Lorcan Nyhan: Unfair reopening rules put young people’s anger on the menu

19th Jul 2021
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Originally published in the Sunday Independent

Confusion and unfairness marched together last week as the Government announced the rules for the reopening of indoor dining on Monday, July 26.

Confusion is bad enough; it wastes time while corrections are issued. But unfairness, perceived or otherwise, is altogether more damaging and the regulations were viewed as unfair by more than one group.

A sense of fairness is hardwired into us. We note it, we value it, we seek it — and it’s not just humans who demand fairness.

In 2003 the primatologist Frans de Waal put two Capuchin monkeys side by side in adjoining cages. They were trained to trade a pebble for a piece of food. Every time one of them handed over a pebble the reward was a cucumber slice. Happy out, the two of them.

Then the researchers pulled a stunt. They started to give Monkey 1 a grape instead, grapes being much tastier to our Capuchin cousins. Monkey 2 got the usual cucumber. No longer happy out, the second monkey tossed it right back, flying into a rage.

If both got cucumbers, they stayed happy. Anger only came when one monkey was comparatively worse off. This primitive aversion to unfairness is also a powerful force in humans.

Research by Boston College found children as young as 12 months show a clear preference for cartoon characters who share their resources equally with others.

The same researchers showed that, by age six, a child will forgo getting a bounty of sweets themselves if it means a peer would have to go without.

Fairness is the key, rather than pleasure or suffering. As is the perception of fairness.

Facilitating indoor dining for those with a Digital Covid Certificate, before everyone has had the opportunity to avail of a vaccine, fails the fairness perception test.

The majority of those without are vaccine are under 40. They are members of a demographic who have willingly sacrificed a huge amount to combat a disease that poses a significantly lesser risk to them than to their elders.

This same cohort being excluded from the reopening is not good for social solidarity.

Young people are, of course, not the only ones who feel unfairly treated.

A parent unable to send a child to an indoor summer camp, while that same child can eat indoors, also felt that comparative unfairness last week.

But the feeling is magnified in the youngest generations because it’s illustrative of a wider trend.

The ESRI told us recently that “millennials in the 20s and 30s are likely to be the first generation in Ireland to have lower living standards than the previous one”.

Wages are stagnating. Home ownership rates by the age of 30 have halved in a generation. Housing costs take up a greater percentage of those wages.

Look at any western country and you’ll see similar issues.

In 2017, Pew research of European and North American countries found the vast majority believed the next generation would be worse off than the one before.

Of the 12 countries surveyed, only the Polish population felt the next generation would surpass the previous. The populations of the US, Canada, France, Germany and more all believed the opposite.

The world is less fair to today’s young people than it was to the generation before — which leads to anger and resentment.

Politicians have to be seen to be doing all in their power to hold back the tide moving against this generation; to rebalance the scales.

When they don’t — when instead they make a move that puts one age group on a lesser rung — they provide a lightning rod for generational dissatisfaction.

The perception is compounded when the initial rules are deemed flexible, but only for some.

Wriggle room was found in the new dining regulations. Unvaccinated under 18s are allowed indoors if accompanied — an exception designed with parents and businesses in mind.

The only exception for those over 18 is that they can still serve the vaccinated indoors. Is it any wonder that the young and childless feel excluded from the imaginations of the decision makers?

Missing indoor meals for a few months, while waiting for a vaccine offer and subsequent certificate, might seem a small example of unfairness. But it’s also a clear one, a tangible one; therefore it sticks and becomes a symbol for wider concerns.

Remember the final scene in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Years after the revolution, the animals of the now pig-run farm creep up to the farmhouse window.

Attracted by raucous laughter, we see them peer in to see their leader, his associates and human farmers dining, drinking and playing cards, as the worker animals remain outside.

Orwell understood how people think and react and feel. That’s why he chose to end his parable with that evocative image: the elite indoors in comfort, the masses outside looking in.

The decision makers aren’t consciously excluding the young. They are balancing a myriad of concerns in an ever-changing landscape and they responded to the initial outcry against this move with a notable increase in the speed of the vaccine roll-out.

It’s not vindictive, but it is thoughtless — in the most literal sense of the term.

By undervaluing the importance of obvious fairness, they have provided a memorable example of intergenerational inequality.

The already vaccinated are being given access to grapes, while the young are offered only cucumbers —and that may not be forgotten.