“Act your age!” – Generational stereotypes in the COVID-19 pandemic

Oct 1, 2020

By: Liam Hanson

2020 has been a particularly disruptive year. Almost all of us have had something we were excited about cancelled. Almost all of us have been forced to work, study or simply entertain ourselves at home. Sadder still, almost all of us have known someone to have had coronavirus.

But 2020 has not been the same for everyone. While the shared experience of a global pandemic has brought many people together, it has also highlighted deep-running inequalities in societies across the world and reignited an “us vs them” divide between generations.

On this year’s United Nations (UN) International Day of Older Persons, ILC calls for greater solidarity between and within generations.

Who is to blame?

Back in March, the global pandemic and nationwide lockdown undoubtedly contributed to a ‘we’re all in it together’ sense of unity. However, as we have moved towards the ‘new normal’ of local lockdowns, this national solidarity has already begun to split at the seams. What we have seen creeping through the cracks is intergenerational COVID tension.

Earlier this month, Health Secretary Matt Hancock made a plea to younger people not to “kill your gran by catching coronavirus then passing it on”. Prior to that, the Daily Mail warned the Prime Minister to “make the young socially distance before locking down over-50s”. Suddenly, intergenerational divisions that had lain dormant in the Spring came back to the surface.

While there is data showing that younger adults are less likely to comply ‘completely’ with government restrictions, there is little difference between the percentage of young and older adults showing ‘reasonable’ or ‘good’ compliance.

Furthermore, the Intergenerational Foundation have found that younger people on average have less space at home; are more likely to be key workers; and are more likely to lead logistically complicated lives as a result of childcare responsibilities or relying on public transport to get to work.

Further research has found that other factors, such as: living in a rural area; having a child in the household; and even having a pet were all more closely associated with poor adherence to the lockdown measures than age.

It is clear, therefore, that the narrative of younger people meeting in unsafe social situations and ‘killing their gran’ is both inaccurate and harmful to the pandemic recovery. Rather than pitching young against old, let’s focus on controlling and recovering from this pandemic in a way that works for all ages.

Who is most at risk?

During the pandemic we have become accustomed to messages emphasising the need to ‘protect’ older people. While well-meaning, as Catherine Foot from ILC Partner, Centre for Ageing Better, puts it, “there is such a thing as compassionate ageism – that you can think you’re being kind but patronise people and limit their humanity”.

While it is true that age is correlated with mortality risk from COVID, it is far from the only factor in this equation. As the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has stated, “I think it’s easy to get a perception that if you are older and you get this virus then you’re a goner – absolutely not, the great majority of people will recover from this virus, even if they are in their 80s.”

There is clear evidence that people from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are disproportionately more likely to die from coronavirus. Indeed, ILC research has found that older BAME people are more likely to have age-related conditions that increase the health risk from the virus and are more likely to be in work, thus further putting them at greater risk of catching the virus.

Further ILC research has shown that older LGBT people on average have poorer physical health and worse access to healthcare than heterosexual older people. Meanwhile, older people living in a couple are more likely to be healthier than those who do not. Despite this, we do not see the same emphasis on ‘protecting’ these groups of society as we do for older people.

What we can draw from this is that, while it may be useful to associate increased risk from coronavirus with one’s age, in reality the relationship is a lot more complicated. As the WHO Regional Director for Europe stated, “we should emphasise that while older people are at highest risk from COVID-19, all of us, at all ages, need to act in solidarity to prevent the further community spread of the virus”.

Indeed, greater recognition of the fact there is no single ‘at-risk’ group of older people is vital to adequately ‘protect’ those that need it the most as is the stated aim of government policy.

Who will help us recover?

The world’s ageing population has often been presented as a bad thing, with older people frequently portrayed as a burden and a drain on public resources.

To the contrary, ILC analysis has found that older workers already earn 30% of total earnings in the UK and this could rise to 40% (or £311 bn) by 2040. Indeed, our upcoming “Healthy equals wealthy – The global longevity dividend” report projects that the next decades will see huge growth in consumption and workforce participation by older people across the G20.

However, as Lily Parsey, Global Policy and Influencing Manager at ILC states, “too often, barriers like poor health, caring responsibilities or ageism in the workplace shut older workers out of the job market. In the UK, about a million workers between 50-64 are forced out of the labour market early due to health and care needs or caring responsibilities.”

There is therefore a clear case for investing in preventative health to reduce the $600 billion in lost productivity every year due to preventable age-related diseases. The second phase of our “Prevention in an ageing world” programme will focus  on how healthcare systems can better prevent ill health in old age and what lessons can be learnt for governments across the world from COVID-19.

This year, the UN has called for “greater recognition of older persons’ contributions to their own health and the multiple roles they play in the preparedness and response phases of current and future pandemics.” In light of this, instead of being seen as the problem, older people should be treated as part of the solution to the post-pandemic recovery.

We need to fundamentally rethink the way we work, learn and live to maximise the potential longevity dividend which could help us recover from the economic and social impacts of the current pandemic.

What happens next?

It is important to take this time reflect on what lessons we can take from this chaotic year. However, it is not over yet and we are very far from a time where COVID-19 will not dominate the news headlines.

As we embark on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Decade of Healthy Ageing, let’s start fostering greater solidarity, rather than divisions, between and within generations. I leave you with the words of writer and activist Ashton Applewhite:

“When we chip away at any form of prejudice, we chip away at the ignorance and fear that underlie them all. Only by coming together at all ages against all oppression will we create the more equitable world we all hope to live long enough to inhabit”

Liam Hanson

Communications and Engagement Officer


Liam joined ILC-UK in September 2020 as Communications and Engagement Officer.

He has previously worked as a Research Executive within the healthcare practice of a public affairs consultancy in Brussels. In this role, he assisted in stakeholder engagement and event organisation on projects aimed at promoting prevention and active ageing through arranging and attending meetings with policymakers as well as through producing regular monitoring reports on macropolitical developments.

Liam has a BA (Hons) from Newcastle University in Government and EU Affairs. Before undertaking this degree, he shadowed a North-West UK MEP in the European Parliament in Brussels, attending and reporting back on committee meetings as well as assisting in distributing invitations for roundtables.