Inter-generational empathy

Hands of the old man and a young woman. close up. toning

A new pandemic has tested our human capacity. What does it mean to be human? The old debate is also relevant today, individualism versus altruism. I think we are a combination of both.

Before the pink moon shines in the sky, I find myself wondering and thinking about the costs assumed by the different generations who face the current pandemic. The wrongly called Spanish flu hit harder, the young and largest part of the population, as the old one had the chance of building certain antibodies as the result of being exposed to another earlier flu[i]. Nowadays, the elder generation had not lived through a global pandemic but they instead experienced extended labor rights, including pensions and paid leave, as well as the post-war economic boom. Many of them also lived through dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. The extension of welfare policies in the second half throughout the 20th century has contributed to creating a larger middle class, part of which is now our elderly. A better welfare system, including pensions, has largely contributed to enabling grandparents to step in to support the younger members of their families during and after the last big crisis of 2007-09. But more importantly, the general principle pushing for better pension systems precisely rescues the fact that the grandparents took care of their children and probably of their grandchildren too. I would argue that it is primarily a moral matter, as professor Christian Nicolai once told me “we have to take care of grandparents ‘cause they wiped our asses when we couldn’t do it by ourselves”.

So I wonder what happened to intergenerational empathy. Why do we see all-around cases of young people skipping sanitary measures to finally infect their older family members provoking their deaths? Is it possible that this occurrence could be in part explained by a similar cause behind the “ok boomer [ii]” phenomenon? I cannot avoid wondering if we would have these occurrences if we would have had more institutions (formal and informal) and social norms crossing different generations. This means institutions that generate room for intergenerational interactions. Current examples of these are those resulting from housing and childcare public policies, those resulting from the aim of tackling the pandemic (to virtually “adopt” an elder in isolation), or practices like radio programs that cross generations to talk about a topic. Another professor always makes us remember that many times is the case that knowledge is getting lost more than is created. I think we need social norms that vindicate the old-fashion practice of listening to the elders.

On top of that, I wonder about the cost of poorly educated generations. This reflection is not new, In 1874 Fogg stated that “[…] knowledge is less expensive than ignorance. Ignorance is a dangerous and costly factor under any form of government, and under a republican, destructive”. The most recent memetic and famous version is “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance” (The Capital Times June 18th, 1974). Do poorly educated people tend to be less conscious and more defiant towards the risks of the current coronavirus, and in particular for the elderly? Given that it hits the elders harder, the costs of this pandemic are not evenly distributed across generations. Does a poor education system exacerbate this inequality? 

The jointing generation, those in-between the youngest and oldest, now are facing the home-working challenge, and besides, many of them are also coping up with full-time parenting. This generation must defeat the fear of technological advancements, and embrace change. It must remember that it was the first generation that massively adopted the use of personal computers. That was challenging, considering the age at which the older segment of this generation did it. Besides technology experience, another matter seems to imply a threshold between generations, ethics. Did we lose it somewhere in the transition to the new millennia? Do we have educated people capable of defending the ethics involved in the digital transformation? Do we even know the language? We need to do better, now. The old debate on freedom versus security is still in force today. Do we understand that we have mechanisms that allow us to collect data without having to infringe people’s privacy? Just as a civil society must be able to hold its rulers to account, when moving to digital manners we must be able to understand the challenges involved.

Linking ideas the final reflection is: is it fair for the elder generations who have contributed for the longest to society and their own families, not only to anticipate their deaths but for many of them lacking the final human ritual? Life is not fair, so why should it be death? But it is ungrateful. To die is not exclusively a human feature, the burial is. On the less dark side besides the fact that we have seen conscious people of all ages collaborating, technology and knowledge improvements allow, at least to some of them, to say goodbye in a digital manner which is better than no manner. My deepest condolences to all who have lost a loved one because of this pandemic.

The invitation is to think and discuss these topics, and to rethink what are the principles that define us as humans and society. To especially pay attention to the elders because they are a reservoir of memory and wisdom. Despite their utmost importance, some of these topics and values seem to have been forgotten, some others are waiting for important consensus.  Arreola said, “Whoever does not read cannot write. If you don’t know how to write, you don’t know how to think”. And while reading is much more pleasant than writing, both practices allow us to develop and formalize thoughts. So I ask myself, for what purpose do we develop and formalize thoughts, but to execute our values accordingly? There is no universal scale of values, so we must formalize what we think, to try to find agreements. Let’s open intergenerational dialogue.


[i] “The Spanish flu and the global impact of the largest influenza pandemic in history” Max Roser, March 20th, 2020. World Economic Forum. 

 [ii] For more details on this phenomenon please see 

1874, The Statistics and Gazetteer of New Hampshire, Compiled by Alonzo J. Fogg, Chapter VI: Public Schools, Quote Page 508, Published by D. L. Guernsey, Concord, New Hampshire. 

1974 June 18, the Capital Times, Section: Classified Advertisements, (Advertisement for Parkwood Realty), On the House by Char Meyers, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Madison, Wisconsin.