Although not always the most important identity marker, age has always mattered in the making of roles, rights, status and power structures. It signifies as much as, and occasionally more than, class, gender, race, sexuality, heritage. Only partly a biological/chronological category, it is also socially-constructed and consequently historical, varying in time and place. The time-shifting meanings of age reflect, correspond to, and also shape public discourses and national objectives.[i]
Age came to matter all the more in the wake of the Great War, that cataclysm that in so many ways lifted a rising tide ever faster toward cultural modernity. The traditional hierarchy that made status and power contingent with advancing years was overturned. Youth came to be revered, though not so much in the sense of real, chronological, biological, embodied age—what power do the unenfranchised reasonably have?— as in the matter of “modern” style: the newly-coined “sex appeal”, the apparent youth of those who could buy it. Youth, or at least youthfulness, not only sold new consumer products, it was the singular product of a modern consumer culture.[ii]
These ideas about age and generation are the basis of much of my research. But my own life, in our own day, gives me reason to consider how they apply to this unique—many say ‘unprecedented’—historical moment. My grandson turned 16 during the cruel April of this Covid spring. Birthdays, like every other feast, sacred, secular and sometimes just made up, are always grand occasions in our family. Each is excessive in its own right, setting the pace for each that follows, thereby ensuring that none can be anything less. We’re currently being urged to look for proverbial “silver linings,” most of which are exactly in that category: proverbial. In truth, however, Covid-19 might well have spared us a season’s worth (more?!?) of frenzied festivity of the sort requiring hours of shopping, cooking, prep work, post-feast disassembly and clean-up. Not to mention a few altogether predictable squabbles interspersed during and between multiple courses. And cash. Lots of cash.
For the first time in my grandson’s entire life, and consequently ours, we had to skip our over-the-top multiethnic family dinner, featuring his chosen food favourites of the moment, followed by the cake of his current dreams, with lively gift-opening and general mayhem ensuing. That’s the BC [Before Covid] version; not this year. So I set off on a blustery mid-April morning for the half-hour drive to the village where they live, set to deposit our various family gifts at the designated drop-off spot on the porch, all safe and contact-free. Among these were face masks for everyone, lovingly stitched up by Nana, a unique never-before addition to the heap.
There was no excited birthday-boy face at the front window, maintaining social distance behind glass. I’m not terribly sentimental, an occupational hazard. But I found myself imagining the luminous smile and chubby cheeks of an excited child-sprite among the curtains, a ghost who bore scant resemblance to the lanky tall broad-shouldered young man he has become. It was just before noon; he wasn’t even up yet. Here’s another silver lining, at least for teenagers: Covid-time is perfectly calibrated to their distinct age-defined circadian rhythms.
I drove back to my own place of self-exile. The skies were glowering. It was raining hard. The highway was empty, the streets of my own town deserted of cars, and people, and living things of any kind. The world looked (felt) like a scene from Bladerunner. I felt the sensation that others have described in similar moments, as though we had abruptly stepped into a “time out of time”.[iii]
When the birthday boy-man woke to meet the mid-afternoon, we, Nana, Nonna (great-grandmother), aunts and uncles, from the eminently safe distance that separates our individual homes, gazed into the magic mirror of individual cellphones. As his mother filmed it, he reenacted the customary ritual in much his usual manner, tearing up fancy gift wrap at ferocious speed, his handsome face lit with the same wonderment I so loved to see in the chubby little boy face of not-so-long ago. He thanked us all warmly, sent his love, said he longed to be with us “when this is over”. Fade to black. Later, his friends held a surprise Zoom birthday party in his honour, respecting the contagion protocols and violating those of adolescent parties, which are not principally known for their safe physical distancing.
I was impressed by the grace, and even aplomb, that my grandson displayed through all this. Because it wasn’t merely different than any previous birthday. It was the apex of any number of broken hopes, dreams, plans, many of which may be merely postponed, but none of which will ever be effectively reprised. His BC plans included a choir trip to the UK, celebrating his 16th in London, and long-coveted tickets to the Canadian tour of the Broadway hit “Hamilton”, for which I spent four fingernail-chewing hours in a “virtual waiting room” online last September. All these happy plans, made more carefully than any he’d ever made, were knocked over domino-fashion by a stealthy and deadly player.
The next choral competition is two years away. Many of the friends will have graduated. Even if he sees London, he will never turn 16 in London. “Hamilton” will return to Toronto eventually, but not this year or next. The theatre owners, reluctant to refund, will honour at least the tickets if not the actual seats selected, hopefully without another long episode of screen-strain on the purchaser’s part. But it won’t be the culminating event of a glorious once-in-a-lifetime 16th birthday celebration.
If my grandson’s birthday is one for the historical record, this Covid spring is imprinting all those who are growing up and coming of age in its midst. Covid 19 is their generational marker, defining their cohort identity historically and through every stage that remains to the end of their lives.
As was the case with the generations that came of age against the backdrop of earlier world-historic events, this one is shaping and defining the experience of being young.[iv] It is not simply confining that experience for however long it takes to conquer the menace, or at least contain it, though that in itself is hardly insignificant, given that adolescents are arguably the most socially active of all age groups. Like children, their regular life structures, built on school, peer interaction, extracurricular activities, and just plain having fun, have been forcibly interrupted. Like adults, their usual undertakings, including work, study, and romantic relationships, are suddenly derailed. Like everyone, they are effectively living in a state of suspended animation. But unlike any other age group, they exist in a particular liminal stage, a process of becoming, that is brief, intense, biologically and psychologically disruptive. Not children, not adults, their ‘normal’ age-defined condition is itself transitional. Karl Mannheim refers to “the non-contemporaneity of the contemporaneous” to explain the differential experience of those who are nonetheless contemporaries: for each generation living at the same time, the “same time” is also a different time.[v]
Covid affects all age groups. But it does not affect them all equally. The majority of deaths are among seniors, testifying both to their greater physical fragility and to our disgraceful collective neglect. The majority of developmental impacts are among adolescents. Their outlook, their ideas, their world view, have been affected by this experience in ways that they will not “outgrow.” Covid, in short, is shaping a generational consciousness theirs alone. Before Covid, many were becoming politicized despite their lack of political rights—it was only a few months ago, remarkably, that the teenaged activist Greta Thunberg, just one year older than my grandson, captured worldwide media attention and catalyzed a youth-driven global movement to fight the climate crisis. Wars, disasters, plagues, do not generally initiate new trends and movements; they tend to intensify and accelerate those that were starting in the “before” times. The young embody a future yet unknown, which is why they historically inspire much public anxiety, and even periodic moral panics—just because they are young. They are the vanguard of change. Post-Covid, expect the generation of 2020 to take up the torch that their elders have dropped.
Cynthia Comacchio has been a member of Wilfrid Laurier University’s History Department for more than 30 years. Her research interests include children/childhood, youth, family, age and generation. She is currently completing an overview of children and childhood in Settler Canada (co-authored with the late Neil Sutherland) for Wilfrid Laurier University Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] On age as a ‘category of historical analysis’, see the seminal essays by Steven Mintz, Laura L. Lovett, Leslie Paris, Mary Jo Maynes, and Stephen Lassonde in the first issue of The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1, 1 (Winter 2008).
[ii] I developed this theme in The Dominion of Youth: Adolescence and the Making of Modern Canada (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006).
[iii] This notion of “time out of time” is explored in John R. Gillis, A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997).
[iv] Generational theory is itself an intellectual product of the 1920s; for an overview of the sociology of generations, see June Edmunds and Bryan S. Turner, eds. Generational Consciousness, Narrative, and Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002).
[v] Karl Mannheim, “The Problem of Generations” (1927), in Paul Kecskemeti, ed. Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 288–89.