The Media is Criticising Both the Young and Old During This Pandemic. When Will They Stop With the Stereotypes?

COVID-19 cases are rising among young people. But it is not for the reasons that you would think.

by Jeremy Ullmann

As the realities of the pandemic became clearer in Britain, Louisa Johnson moved back home to care for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis. She knew her mother’s condition meant she was ‘high risk’, which meant she would be required to stay in the house at all times, as per government advice.

“Even before shielding officially came into place, I realised that there was clearly a point approaching where I’d have to choose between being able to see her and being able to take care of her all the time, or just never at all.”

Louisa (28), works as a charity fundraiser in London where she lived with her friends, but made the decision in mid-March to return home. She is still there five months later, with an initial three months of intense shielding, meaning her and her mother have had extremely limited interaction with other people for most of the year.  

“We followed pretty much to the letter the instructions from the government. My mum didn’t leave the house at all during that three-month period. I did, but only to walk our dog because the dog needed a walk and so did I,” she continued.

“But otherwise I didn’t go to many shops, I didn’t do any of things that were allowed during the general lockdown, and even as some measures were introduced it was a while before I met with anyone else.”

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, across the globe, images of young people partying or meeting in groups have been widely circulated, with many people accusing the younger generations for being selfish and irresponsible. Governments from the UK to Australia even ran media campaigns directed at young people, suggesting they needed to be singled out and reprimanded for their role in spreading the virus.

But stories like Louisa’s have not appeared in the mainstream media. Very little has also been made of the 90,000 under 18s who have had to shield, or the number of young people who volunteered to support the NHS and people shielding, hitting numbers not seen since the Blitz. And this doesn’t even touch on the many people who have simply followed government guidelines. Instead, young people were universally depicted as selfish by many in the media:

Cases among young people are rising across Europe, and while recent studies have shown young adults are likely to breach lockdown rules, the problem, however, is the assumption that it is because of irresponsible and selfish socialising and partying. This assumption paints a dangerously inaccurate picture of the diversity of people within these age groups—and fails to take the different reasons why young people might be exposing themselves to the pandemic–such as needing to work certain jobs, that leave them vulnerable to exposure–into account.

For one, the industries where the virus has spread recently are dominated by young workers, such as distribution, hospitality, retail, and other service industries. These are jobs which cannot be done from home. Most young people do not own cars and are therefore more reliant on public transport.

For those who did socialise when rules forbade it, most of them cited mental health and anxiety as their reasons, not a lack of care. Add to that, young people have since been given financial incentives to go out, such as the UK government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Despite seeing life being very different for her friends than her experience, Louisa is sympathetic and understands why young people are becoming more flexible with the rules.

“I completely can relate to people who have made different decisions to me because they don’t have the very kind of prominent reminder of the risk living in their home.”

“I have friends who are taking the rules in a different way to me. But those friends are generally the ones who have been working throughout most of this and have been working since lockdown started to ease.”

“Working in jobs such as hairdressers or pubs and things like that. Jobs where it is expected that you go to work, and that you put yourself at risk. So why wouldn’t you put yourself at risk in order to socialise?”

Ironically, young people were not the only group who have been criticised for a selfish response to the lockdown rules. Early on, the millennial vs boomer debate returned to criticise ‘boomer parents’ for not taking the situation seriously, forcing their millennial children to reprimand them.

Just like young people, the older generations have been generalised in the media too. As Media Diversity Institute noted back in April, politicians and news outlets frequently used the phrase “we should all protect our grandparents,” a phrase which “pushed a narrative that they are weak, fragile and vulnerable.”

Seeing the elderly as principally vulnerable, not only dilutes the message that people from all age ranges with pre-existing conditions are at risk, but also that old people are a greater burden on society, where through protecting them, everyone else has to sacrifice normal life.

In addition to this, the elderly population has repeatedly been used as a reassurance by politicians and health experts that most people are not at great risk of dying from Covid-19, as long as they are under 70 years old. This reinforces the perception that the group are ‘dispensable’, which aided the spread of the crude slang term for the pandemic, ‘the boomer remover’.  

Susan and John are two former social workers, both over 70, who have continued to follow government guidelines, especially as Susan had a health scare at the beginning of the lockdown. Now she is slowly recovering and taking regularly walks in the parks.

Like many English households, their main source of information initially came from the UK government’s daily televised briefings, but John recognised a lack of sincerity in regards to older generations:

“The government briefings, which were truly terrible in March and April, talked a lot about putting a sort of a ring of safety around care homes, but then didn’t really do anything about that. All the priority for PPE was to hospitals there was absolutely no track and trace for care homes. There was a clear lack of concern for older people.”

For John, who’s background is in social care, the absence of a larger conversation about care homes reflected a disturbing ageism in the media:

“I’ve been horrified at the way in which care homes have been treated. There was a lack of sensitivity to what was happening within them, when, considering something like 30 or 40% of Covid deaths have been within care homes, seems incredible. It feels like a generational thing, where these are old people who are seen at the end of life, or already way past it.”

When I asked the pair how they felt about how the media had stereotyped generations, Susan told Media Diversity Institute how her personal experiences suggested the media campaigns targeting young people might have missed the mark:

“Yesterday I went for a walk in the park. I was by myself, and I think I must have stepped out of the way to respect social-distancing somewhere around 20 or 30 times, and I don’t remember a single occasion when anyone did it for me. Many didn’t even seem to register what I was doing for them either.”

“But it wasn’t just younger people you know? They were also middle-aged, couples with children. People of all different ages don’t seem to respect it anymore.”

Fundamentally, grouping whole generations together is problematic. Even before the pandemic, intergenerational clashes were widespread, using stereotypes to reinforce prejudices of a certain age group. Such accusations and assumptions avoid discussing the diversity within each generation, and discourage developing an understanding of what they might have in common.

Should the media report on groups who willingly put other people’s lives at risk? Shouldn’t it be stressed how age is a key factor in Covid-19 fatality? Of course. But these narratives in isolation ignore the millions of people who do not fit into either.

When I asked Louisa if she had seen her story or stories of people in a similar situation to her reflected in the media, she said:

“No, not at all. But I don’t necessarily see my story as the most important one to be told.”

“I know someone my age who has been shielding because of her own health condition, and I think that’s harder to deal with, because that’s her illness taking yet another bit of her life away. I actually had more of a choice in it. I had the choice to come home.”

And that, if the media is to be believed, were the words of an irresponsible and selfish millennial.