charter flocks loaded with old men en route to the Caribbean, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, are one of the most spectacular, cheerful and profitable innovations of the Consumer Age, but there are ministries, health authorities, social security institutions for which the prolongation of the average life is above all a dizzying increase in loads cheap. Unemployment and youth underemployment do not help to balance the accounts of the various welfare funds, whose incomes are increasingly uncertain and whose outgoings are hopefully increasing, because the old are living longer and longer, and the fact that old age is a common destiny advises against even the most cynical to wish the opposite.
In many Western countries the objective inequality between the guarantees of the old, often won with tough trade union struggles, and the economic precariousness of young people, who see a future with little welfare and a lot of uncertainty, is a decidedly thorny topic for trade unions and political parties: the risk that “rich and poor” and “old and young” become almost coincident categories is anything but theoretical.
As for the climate issue, the greedy and unpredictable baby boomer, consumer of the planet at the expense of his children and grandchildren, is the all too easy target of the new youth environmentalism. Ok boomer, you feasted on the planet and left us only the dishes to wash. Millions of Grete and Greti ask adults to report on a blind and deaf development (the “sliding progress” named by the great Venetian poet Andrea Zanzotto, who saw his region become enormously enriched, and brutalized hand in hand as the forests of industrial warehouses suffocated the landscape).
Of this way of life carefree, to tell the truth, millions of young people seem quite involved when they animate the endless nightlife (for a fee, and often not out of their own pockets) which in all European cities attract armies of students and young professionals. But the next day, perhaps in the same square, the spritz and the beer give way to the parades with water bottle, that water bottle that throughout Europe has become the icon of mass environmentalism, the new non-perishable Che Guevara that fights the throwaway, the scialo, the ecological insensitivity. It is possible that in part the same boys are the ones who toast their fun in the evening and become le in the morning body-guards of an exhausted planet. Once they were called “contradictions among the people”.
Then came Covid. Which seems designed on purpose to open a new, diabolical front of struggle between old and young. A virus that walks on the legs of young people, taking advantage of their energetic promiscuity, but kills almost only the old: the greaser does not run the same risks as the victim, as happened with the great pestilences of the past. In most cases the greaser is an unsuspected, healthy grandson who risks, in 99 percent of cases, only a passing illness, and suppresses the grandmother by kissing her goodnight, or infects the elderly literature professor by reciting Whitman or Leopardi from a meter away and with particular oratory enthusiasm (he is a prepared student).
Illustration by Yann Kebbi.
It is the ideal subject for a dystopian novel or series Fantasy of refined ferocity, and it is really strange that among the many conspiracy reconstructions, almost all equally idiotic, no one thought of a world conspiracy concocted by a secret society of under thirty to get rid of the over sixties. It wouldn’t be a more far-fetched theory than all the others, which appear to be the grotesque remake of old paranoia: the devious and evil Chinese like the ferocious Fu Manchu, Soros and the strong powers who grin preparing genocidal tubes to decimate mankind and enslave survivors, mad scientists who, like in the films of the 1920s (not these, the previous ones) grin and plot in their cave and then lose control of their destructive inventions, the Minister of Finance and that of Health who, by mutual agreement, spread the virus from airplanes to wipe out the old people and ease public finances.
In Italy, with the re-explosion of the so-called “second wave” of autumn (in reality, the renewal of the previous spring wave due to the laughing summer promiscuity), there have been heavy signs of this creeping war between generations. With opposing recriminations, and more or less authoritative complaints, alarmed petitions, collections of signatures. Young people forced into seclusion and deprived of school and recreational sociality due to rules and laws made to measure for the elderly. The old people frightened by youthful unconsciousness, by summer dances (animated, to tell the truth, also by legions of couples in andropause and menopause), by the careless progress of life that is so typical of the first age, when it is hormones, more than constituted authorities, to organize individual and social life.
Here, the hormones. It is above all the hormones that lead us to conclude that, net of the unpleasant accusations, mutual intolerance, bad habits, there is an evident percentage of objectivity in the ongoing discussion. Old age and youth have different needs, different needs and habits follow. The cloister weighs less on those who have already been able to live their promiscuous years, already experienced their excesses. While those who come to life have an urgency to live it, impatience to consume it. The frenzy of the young and the safety of the old, in the current socio-health circumstances, are not easy to reconcile, and not out of selfishness or superficiality, but because life has an invincible inertia, often deaf and blind. And this inertia, in times of contagion, is all to the detriment of the old and their fragility.
It is, the disparity of status between old and young, one of the inevitable components of the catastrophe called Covid. Let’s say better, one of its components natural. Like the spillover between bat and man (from beast to beast), like the tendency of the virus to use the bodies of others to live and multiply, and do it in a transnational and interclassist way (the virus does not make politics), like fright and pain that sickness and death cause us. In the same way we old people – I’m coming: journey into the seventies – are objectively closer to death than boys, and less resistant to this and other viral and bacterial assaults. That’s the way it is. That’s the way life goes, Kurt Vonnegut would have said.
I’m not saying that anyone who cares about the provisions and goes around without a mask should be acquitted. Or that the government (the many governments) that have underestimated the virus and failed to take the necessary measures, especially the most unpopular ones, must be acquitted. I am not a fatalist. On the contrary, I am saying that the very inevitability of Covid (and of pain, suffering, death) makes the avoidable mistakes we commit more serious, and inadmissible. One of these errors, apart from some macroscopic health flaw, and a persistent and intolerable difference in care and protection according to one’s income, is the obsession with finding easy explanations. So easy to allow, once the culprit has been identified, to erase the Evil.
It does not work like that. Nature, we are also learning this at our expense, is a very complicated set of relationships and conflicts within which there is also the different weight that a coronavirus can have in people’s lives depending on their age. This does not mean that it is useful to organize the ages of life, to create a Youth Syndicate, all school and nightlife, and a Guild of the Old, all lockdown and prudence. Many young people, disobeying hormones, have been disciplined and kind in the cloister, and many old people have compensated them well in advance by subsidizing their grandchildren’s drinks and holidays with their pensions and savings. Even Match: It could be a fair verdict to end the match.