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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

Everyone knows that the virus is at its most dangerous when contracted by elderly people. But in everyday life, it’s not the pensioners who suffer the most from the pandemic, but the youth. Yes, of course, there have been more than twenty thousand deaths around the world – these deaths have almost exclusively been of the elderly and the very elderly. But the pandemic has changed the lives of tens and even hundreds of millions of young people, and to a greater extent than the lives of any other age group. The forced sacrifices of the youth extend beyond being compelled to remain at home.

There is no serious conflict between fathers and sons over coronavirus, but there is a generational problem.

The aging societies of developed countries in the 20th century, as a rule, make a choice in favour of fathers, and not in favour of children. This is evidenced by budget priorities, bureaucratic procedures, and age asymmetries in the distribution of finances and influence. By the way, this is evidenced by the age of our leaders.

I suspect many of these people are sincerely convinced that sooner or later, the pandemic will pass, and one way or another the recession will end, oil prices will somehow recover, and everything will return to normal. Fortunately or unfortunately, this will not happen. From the current crisis, the world will come out different: with different priorities, with different values, and with a different understanding of threats and opportunities. After the pandemic, a new agenda will emerge in the world, which will be determined by young people who are now under the house arrest of self-isolation. Suddenly, they will have had enough time to think about this agenda.

Have you ever thought about the age paradox of coronavirus?

Everyone knows that the virus is at its most dangerous when contracted by elderly people. But in everyday life, it’s not the pensioners who suffer the most from the pandemic, but the youth. Yes, of course, there have been more than twenty thousand deaths around the world – these deaths have almost exclusively been of the elderly and the very elderly. But the pandemic has changed the lives of tens and even hundreds of millions of young people, and to a greater extent than the lives of any other age group.

Who, if not the young, spend their evenings visiting night clubs and bars?

What age cohort goes to big parties, gets cinema tickets, and backpacks all over Europe and America?

Which generation fills the stadiums at pop concerts and at football matches?

Middle-aged people are burdened with families and are somewhat tired of life, for them it is easier to transfer to self-isolation and even treat it as an unexpected gift of fate. But for some reason, the millennials, and their younger brothers and sisters, do not want to sit at home at all on Saturdays and Sundays, but it is they who are forced to abandon their familiar rhythms of life and everyday entertainment that is so important to them. 

However, this trend expands when we look beyond entertainment. The forced sacrifices of the youth extend beyond being compelled to remain at home. In the end, there is online communication, and the Internet has not been turned off anywhere. But which institutions are the first candidates for closure in an epidemic? Schools and universities. Who loses housing first? The inhabitants of student dormitories. How many elderly migrant workers will be found among the ranks of deported labour migrants? And who will be the first candidates for dismissal during the inevitable cuts in production and massive bankruptcies of enterprises?

Had we lived in another epoch, the fate of the old people would seem less significant. After all, it’s not the old people who bring home the bacon. They do not protect relatives from enemies and predators. Their reproductive years are behind them. Old people and children were always the first to die – such was the price of the tribe’s survival. But in our civilised times, old age has its undeniable rights, and even legal privileges. As they once sang in the Soviet Union, “the young are everywhere dear to us, the old people are always honoured!” The coronavirus pandemic has not yet led to a conflict of fathers and sons, for the simple reason that young people everywhere in the world have their own fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, whose fate is not inconsequential to them – that happens in France, in China, and in Russia.

There is no serious conflict between fathers and sons over coronavirus, but there is a generational problem. Of course, in an ideal society, all generations would live in harmony with each other and the problem of choosing priorities in such a society do not arise. But in real life, you have to deal with such a problem every day. Where to invest budget funds: in a new hospital or in a university? Who should be preferred when hiring: a recent university graduate or a person of “pre-retirement age”? What is more important for society – the preservation of traditions and the unchanging values ​​of the past or the willingness to accept the challenge of uncertainty and risks of the future?

The aging societies of developed countries in the 20th century, as a rule, make a choice in favour of fathers, and not in favour of children. This is evidenced by budget priorities, bureaucratic procedures, and age asymmetries in the distribution of finances and influence. By the way, this is evidenced by the age of our leaders. In the United States, the struggle to challenge Donald Trump (73 years old) is between Joe Biden (77 years old) and Bernie Sanders (78 years old). Last year the seventy-year milestone was crossed by the UN Secretary General António Guterres. And this year, the Indian leader Narendra Modi celebrates his seventieth birthday. In China and Russia, Xi Jingping (66 years old) and Vladimir Putin (67 years old), as far as one can judge, do not even think about handing over to possible successors. So far, only German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is only a year younger than Chairman Xi, is thinking about a successor. In this company, French President Emmanuel Macron (42 years old) looks like a teenager of pre-conscription age who accidentally fell into the officer barracks.

I do not recommend following the famous slogan of the American counterculture of the 60s: “Do not trust anyone over thirty!” And I do not urge the older generation of national leaders to commit collectively to political suicide. But I want to draw attention to the fact that the vast majority of these leaders are people who were formed in the last century, mostly in the era of the Cold War. That is, before the era of the Internet, flash mobs, blockchains and coronavirus. That’s why it’s so hard for them to accept the agenda of the millennial generation, because they are so often nostalgic for the past; that is why they consciously or instinctively make the main political bet on their own, already-outgoing generation.

I suspect many of these people are sincerely convinced that sooner or later, the pandemic will pass, and one way or another the recession will end, oil prices will somehow recover, and everything will return to normal. Fortunately or unfortunately, this will not happen. From the current crisis, the world will come out different: with different priorities, with different values, and with a different understanding of threats and opportunities. After the pandemic, a new agenda will emerge in the world, which will be determined by young people who are now under the house arrest of self-isolation. Suddenly, they will have had enough time to think about this agenda.

There is actually nothing good about a coronavirus. But if you look for at least some positive moments in this global tragedy, then one such moment could be the launch of a mechanism for the changing of the guard of the political elites in the world. As for the current leaders, I will allow myself to quote Andre Maurois: “Old age is far more than white hair, wrinkles, and the feeling that it is too late and the game is finished, that the stage belongs to the rising generations. The true evil is not the weakening of the body, but the indifference of the soul.”

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
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