Why Don't More Boomers Care About Coronavirus?

If you want to make a white man over the age of 60 mad, tell them they shouldn’t go to an Allman Brothers concert. While perhaps I should have assumed this, I didn’t know it for sure until my dad called to ask me if I wanted to go to a show at the Beacon Theatre with him.

This was less than a week ago; relatively recently in a normal time frame, but seemingly decades ago in the context of COVID-19, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is updating its guidelines and list of recommended practices with as much frequency as royal family rifts. In those comparatively early days of the epidemic in the U.S., however, social distancing was being actively encouraged for people in at-risk categories, such as older people and people with underlying health conditions.

As a 62-year-old man prone to pneumonia, my father was both. So to say I was aggressive in my attempts to get him to cancel would be an understatement. I cried. I shrieked. I threatened. I cajoled. I sent him articles about social distancing and studies about at-risk groups and announcements from public health officials. Then I cried and screamed some more. Eventually, he told me he decided not to go because he knew it would cause me anguish if he did. I felt guilty, but immensely relieved. Then I called my mother, who told me when she answered the phone that she was at a performance of Riverdance with my sister. And thus, the cycle of shrieking began anew.

This was just the first in a slew of arguments I’ve had over the past week with my parents about their behavior, which vacillates between sober and well-advised and, in my opinion, silly and irresponsible.

Through it all, I’ve had the distinct feeling that I was very much in the same position that my parents were in when they were raising me and watching me make decisions that were detrimental to my well-being. I’ve even found myself using the same vernacular. “I’m not mad at you,” I said during one breathless, tear-streaked screaming session, “just disappointed.” And as I’ve been treating my parents like they’ve been treating my teenage self, so too have they been playing the role of the petulant adolescent, eager to go on the spring break trip to Mexico with the friend with more permissive parents.

“Of course my conversations with you make a difference in how we act during this crisis, because you’re nagging us to death,” my mom said when I called her about this story. “The way I see it is, I could either die from the coronavirus or die from being nagged to death.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought along a paradigmatic shift in how we think of socializing, forcing all Americans to revise how they go about their everyday lives. And to be clear, older people are not the only ones stubbornly clinging to the remnants of their pre-pandemic existence. “A lot of younger people are pretty unconcerned,” says Florian Reifschneider, 29, a software engineer and founder of the #StayTheFuckHome movement, which encourages social distancing. “They think that the virus will not hurt them as much.”

Yet at least one survey shows that Baby Boomers, one of the demographics that is most at risk of COVID-19 (to the degree that the illness has been uncharitably referred to by youngsters as the “boomer remover”), are most resistant to changing their habits. According to a survey from the consumer insights company STAANCE that polled more than 2,000 Americans, baby boomers were least likely to worry about contracting the virus, with 43% saying they were concerned about it as opposed to 53% of millennials and 54% of Gen X members. (They did not survey people older than boomers, i.e., those born before 1945.) Only 19% of boomers reported having canceled a flight as a result of coronavirus, as opposed to 31% of millennials and 28% of Gen Xers.

Some of this appears to fall neatly along political lines. (The same survey also reported that 79% of Republicans believed that the media was inflating the risk of coronavirus and Americans were overreacting, as opposed to 55% of Democrats.) “Most of the people [I know] who dismiss it are conservatives, admire our president and parrot his ‘it’s just a flu/fake news’ attitude,” says Seth Lindquist, 33. “So they see this more as another partisan political thing, rather than a real public health crisis…They are acting like it’s just a fad that will pass in a week, and I am really worried for them.”

Where boomers are getting their information during this crisis certainly seems to play a role in their willingness to change their habits. (My father, a lifelong Democrat, joked the other day that this marked the first time in his life he was starting to watch Fox News, as he found it much more reassuring than MSNBC or CNN.) “They’ve had it with the news. The news cycle of fear doesn’t line up with day to day life experience,” says Mike (whose last name withheld at his request), 38, from Boston, whose parents identify as conservative. “They see all this horror and fear on the news every night then they realize when they’re out in the city everything is completely fine… So now they’ve gone in the other direction and almost pay no attention to the concern level the news portrays.”

Yet for the most part, these boomers’ relative unwillingness to confront the reality of COVID-19 seems to stem from the same impulse that guided my worst decisions during my teenage years: They just don’t like being told what to do, whether it’s in their best interest or not. “When you’re 55-plus and 60-plus, you’re already limited so much by what society says you can/can’t do due to your age,” says Deanna Kugler, 30, a public relations professional based in New York. Kugler says she regularly fights with her parents, who live in Long Island, about things like going out to dinner and traveling to special events. “There’s a huge stigma around boomers not knowing things, being able to do certain things – I’m sure they recognize that and think ‘I can do anything!’ when really they should be cautious and staying inside.” 

There’s also a widespread perception, at least among some younger boomers, that they’re exempt from CDC guidelines, even though that is not necessarily true. (The CDC website states that “older adults” are at risk, though it does not specify who falls in that category — yet another example of the criticism aimed at public institutions’ handling of the crisis.)

“My dad says things like, ‘You’re young, healthy, and insured, Grandma and your Great Aunt and Uncle are the ones who should be concerned,” says Sam W., 22, from Ithaca. Sam’s father, a “bleed blue Democrat,” is 55 and is still, despite her protestations, working out of an office and not remotely, against the Trump administration’s recent recommendations that people should work from home if possible. “He’s acknowledging that it will disrupt parts of our life, but not his routine,” she says. “I kinda get a, ‘We have nothing to worry about’ vibe.”

And some, like my own parents, believe that they are taking the virus seriously, but aren’t necessarily behaving in ways that are consistent with that. “We’re careful but we’re not sitting around this house for the whole time,” my mom told me, in the same breath as telling me she and my father went out to lunch at a pizza restaurant two days ago.

“Do you not see the contradiction between those two statements?” I asked.

“There was no one there!,” she said. “We went out to eat once for a piece of pizza that took like 10 minutes!” And thus the cycle of shrieking began anew.

The psychic toll of this refusal to take the virus seriously can be devastating for older people’s loved ones. Over and over again, millennials and zoomers recounted their parents’ and grandparents’ adamant refusal to take the virus seriously not just in terms of the frustration it caused them, but also the desperation and anxiety. “A stalemate is definitely where we’re at now,” says Kugler. “They’re not going to change their minds for anyone, especially not their own kids.”

And I do think it’s the anxiety over being placed in this position — of being cared for at a relatively young age, when you don’t feel you necessarily have to be — that is prompting a lot of boomers to either push back on their kids’ entreaties, or begrudgingly adhere to them. My parents more often than not fall in the latter category — they’ve relocated to a less congested area, and with the exception of the pizza place visit they’ve largely stayed inside — but I certainly don’t get the sense they’re necessarily happy about it.

“A lot of why I listen to you is because I don’t want to hurt you,” my father said (or more accurately, screamed) from the other room when I called him. “It’s not like I think your judgment is better than mine. I just don’t want to hurt my daughter.”

At a certain point in adulthood, we reach a point where we have to take care of the people who have been tasked to take care of us. More often than not, this reversal takes place when they are much older than many millennials and zoomers are right now, when the parents and grandparents are less able of body and sound of mind and not as equipped to make decisions on their own.

But for many, COVID-19 has had the effect of significantly expediting this process, forcing many to try to take decisive action to take care of those who cannot or will not, for whatever reason, take care of themselves. “I still think of my parents as the grownups, the ones who lecture me about saving for retirement and intervene in squabbles with my little sister,” Michael Schulman wrote in the New Yorker. “It took a pandemic to thrust me into the role of the responsible adult and them into the role of the heedless children.”

Some parents are conscious of this shift in dynamic, to the degree that they are changing their behavior accordingly. “In the beginning I was a little skeptical but within the last week or so I’m not at all,” says Deanna Kugler’s father Jim, 60. “As time goes on, just from reading up about it, I do believe this can be very, very damaging to the population.” He is still going to work as an emergency dispatcher, but he says he is taking more precautions to stay in when he can, though he attributes that more to the reading he’s done on the subject than his discussions with his children.

My mother also concedes that something of a role reversal has taken place over the last week or so. “Usually parents are afraid for their kids. The kids aren’t afraid for their parents,” my mom said. “The difference is that we’re listening to you finally. You never gave enough of a shit to listen to us.” This is admittedly true, and it reminded me both of how much I spent my teenage years complaining about my parents’ overprotectiveness, and how correct the vast majority of their decisions were. Was I safer than the rest of my friends because I wasn’t allowed to take the subway by myself as a preteen? Probably. Would I have spent that spring break trip getting high and sloppily making out with sketchy, polo-shirted marketing majors? Absolutely.

Over time, I have come to the realization that most adults eventually do: that the stakes have always been high, that nagging is a weapon of love and not of malice, and that all of the decisions my parents made for the first 18 years of my life were to protect me from myself. When this pandemic subsides and the accompanying panic starts to become nothing more than background noise in the daily news cycle, I hope they come to feel the same way about me. To an extent, I think they already do. “I do feel like you’re being overprotective, like I brought you up to be a worse version of me,” my mom said. “But ultimately I’d rather you care about me than not care about me.” But I do want them to be able to say that they made good decisions not for me, but for themselves. Because at the end of the day, they aren’t teenagers; they’re my grown-ass parents, and I love them, and I know they’re more than capable of it. They just need to stop going to goddamn pizza places.

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