It’s sobering to learn that you’re a member of a high-risk group. As I approach 70, I realize that Covid-19, along with fate, could defeat lifelong healthy habits. Exercise and dietary measures become a cruel illusion. The virus is like a neutron bomb—killing humans, but sparing property—aimed at the baby boomer generation. It could even be coined the Boomsday Virus, one that targets those who remember the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The pandemic’s effects—combined with severe limits on social and economic activities—recall Christopher Buckley’s Boomsday, a political satire about a U.S. presidential candidate who, in response to the nation’s ballooning debt and Social Security payments, suggests that 70-year-olds consider suicide instead of costly retirement. His proposal, called “voluntary transitioning,” is taken seriously enough that the Pope denounces it. Now life is imitating art, as some millennials and Gen Zers are said to call Covid-19 the “boomer remover”—taking “OK Boomer” one morbid step too far.
Cold-blooded utilitarianism—defined by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham as the “greatest happiness for the greatest numbers”—is a policy temptation in this crisis. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board noted, but didn’t endorse, it’s imaginable that in this present environment, “policy makers make a different calculation about viral versus economic risks.” It’s undoubtedly a challenge to balance an economic crisis with the right steps to ensure that the vulnerable don’t fall ill at once. But this doesn’t mean that the economy should be shut down indefinitely to protect older adults. After all, we shouldn’t want to spend our children’s inheritance.
We have reached a point, however, that it’s worth defending grandparents. As a grandfather of four, let me make the case. Even before Covid-19, seniors were popularly viewed as a burden as much as blessing. We worried about the increasing number of Alzheimer’s patients, along with those who crowd long-term-care facilities. Grandparents became the numerators in the unsustainable Social Security ratio comparing those retired with those of working age. Perhaps the best that’s said for us is our capacity to babysit—on occasion.
Britain has a better term for us: super-adults. That’s what we strive to be, at our best. We’re not just watching the grandkids when their parents, our children, go out for dinner, but talking to our young progeny about—well, many things. The list is endless: values that we’ve tried to live by, and mistakes that we’ve made; the difference between pleasure and satisfaction; what their parents were like as children; and history, as we experienced it (Robert Kennedy, for example, was shot the night of my senior prom). These days, among my own greatest joys is reading the comics from the physical newspaper—the Washington Post includes the greatest number of them—with my granddaughter, age 11, and her brother, eight. Getting the jokes in Zits, Dilbert, Garfield, or even Hagar the Horrible, it turns out, requires a good deal of cultural footnoting. And it’s hard to top three-generation touch football: one of us is Patrick Mahomes, the other is Tom Brady, and another is Johnny Unitas.
A failure to appreciate the value of extended family risks much. Consider China’s one-child policy. When traveling to that country, I discovered that it was the height of rudeness to ask if someone “had children.” The right question: “Do you have a child?” The policy limited births and abolished siblings: no more brothers and sisters. At the time, China’s utilitarianism seemed like a good idea not only to the Communist Party but also to the devotees of “zero population growth,” concerned about the strain that increased numbers would put on the planet’s food supply.
Such ostensible far-sightedness turned out to be tragically short-sighted. So, too, would a failure to appreciate America’s grandparents. And, yes, as soon as we can see the kids again, we’ll be happy to babysit.