The theological definition of a just war is, in part, that it has to be winnable. It’s interesting to consider generational warfare in that light: what would it look like if one side won? Would young people all simply be required to pipe down? Would it be enough if all old people downsized at once? Luckily, the clash between young and old is a political and media confection rather than a Thing.
It’s political in the sense that, every now and again, an idea will come along that so clearly puts the interests of one demographic over another that it simply sticks in the throat, and even middle-aged people can’t swallow it – paying for social care by raising national insurance, for instance. It doesn’t even warrant any detailed examination of the taxation system and social care crisis; a simple “absolutely no way” will do.
It’s media-generated, in the sense that you can always and unfailingly get a few people to make unkind generalisations about those in a different age group. Then all a pollster has to do is put it into an official-looking graph and get out the popcorn.
In real life, meanwhile, it’s been interesting to watch all the generations as they behave exactly the same way. I only really noticed with my family reunion, a decades-long ritual whose only hiatus was 2020, when we didn’t even do it by Zoom – not because the old people couldn’t work out how, but because the young people were all Zoomed out.
This year, the world had resettled on its axis, as long as you were over 80. They did a party the way it’s meant to be done: they came, they chatted, and they didn’t leave until it was over. There’s a combination of hedonism and fearlessness in this generation, which is not just about being double vaccinated, though, sure, that helps. You know in Ted Talks, when they say you should break through a fear barrier every day if you want to find true joy? And the notion stays with you, even though you can’t act on it because you’re not really afraid of anything apart from mice and rejection? To have lived 18 months in the 80-plus age bracket, with a constant drumbeat of your intense vulnerability, and the odd discordant top note of people suggesting the world could do without you because you’re so old anyway, and come through unscathed – well, “joy” is a strong word, but I’d go as far as to say it’s put everyone in a really good mood.
Half the actual kids couldn’t come because they were self-isolating after school outbreaks. You couldn’t really call that their choice. You couldn’t really look at anyone under 18 and say they’ve made any choices recently. Almost everyone in their 20s cried off because they had a PCR test to qualify for something more important, such as a holiday. A fair proportion of the old-young (people in their 30s) have long Covid, or enough long Covid in the household that everyone is knackered. Quite a few of the young-old (people in their 40s) are double-vaxxed, but, obviously, their kids aren’t, so they’re on the PCR knife-edge whether they like it or not.
Mr Z had made me buy wine in five-litre boxes because he said we didn’t have the recycling capacity for my family to come round otherwise, and, in the end, there were only 10 of us. It goes without saying that 10 people are easily as good as 40 people. But it might be worth saying that this vaunted difference in outlook between one age group and another – and granted, this isn’t a large or diverse enough sample to be as certain as I’m about to be – well, it just doesn’t exist. All of us are cautious when we have to be, selfless when we can be, ready to grab life by the horns, but only after we’ve taken a good, hard look at the horns and worked out how sharp they are. So that’s intergenerational war sorted; not a Thing. Next, the culture wars …
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist