The Great Plague of 2020 has revealed some interesting things about Western societies’ attitudes toward old people. In Italy, the shortage of medical equipment to treat patients suffering from the coronavirus has led to hospitals ruling that anyone over the age of 60 was not going to be treated – essentially a death sentence for pensioners.
In England and Wales, some care homes have issued blanket Do Not Resuscitate orders for their elderly clients. There have been reports that “ageist” doctors have refused to visit seniors’ residences where the virus has struck and have denied them admittance to hospitals.
In Canada, the fate of elders dying untended by the dozens in care homes is front-page news.
It is not just that this crisis suggests that the elderly are little valued in comparison to other segments of the population, but, for some people, the way the pandemic kills off the aged is a positive blessing. Said one comment on Twitter: “Corona virus is killing pretty much just old people. It sounds like Earth is getting revenge for them destroying literally the entire planet and not caring about it.” Others pointed out gleefully that since the elderly vote disproportionately for Republican candidates, the plague meant less chance of a Trump re-election.
These attitudes are not simply the product of a society making desperate calculations about triage in a health care emergency; they reveal a genuine hostility on the part of the young toward the old, especially the Boomer generation. Children of the 1945-1965 Baby Boom, the largest age cohort in history, are blamed for ruining the economy, selfishly hogging all the good jobs, and posing a threat to the funding of Medicare. This animosity will shape public policy for years to come.
We can see this, not just among lackwits on social media, but also in the thinking of people in high places. Late in the last century, Richard Lamm, the governor of Colorado, made a speech in which he spoke of a “duty to die.” He said, “We’ve got a duty to die and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and everything else like that and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.”
This sentiment is echoed by Ezekiel Emanuel, a doctor and medical ethicist, who claimed that life after the age of 75 was not worth living. By that age, he says, “creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.”
Such people reduce the value of human life to a matter of money: the old aren’t making the big bucks anymore and it costs plenty to keep them alive, so don’t save them in a crisis and encourage them to get off the bus early.
The liberalization of “medically assisted death” laws will add heat to this generational warfare. As the number of Boomers entering retirement age swells, there will be more calls for the old not to selfishly cling to life. Social pressure on the old will increase. It will soon be seen as bad manners to live into your 80s, a waste of resources and a drain on the young. After that, it will be just a short step to an arbitrary, mandatory – but doubtless humane – end at the hands of a government department.
Gerry Bowler is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.