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Now that southern Europe seems to be past the peak of its COVID-19 outbreak, the hard-hit region is starting to look ahead to what comes after lockdown. Under pressure from companies, Italy is weighing when and how to reopen its economy after more than 20,000 deaths—the most per capita in the world—and more than a month under shutdown. Even if the virus abates in May—an optimistic projection—the country’s GDP is projected to contract by 6 percent this year, and thousands of small businesses could go under, a devastating blow for a country that still hasn’t fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis.
Italy’s population skews older, which experts have said helped the coronavirus wreak havoc in the country. With a median age of 46½ years and nearly a quarter of its population over the age of 65, Italy is the fourth-oldest country in the world. (At 43.9 years, Spain, which has had the third-most-confirmed deaths so far, isn’t far behind.) The virus has decimated seniors. According to a March 23 report from the Journal of the American Medical Association, people over 70 represented 37.6 percent of cases in Italy, and this group had a staggering 22.7 percent fatality rate. Throughout Europe, more than 95 percent of those who have died of the disease have been over 60, according to WHO.
The demographic profile that made Italy more vulnerable to the disease is likely to make recovery from the economic devastation more difficult as well. With seniors incapacitated and young people facing unstable futures, the lurching road to recovery may further exacerbate generational resentments.
Graying societies were already struggling with economic growth before the virus forced them to shut down most businesses. An older population means fewer working-age people to hire, fewer people in a position to start businesses, and more people dependent on social security systems and expensive medical care.
“Fertility rates were already falling in places like Italy, and Greece, and Spain. And now this is going to have such an economic impact on their country. They’re going to have a harder time getting their economies going again,” says Brienna Perelli-Harris, a professor of demography at the University of Southampton.
Just like they were in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, countries will be caught in a vicious cycle. Lack of economic opportunity (Spain’s youth unemployment rate is over 45 percent) makes young people more likely to emigrate and less likely to have children. Then, smaller working-age populations slow economic growth. Italy is on the leading edge of this trend, but it’s hardly alone. Birth rates are falling below or approaching death rates in every region of the world.
This is mostly good news: Lower birth rates correspond with lower infant mortality rates, higher rates of education and employment for women, and generally more prosperous societies. And while the economic challenge posed by aging societies is undeniable, it’s probably not insurmountable.
The era of social distancing has underlined the need for early child care, not just for parents’ sanity but for economic resilience. This massive global experiment in teleworking might also make some employers more open to flexible working arrangements for working parents—both factors could make it more likely for young adults to have children and remain in the workforce while they do so.
But in other respects, the aftermath of COVID-19 could make it more difficult for societies to confront their challenges. A number of countries have responded to aging populations by raising retirement ages. This was controversial already—massive protests forced the French government to abandon a plan to raise the retirement age to 64 earlier this year—and it’s hard to imagine governments encouraging seniors to join the workforce now, at least until a reliable vaccine for COVID-19 is available. Leaders like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have suggested restarting the economy by having younger workers return to their jobs first. This is going to be difficult in countries where those workers were in short supply to begin with.
Same goes for optimistic plans to prod companies to tap into the growing “silver economy” of services and experiences aimed at older adults.
Another obvious solution for a shrinking, aging population is to simply bring in new people via immigration. Recent immigrants and their descendants now account for nearly all U.S. population growth. Japan, the world’s oldest major economy, has finally been forced to ever-so-slightly relax its immigration laws—among the world’s most restrictive. This was already a tough sell. The far-right parties that have been ascendant in many Western democracies see falling birth rates—which they blame on liberalism and feminism—combined with immigration as threatening traditional cultural identities. “Are we as a country facing extinction? Unfortunately yes,” wrote Matteo Salvini, former Italian deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right Lega Nord party, in 2018.
But the coronavirus has led to tight travel restrictions being imposed around the world—at least some of which are unlikely to be lifted once the crises abates. It has also led to an uptick in xenophobia, initially aimed at Chinese and Asian immigrants in the West, but now increasingly at Europeans in China. It’s going to be an even more difficult atmosphere for advocates of open borders, immigration, and multiculturalism.
And as millennials face their second once-in-a-generation economic crisis, simmering tensions between generations may well boil over.
Phillip Longman, a demographer at the Open Markets Institute and author of The Empty Cradle, worries that the aftermath of the outbreak is likely to “to pit young and old against each other.”
Already, he says, “There’s a prevailing attitude among millennials in the United States at least that many of their problems are brought to them by out-of-control baby boomers,” as evidenced by the worldwide popularity of the OK Boomer meme. “Now,” Longman explains, “There’s an almost literal conflict of generations when there’s an 85-year-old on a ventilator and meanwhile there’s an automobile accident outside and two millennials are wheeled in and the capacity isn’t there to deal with them.” He points out that if and when a vaccine is developed, it’s likely to be given to the most “vulnerable” populations first, further underlining the divide. Beyond that, “the younger folks are going to take the brunt of the economic collapse while older folks sit home and collect their pensions.”
Already, in the United States, we’ve seen calls for older people to ignore the risks to their health and return to work in order to prevent economic collapse. Ironically, these have mainly come from Republican Party politicians and Fox News—institutions that rely heavily on older Americans for support. But Longman suggests that as the brunt of the economic impact is felt, “Some of that stuff is going to have more resonance than us older folks would like.”
This is already manifesting in some ugly ways. A column in the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper recently suggested that COVID-19 could actually benefit economic growth in the long run by “culling elderly dependents.” Ukraine’s former health minister has suggested that older people were already effectively “corpses.” Both comments were cited in a Human Rights Watch report warning that “In addition to the greater risk of severe illness and death from the virus, discriminatory attitudes and actions threaten older people’s rights.” As pressure grows to restart teetering economies around the world, it’s often suggested that most people could go to work as long as measures are taken to protect those most vulnerable to the disease. There’s a thin line between this sort of protection and suggesting that older people ought to simply remove themselves from public life for their own safety.
A more optimistic way of looking at this moment is as one of intergenerational solidarity. After all, many younger people who are less vulnerable to the virus are shouldering an economic burden to protect the lives of people at greater risk. One of the many challenges for governments and societies going forward will be to keep this solidarity from curdling into resentment.