Long Lives

New York magazine|May 25 - June 07, 2020

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Long Lives
Old people have never been so powerful— or, now, so vulnerable.
Photograph by Art Streiber

Our Fragile Gerontocracy

By Mark Harris

Each day’s headlines jolt us with the same unnerving reality: There has never, in the history of the Republic, been a stranger time to be old. We live in a kind of gerontocracy that feels both accidental and deeply entrenched. Our best hope for unseating the about-to-turn-74-year-old in the White House, whose reign is propped up by a terrifyingly powerful cable network that serves as the plaything of an ultrarich 89-year-old, is a former vice-president who, at 77, won the Democratic nomination over a 78-year-old senator whom young people preferred during the primaries. If elected, he will, one hopes, work effectively with the 80-year-old Speaker of the House or may, one worries, be thwarted by the truculent 78-year-old Senate majority leader. Until then, several crucial rights, including access to health care and abortion, may rest in the survival of an 87-yearold Supreme Court justice currently in somewhat fragile health (notwithstanding the fact that her endurance and physical strength have become the stuff of legend and of memes).

The futures of all Americans are largely in the hands of people who are entering, or well into, what one of my uncles used to call “the bonus round.” And yet the aged, at the height of their power and disinclined to relax their grip on it—just look at who votes—have also never been more vulnerable. What a horrific few months it has been—especially in New York, and especially for the poor and the nonwhite. But this virus strikes the old with the most consistent lethality. Almost 60 percent of those who have died from covid-19 in the U.S. were 75 or older. Almost 80 percent were age 65 or older. (Only 7 percent of deaths have been under 54.) Residents of nursing homes or assisted-living facilities have made up as many as half the fatalities in some areas of the country, and the reaction among many people, either by implication or outright declaration, has been, “See? That means most of us have nothing to worry about!”

In the last few months, the elderly population has become prey not only to a lethal pandemic but to the Hobbesian worldview of a group of death-cult politicians and their adherents who have felt free to air their conviction that hurrying Grandma and Grandpa to the end of the conveyor belt may be an acceptable price to pay for a revived economy, not to mention the indifference of a subset of the young and the middle-aged who really want to go out and play and are unconcerned with what they might spread while dunking the basketball in the park or sidewalk drinking. The medical conditions older Americans manage to live with every day are now airily discussed as “comorbidities” (in other words, they had it coming), the years they have amassed treated as so much demographic bad luck, the vulnerabilities that flesh is heir to dismissed as getting in the way of reopening the economy.

The resentment that churns just beneath the surface of all the urgent, let’s-getmoving-again platitudes about how nobody lives forever is not, of course, new. Every set of fresh arrivals in the workforce has felt, at some point, that older people are obstinately refusing to make room for them, their ideas, and their priorities (and, maybe, their raises). Today, there are more of those human blockades than ever:

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May 25 - June 07, 2020