Ageism is deeply rooted in our culture. It affects both the young and the elderly. And it has been particularly acute during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Left unaddressed, this harmful ageist thinking will continue to divide our society, devalue human lives, and result in more deaths from COVID-19. But this is also a chance for us all to treat each other with more kindness and humanity, and bridge the gaps that have formed between differently aged people.
While NYRA focuses on youth-based discrimination, we are part of a larger movement toward a more equal society — and that work includes ending agesim in all of its forms. Ageism hurts all of us. First, it devalues individual lives and ignores the humanity of those people. Second, it restricts personal autonomy. Third, it creates a harmful precedent for using categories to treat others badly.
Ageism has reared its ugly head with COVID-19 in several ways. Some people imply that the virus isn’t a big deal because it affects the elderly the most. Some use harmful nicknames for the virus like “Boomer Remover.” Additionally, ageism-based misinformation has made the effects of COVID-19 worse. (See this great interview about ageism and coronavirus).
Finally, there is a difference between protecting vulnerable populations, and devaluing their lives and limiting autonomy. This tension between protection and paternalism is regularly seen in the context of youth rights. (See this paper about protection and paternalism in children’s rights). Often, people on both sides of the issues have the best intentions. But because the stakes are so high (personal autonomy, life and death), we need to stay vigilant about ageism and subconscious stereotypes when making these decisions.
Ageism in the time of COVID-19 affects young people as well. For example, I have been lumped in with other “millenials” and “kids” accused of not taking the virus seriously. There are two issues with this. First, considering GenZ postmodern humor and meme culture, it is obvious that young people are more likely to make jokes about COVID-19 while simultaneously taking it seriously. It’s possible to make a joke about leaving the house, while staying inside all week. Second, to be sure, some young people are guilty of not taking the virus seriously. But so are many older people. People of any age can be irresponsible.
Another way in which ageism is playing out is the dialogue surrounding youth and the closing of schools. I have seen social media posts and heard adults wondering aloud what “we” should “do” with kids while schools are closed. These statements ignore the autonomy and right of youth to have a voice in self-determination. This is a right that is recognized internationally in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. And I would imagine that education and choice of learning platforms would certainly qualify as one of these matters. Yet I have seen almost zero youth input regarding the massive transitions in daily life and education. Unfortunately, this lack of youth input regarding education — part of student decision-making — is all too common. And it stems, in part, from the common adult desire to seek control during an uncertain time. But in a time of stress and dramatic change, it is more important than ever to center the voices of those who will be most affected. Especially in light of concerns that, with stay-home orders, domestic violence will increase — which will disparately impact young people.
So instead of trying to figure out how to “deal with” youth during this crisis, why not recognize the opportunity this situation presents to empower young people? Why not promote participation in mutual aid networks and other community-based altruism? Why not encourage young people to take this chance to get some well-needed rest; to focus on passions and hobbies; or just to relax and do some self-care? Why not encourage young folks to reach out to the elderly members of our communities (at least virtually)? Why not ask young folks for our perspective on the situation?
The COVID-19 pandemic has concentrated a pre-existing schism in society — the artificial divisions of differently aged people. The coronavirus attacks some groups more harshly than others. The ageism in various responses to the pandemic has exaggerated the differences between groups. And now the virus has physically isolated us from each other, which increases the distance between all people, regardless of age.
But it also provides us with an opportunity to reflect on how we think about and treat people of different ages. And a chance to heal the divides between people of all ages.