The COVID-19 Side Effect That No One Saw Coming

While the most tragic part of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the nearly 3 million people worldwide (via Worldometer) who have died from the virus, it's brought all manner of human misery in its wake. Nearly unprecedented unemployment and rising rates of substance abuse and domestic violence during quarantine have all had a serious negative impact on everyone's mental health. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, at least 40 percent of us are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, so no, it's not just you, things really are getting crazy out there.

One of the most horrifying things to come out of the pandemic besides its ever-mounting death toll has been a wave of anti-Asian racism across the U.S., with increasing attention and media coverage being paid. A different type of prejudice, however, has also come to light over the course of the past year, though less acknowledged, since it's less egregiously violent in nature. As Foreign Policy points out, the pandemic brought out some very public expressions of what many have termed "the last acceptable prejudice," that being ageism.

Older people were blamed for pandemic frustrations

Ageism may seem like an odd prejudice to have. Discrimination tends to be based on an "us vs. them" mentality, and while none of us will ever transition from one race or ethnicity to another, and relatively few will switch genders or sexual orientation, most of us, should we be so lucky, will eventually make the passage from youth through middle age and on into our senior years. Perhaps some of our ageism may be based on fear — we all grow old (and eventually die!), but it scares the crap out of us, so as long as we're able to see older people as "other," we can live in denial that we'll ever experience the inevitable changes that aging brings. Also, it probably doesn't help much that uber-rich celebs employ all of the resources at their disposal to fight the aging process, thus setting unrealistic standards for non-millionaires to follow.

Whatever the reasons why ageism is so prevalent in our society, COVID-19 seemed to exacerbate these sentiments. During the first wave of the pandemic when older people seemed to be the only ones contracting the virus, there were some who felt the lockdown, business closures, mask-wearing, and other precautions were all put in place to protect the elderly and unfairly burdened younger people. British medical journal The Lancet reports that hashtags such as "#BoomerRemover" downplayed the pandemic's seriousness, since younger people seemed to feel COVID-19 wouldn't affect them.

Older workers have suffered more from pandemic-related layoffs

While it's fortunate that many of the attacks on older individuals have been verbal rather than physical, there has been one very severe consequence of pandemic-era ageism. According to AARP, the first six months of the pandemic saw workers aged 55 and up losing their jobs at a rate 17 percent higher than younger workers. Suddenly over one million workers over the age of 54 found themselves unemployed, something that's not only had a devastating impact on their ability to make ends meet, but also threatened efforts to save up for the retirement that looms on the horizon.

When you take into account the fact that anyone born after 1960 (all of Gen X plus a few late boomers) cannot collect the full amount of Social Security until they reach age 70, it leaves many at risk of having to compete with younger workers for a smaller and smaller number of jobs for the next 15 years. Not to mention, in many cases no work = no health insurance, something that becomes increasingly important the older you get. This is the first time in 50 years that older workers have been unemployed at a higher rate than mid-career workers, and even a recent upswing in hiring has tended to favor re-hiring younger workers more quickly than older ones. As Retirement Equity Lab director Teresa Ghilarducci characterized this ongoing trend to AARP, it's "leaving near-retirees at risk of life-long decreases in their living standards."