Is It Always Better When We Are Together?

A study demonstrated the correlation between intergenerational interactions and fatality rates by COVID-19.

Intergenerational interactions

A study demonstrated the correlation between intergenerational interactions and fatality rates by COVID-19

Sometimes I feel I’m gonna break down and cry, so lonely
Nowhere to go, nothing to do with my time
I get lonely, so lonely, living on my own.

As convincingly claimed by Freddy Mercury, living on one’s own is not always easy for everyone, especially in these coronavirus times. Italians have been forced to stay home for two months, except for grocery shopping, going to the pharmacy and taking short walks around the house. Isolation seems in fact to be the best remedy against COVID-19, which, according to the World Health Organization, is “primarily transmitted from symptomatic people to others who are in close contact through respiratory droplets, by direct contact with infected persons, or by contact with contaminated objects and surfaces.” But is forcing people to remain at home the best way to prevent them from having contacts with other people? And how much do cultural factors, household structures and intergenerational ties influence contagion?

This question has been a matter of debate within the last few months, after the publication by two professors of Economics at the University of Bonn (Christian Bayer and Moritz Kuhn) of a study in which they argue that fatality rates were initially higher in countries with more intergenerational interactions. More precisely, they showed that countries where a higher percentage of people aged 30-49 live with their parents experienced also higher fatality rates. This share varies significantly across countries, ranging from below 5% in France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, to above 20% in Japan, China, South Korea, and Italy. Bayer and Kuhn draw the conclusion that social distancing needs to focus particularly on the elderly and that the structure of social interactions matters within this context.

Even if these results show only a correlation between these two factors and not a proper causal relation (it cannot be concluded that living with one’s parents increases COVID-19 mortality), these findings shed light on an aspect that had so far remained underestimated.

Intergenerational interactions and the role of family in different societies

Intergenerational interactions include different types of contacts: from living with elderly to simply visiting them, volunteering activities and working in nursing homes, but also grandparents looking after grandchildren, and so on. Not only Italians and Spaniards are more likely to live with their parents until the adult age, but they also keep more contacts with elderly people. Eurostat data reveal that around 30% of Spanish and Italian seniors meet their relatives everyday, while this share differs completely in France (18%), in the United Kingdom (16%) and in Germany (12%). In Mediterranean countries, families remain at the core of the provision of services, both for childcare and for elderly care. In Italy, the percentage of families resorting to the help of relatives to look after their children is higher than the percentage of those using public or private services such as kindergartens or babysitters (38% vs. 31%, source: ISTAT). This is the reason why the return to work combined with school closures creates many problems to Italian families: who should provide care to children? Their grandparents, who are more likely to contract the coronavirus? Once again, the burden of family care is likely to fall on women, who have lower-paid jobs or no job at all, and thus could feel forced to quit their jobs, or simply who have to combine smartworking with caregiving.

Living under the same roof: an affective or economic decision?

On the other hand, data on adult people living with their parents are often being exploited in an ideological way. Labelled with the worst names by Italian politicians, bamboccioni (grown-ups) have been blamed to be lazy, but the obstacles in Italy towards economic independence are much more than laziness. Stagnating economic growth, high unemployment rates and temporary contracts slow down the transition to adulthood, making the old nest more attractive while waiting for better conditions to come. One indicator speaks for all: for one third of Italian families, retirement benefits represent the main source of income, working as a social safety net. These factors are clearly linked to the low fertility rates the country is experiencing, making Italy older and older.

No time for monkey business

Thus, social distancing was harder to enforce in Italy and Spain and this might be added to the reasons why the epidemic hit the countries so hard. The bright side of this story is that family ties may have alleviated the sense of isolation that the COVID-19 produced, and will continue to do so also in the next months, when venues such as schools, youth clubs, sport clubs, public libraries, senior centers, universities and churches will remain closed. However, families should not compensate for all the services traditionally provided by the state: education, health and a basic income do not pertain to the private sphere, this is something the government should not forget. Living on one’s own should not be so difficult neither for elderly people nor for young adults.

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