There’s No Generational War Brewing Over Coronavirus

Young people acting selfishly is a fact of life.

The Wall Street Journal claims “A Generational War Is Brewing Over Coronavirus.” The support for this shocking thesis is some anecdotes of the sort we all saw over the weekend.

Scientists and government officials fighting the coronavirus epidemic say they have a problem: Carefree youths.

As authorities moved to restrict social gatherings last week, bars and restaurants from New York to Berlin filled up with revelers, illegal “lockdown parties” popped up in France and Belgium, and campuses in the U.S. lit up for end-of-the-world dorm parties.

So far, most young Covid-19 patients have experienced mild or no symptoms from the virus, while more severe cases are concentrated among those aged 50 and over. Data released last week by the National Health Institute in Italy, currently the world’s worst-hit country, shows mortality rates starting at 0% for patients aged 0 to 29 and edging up to peak at 19% for those over 90.

Yet scientists say tests have shown children and young adults are no less likely than older people to get infected and transmit the virus.

Epidemiologists are growing concerned that the millennial pushback against social-distancing measures—and an emerging generational divide about how the disease is perceived—could undo all efforts to slow the spread of the virus and put vulnerable people at high risk.

How so?

After Princeton University said last week it would move classroom instruction on-line on March 19 and send most of its students home, the campus saw an explosion in gatherings and parties, according to students and staff.

“People were not ready to give up their lifestyle without one last hurrah,” said Ben Weissenbach, a Princeton undergraduate English major who was critical of some of the partying. “At a really privileged place like Princeton, we don’t tend to even consider the possibility that our bubble could be popped.”

So, we have people of all generations still eating in restaurants and going to bars, forcing government leaders to order shutdowns. And a few kids at Princeton behaving like, well, college kids.

What else?

In a display of juvenile gallows humor, the hashtag #BoomerRemover, a nickname for the novel coronavirus, briefly trended on Twitter last weekend.

People are using dark humor during a crisis? Shocking.

What else?

Across Europe, where social life is shutting down faster than in the U.S., a divide is spreading between the young, many of whom say they don’t fear the virus, and their elders, including politicians and scientists, whose alarm about the illness is growing by the day.

Young people are more cavalier about their mortality than older people? Shocking.

What else?

In Berlin, a European clubbing hot spot, authorities ordered the closure of all bars and clubs on Saturday. Yet many establishments ignored the decree, forcing police to forcibly shut down some 63 establishments across the city.

That night, the Ernst basement bar in the trendy district of Kreuzberg was packed with patrons enjoying loud electronica. “Beware: Coronavirus” was sprayed on a bench near the entrance.

Inside the stylish Wagemut cocktail bar, a young woman pretended to sneeze in someone’s face, unleashing thunderous laughter.

On Sunday, Berlin health officials said 42 people were thought to have infected themselves in Berlin clubs. Some of those were club-hopping, spreading the virus as they went.

“This is the attitude of people who are part of this nightlife,” said Lutz Leichsenring, a director of the association of Berlin club owners. “So what? You get the flu, you’re not going to die.”

Germans not following orders is somewhat unusual. But, otherwise, we have anecdotal evidence of one person being an asshole and quite a few being whiny punks. But, still, this ain’t exactly a “generational war.”

Despite the pointed fingers and occasional excesses, many young people bristle at the accusation of selfishness, saying the new social constraints are disproportionate and unfairly target their generation.

“They’re preventing us from living,” said Timothée Thierry, a 30-year-old statistician at France’s health ministry. He spoke on Sunday, after the government shut down bars but before it locked down the entire country.

In Italy, which has been on lockdown for days, young people, especially students, face a choice between returning to their parents’ homes or remaining cooped up in small apartments, desperate for a social outlet.

One student in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy said she sneaked out of her apartment to attend a dinner party because she was feeling depressed from days of isolation. The party was only a 10-minute walk away. Once there she joined four other people, drinking wine and eating around the dinner table.

Again, more anecdotes about people taking modestly stupid risks.

“If I get sick, I will spend some days at home to avoid spreading it to others,” said Monica Rubio, 19, who was having a late breakfast with three friends late last week in Barcelona, Spain, one of Europe’s most heavily affected countries.

“Otherwise I won’t change my life because of it. I can’t imagine people would stop shaking hands, kissing or hugging. It is deeply entrenched in our society.”

Another short-sighted 19-year-old. But my 19-year-old stepson, who moved in with us this summer to go to college (which is now going virtual) went to visit friends where he grew up over the weekend. Granted, we’re not at the same stage in the crisis as Italy and haven’t ordered shutdowns. But, regardless, it’s young people wanting to be social, not a war against the elderly.

And, from my anecdotal observations—and, hey, anecdotes are apparently the singular of data in this conversation—plenty of middle-aged and older people are still out and about more than they ought to be. It’s evidence that it’s really hard to get people to sacrifice the freedom which is their birthright in the face of a vague risk. (And, until the last couple of days, an extreme downplaying of the threat from the President.)

John Cole figures that, if the young are in fact being cavalier about the safety of their elders, it serves them right.

On one hand, wtf. On the other, maybe keeping generations of people at subsistence living at slave wage gig economy jobs was a bad idea. We’ve told them to be thrift, they’re just taking advantage of the bargains and living their lives.

But, as his commenters have already pointed out, most of these examples are coming from countries with much more generous social welfare policies than we have here. German students selected to attend university go free of charge. In France and Italy, it’s not free but it’s quite inexpensive compared even to the UK, much less the US. And, surely, a 30-year-old statistician at France’s health ministry has no right to be upset by the gig economy.

And John adds,

I should note that I personally know NO young adults with this attitude. All the people I know are staying inside. So who knows how overblown this report is.

Pretty damn overblown, I’d bet.

FILED UNDER: Health, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James Knauer says:

    The virus is still in the early stages. But to think you can convince a population as spread out and suspicious of government as the U.S. to shelter in place en masse is not realistic. There isn’t sufficient law enforcement by an order of magnitude at least to make it happen, even adding what military could be spared. Second Amendment rights and property ownership complicate it even further.

    People are going to be forced home for months. Many will see their incomes dry up. They will be cooped up as the weather warms and brightens. Expecting them to stay home isn’t reasonable. Closures of public gathering places is responsible for this reason.

    But parties won’t be ending because of this virus. Adaptation takes many forms.

  2. Kathy says:

    People are jerks and don’t take warnings seriously enough to take precautions, until they begin to see or experience the consequences. Young people perhaps more so.

  3. R.Dave says:

    Don’t be a buzzkill, James. We Gen-Xers have been more or less shut out of the inter-generational pissing match between the Millennial/Gen-Z and Boomer/Silent cohorts until now. Now we get to point fingers at both the young idiots out partying and the elderly idiots with their Fox News “it’s all a hoax” attitude. It’s finally our time to shine! Don’t take it away from us, man.

  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    One of my rules for consuming media, which I learned from Ta-Nehisi Coates, is “ignore all trend articles”. This conforms in all respects.

  5. grumpy realist says:

    Hmmm, why am I reminded of the “Guillotine Balls” held during The Terror (in other countries, natch!)

    Actually, what’s getting posted on my FB feed from my younger friends have been more in the line of complaints about their Fox-News-viewing elders whizzing off on vacations “because the tickets are so cheap!”

  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    There’s been just as many stories about older people acting selfishly as well. The whole #boomerremover thing started in response to stories about older MAGA types insisting on shaking hands with people to prove the virus was a media hoax

  7. grumpy realist says:

    It seems that a lot of Boomer parents aren’t taking this seriously. Note that this is probably a lot of parents living in blue states, so it’s not just a “red state thing and Fox News.”

    This makes ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE. I fall in the Boomer category–at the younger end, so my risk is still low–and I certainly am not planning to run around acting as if everything is still peachy keen and I don’t have to worry about possible contagion. If I stay at home (which I can do), then there is a much smaller possibility I can catch this stupid thing and the public authorities therefore don’t have to worry about me as a possible victim or put me into their planning–I’m already taken care of.

  8. Steve V says:

    Just want to give a special thumbs up for that photo, James.

  9. Linda says:

    It did occur, at least to someone, that the problem is embedded on 40+ years of impoverishment, right?

    Younger generations do not have the space to stock up, no huge freezers, storage rooms ,garages and have no backyards to go to.

    Stuck in small places, shopping for food nearly daily, as necessary in such small spaces, having to interact with number of people while doing so, carrying in items potentially sprayed with virus, cooking in small, often badly ventilated and badly insulated places, they do not see many benefits in avoiding getting out.

  10. Linda says:

    @James Knauer:

    The irresponsibility of all politicians and media in pretending that the costs of this virus, the poverty, issuing from out idiotic social non-policy, we have no health care, paid leave or any services for majority, combined with unemployment, bills and inability to get basic staples is normal.

    It is not.

    Demand for realistic plan, health care centers, free to all, food and medication services and delivery, open spaces is the basic of survival.

    Instead, our government ponders another tax cut for the rich, now called payroll tax cut, which benefits the rich but does very little for the poor, and bailout for corporations, while small business will get a loan and employees will be destitute.

    Class war at its best.

  11. Lounsbury says:

    @grumpy realist: You mean a lot of Republican oriented persons in the risk group. Stupid to put as generational as such when it’s a party political thing.

  12. DrDaveT says:

    It’s evidence that it’s really hard to get people to sacrifice the freedom which is their birthright in the face of a vague risk.

    The risk is only “vague” if you’re an idiot. Unfortunately, as we have learned all to well of late, a huge fraction of Americans are idiots.

    Of course, even if they understood the risk, the first half of your Randian formulation of the situation would apply. I would phrase it as “It’s really hard to get fish to recognize the water that allows them the illusion that they are free to swim wherever they like, water or no.”

  13. Sleeping Dog says:

    Perhaps we need to consider Covid-19 as an opportunity to update and borrow from Swift’s Modest Proposal.

    We should encourage the spread of the virus among baby boomers and the silent generation. While in the short term there would be high cost to Medicare, in the longer term fewer boomers would shore up both the Medicare and Social Security Trust Funds. It would facilitate an immediate transfer of wealth to generations who are struggling under student debt and low wage jobs, without the intermediary expense of assisted living and other long term care to squander that wealth. The newly enriched cohort will be able to use this new wealth to invest in their future and the future of their children, who they can now afford to have. It will have the added advantage of killing off 80’s pop radio that is the scourge of the FM band.

    With the boomers out of the way, millennials can get serious about global warming and saving the world.

    We should not rely on random chance but should institute a draft that provides no deferments beginning with those in their 70’s, obese and with unnatural hair color.

  14. KM says:

    @grumpy realist:
    From what I’ve seen, Boomers & Silents are treating this as a “Don’t Tell *ME* What To Do” situation and Gen-Z is treating it like “NBD, won’t kill me!”. The former are foolish since Mother Nature don’t give a damn about your defiant hold on personal freedom and the later are foolish for thinking youth makes them invulnerable. Society is far more likely to chastise the young for being carefree youth then find fault in the stubborn old risking their lives.

  15. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    It will have the added advantage of killing off 80’s pop radio that is the scourge of the FM band.

    Boomers are not driving the 80’s pop trend.

  16. Kari Q says:

    she joined four other people, drinking wine and eating around the dinner table

    An Italian party of four people during a continent wide outbreak of disease? I dearly hope they ended the evening by telling one another a series of stories.

  17. David S. says:

    I heard Tim Eyman in Washington called for a gathering of 251 people specifically as a middle finger to Jay Inslee. It’s an amazing display of shooting yourself in the foot, but I don’t know if said gathering actually happened.

  18. Kurtz says:

    I have to spend a bunch of time on the phone with American Airlines tonight to get a credit for the flight I’m not taking tomorrow.

  19. grumpy realist says:

    @KM: The articles I’ve read don’t seem to show that this “you can’t tell ME what to do!” attitude is limited to Republican parents–it seems pretty ubiquitous.

    I think it’s parents not wanting to be told by their kids what they should do, period.
    If my partner and his parents were still around I can just imagine the haranguing he would have had to do to get them to stay inside and not go anywhere….

    I’ve had quite a few younger friends contacting me and asking me questions about how seriously I’m taking this, and seem quite relieved when I indicate I’m isolating myself for the most part–I don’t really need to go anywhere, already have most of my social interaction with friends over the phone due to distances, and if my isolating myself avoids potential problems, why not do it? One less thing to worry about….

  20. RambleFish says:

    I just read a text from around 45 bce in which an older man was complaining about young people being lazy, so older generations have always talked this way about young people.. But it is definitely ironic. After years of refusing to listen to the youth about the climate, and refusing to make any relevant sacrifices for their welfare, older people are asking THEM to make sacrifices to their jobs and educations to help US. It will only be through the kindness of their hearts that they stay home—not because we elders are deserving.

  21. grumpy realist says:

    @KM: P.S. I have to admit that I have very little sympathy for rebellious Boomers insisting that they’re “not going to worry” because “you’re only as old as you feel.”

    Guys, tell yourself all the pep talks you want: that nasty little virus isn’t going to give a hoot. You may be the healthiest 78-year old out there and jog five miles every morning, but that doesn’t mean you have the same immune system as a 20-year old and it’s not going to react the same way if you get exposed. In fact, your “healthy immune system” may be what is doing you in with its overreaction.

    If you were to drop dead immediately it wouldn’t be a problem. But it’s going to be all the equipment you use up, all the frantic energy by doctors trying to save your life before you completely keel over, the wasted time, the scarce medication, the ventilator which was being used to keep you going rather than someone else, all the stress that you have placed on your family while they watch and wait and pray until the final plug is pulled–that’s the waste that I’m attacking. Especially since there’s going to be essential people–doctors and nurses, caretakers, firemen and policemen–who could really use all that medical help and equipment for themselves when they get sick.

    So please–stay home, huh? Avoid turning yourself into a goddamn nuisance that everyone else has to worry about.

  22. Kathy says:

    People here in Mexico aren’t taking the epidemic all that seriously. I’m sure there are many more cases than have been reported. For one thing, they’re making Trump the Moron look good. Seriously, they’re talking about hundreds of tests available for Mexico City, for a population of around 10 million?

    People seemed way more scared during the swine flu outbreak in 09. Restaurants seem to eb doing ok, theaters haven’t closed down, flights seem to be going on as before.

    For that matter, I recall people being more afraid of catching AIDS in the 80s, even though it was not easy to catch.

    On the other hand, you can’t find hand sanitizer or surgical masks anywhere, and people are washing their hands far more often.

    I just don’t get it.

  23. Tyrell says:

    Unintended consequences: Amazon says it needs 100, 000 more workers, and right now: to keep up with the increased orders for everything from movies to hand wipes.
    A local Amazon delivery person told me that she is averaging $40 an hour, and working seven days a week. At that rate, she is making more than the highest paid teacher around here, and probably the principals too.

  24. An Interested Party says:

    An Italian party of four people during a continent wide outbreak of disease? I dearly hope they ended the evening by telling one another a series of stories.

    This story would have been the perfect one to tell…

  25. DrDaveT says:


    People here in Mexico aren’t taking the epidemic all that seriously.

    They will, when it’s too late.

    In most of Europe and the US, confirmed cases have been doubling every 2.5 to 3 days for more than a week now. It’s too early to tell whether the social distancing measures will make a significant dent in that, and we still don’t have a good grasp of how many actual infections there are per confirmed case.

  26. Ken_L says:

    We only have a dim picture yet of how this thing is going to unfold. But the biggest impact is likely to come from the demand to self-isolate people who’ve been in contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus. That is going to mean sudden, unpredictable closures of everything from schools to dentists to supermarkets to gas stations. And people simply will not put up with it for an extended period, especially if it’s effective and not many people are getting very sick or dying.

    I don’t pretend to know how it will all end, but I expect there will be widespread and growing civil disobedience by all age groups.

  27. Tripp Mills says:

    I listened to a YouTube clip interviewing a doctor in Italy He said that at the beginning of the outbreak, the median age of infections were people aged 65 with most people dying in their 80s. But now it’s changing the curve to skew younger – 40s, 30’s and some in their 20s are falling seriously ill and dying. The only group not being affected? Kids 10 and under. This is still very new and has a long way to go. We don’t have a lot of data especially in the USA. And they still say this thing could adapt having 2nd and 3rd waves. Maybe infecting more. None of us should be too cocky. Boomers and millennials alike. So I say all of us are going to be affected. The economy is tanking. That includes jobs and education. Maybe even supply chains will be affected. Party kids and travel hungry rents are in for some serious shit but we also forget; Americans don’t like to be told what to do! We are independent! We hate government! Let’s crash this thing up and quarantine for a bit. Find a cure or vaccine. Time to wake up and do the right thing for everyone. No one is immune! There’s my rant. Stay well!

  28. Teve says:

    @RambleFish: 60 years old seems to consistently be the age where people start complaining about these kids nowadays.

    Somebody suggested maybe what’s going on is that around that age most people’s bodies really start to feel like shit, and they project that onto the world around them.

  29. Kurtz says:

    @Tripp Mills:

    Stay well!

    This goes out to all of you.

  30. An Interested Party says:

    60 years old seems to consistently be the age where people start complaining about these kids nowadays.

    I’m not so sure about that…I’m Gen X, and at the risk of stereotyping, I’ve seen a lot of Gen Z kids who act so entitled, they’d put Boomers to shame…oy…