Talking ’bout your generations

| April 26, 2020

As we might expect, the dreadful immediate impacts and hypothesised future consequences of the novel coronavirus pandemic have been the subject of a significant volume of discussion from the scientific, academic and business communities.

The focus of my attention, as a youth sociologist, has fallen on the increasingly “generational” framing of the crisis.

Many of us will be familiar with the related terms such as “baby boomers” (denoting those born in the two decades after the World War II), Gen X (mid-’60s through to late-’70s babies), Gen Y, or the “Millennials” (those born between 1980 and the late 1990s), and Gen Z (those born around and after the start of the 21st century).

These collectivities have become a central part of the COVID-19 discussion. There’s commentary on how the crisis brings to light deep-seated inter-generational divides and antagonisms, and clever rebuttals on how this is an overstatement.

“Applying a generational lens is often incredibly misleading, and overlooks a variety of differences and, importantly, inequalities that exist within a generation, and even those that cut across generations.”

We’ve seen questions raised, and answers seemingly given, on which generation has suffered the most, which generation will suffer the most in the future, and a variety of commentary on issues such as which generation has taken the issue more seriously, or the ways that all generations have adapted their media consumption, and how each generation will have to adapt to how they live in the future.

Drawing these lines of difference has intuitive appeal. These are somewhat healthy ways of thinking, and avoid the temptation to think about the novel coronavirus as being the “great equaliser”, as mistakenly suggested by some politicians, commentators and even well-known celebrities.

On the one hand, we are all, beyond its dreadful health consequences, aware of the impacts of the virus – many of us are working or studying from home, while many others have been furloughed, and most of us probably implore one another to abide by social distancing requirements despite feeling tortured at remaining at often more than arms-length from our friends and families.

On the other hand, though, we might share a sense that it’s different for the elderly, whose exposure to higher chances of fatality makes this grimly and abundantly clear, and it’s different for the young, with their disrupted schooling, and sudden loss of jobs in restaurants and shops.

On the latter group, we can turn to history and see very clearly that the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic will, just like the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and recessions prior to that, see young people experience disproportionate adverse labour market consequences relative to older age groups in the immediate and longer term.

Despite these realities, I think it important that we don’t rush to start talking in terms of a “COVID-19 generation” (such suggestions pop up in my own social media timelines, from academics as much as anyone else).

Major social and political upheavals, of course, do shape the future prospects of young people, and often require significant reimagining of the future, and attention to new action in the present. However, applying a generational lens is often incredibly misleading, and overlooks a variety of differences and, importantly, inequalities that exist within a generation, and even those that cut across generations.

Race-based inequalities, for example, are striking, both in the disproportionate contraction of the virus among black people, and the fact that indigenous peoples across the globe experience heightened risk in public health emergencies as a result of relatively poorer access to essential services and crucial preventative resources such as clean water, and then often face discrimination and stigma even when such services are accessible.

Generation talk also potentially disguises the gendered dimensions of the crisis, from men’s differential vulnerability to infection, exposure to pathogens, and treatment received, to women’s intensified risks of gender-based family and sexual violence, the disproportionate toll on women’s livelihoods resulting from necessary home-school arrangements and subsequent increase in burden of domestic care that typically follows, and their exposure to the virus that stems from women comprising a significantly high proportion of the frontline health workforce.

Inequalities, social class, status and marginalisation

Some academics have proposed that the “pandemic seems to have flattened a lot of Australia’s class divide“, but while people in upper and middle-class occupations might also be finding a downturn in work, the international evidence is clear that workforces with low-wage, lower-education attainment profiles are being hit hardest. This is compounded by the fact that such industries, such as those in the retail trade or in the accommodation and food sector, have higher concentrations of minority ethnic or migrant workers, as well as young workers.

Crucial here is that while lifestyles will be, and are, affected across all of society, relative proximity to necessity remains an important dimension of difference.

” … generations, rather than simply divided or at “war” (before or during the pandemic), are highly interlinked, and are often inextricably bound together in processes of mutual care.”

Greater stocks of economic and social resources can shield one from the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic, or at the very least delay the impact.

Coming back to our intra-generational inequalities, while the economic downturn will affect many young people, the evidence shows us that those with the fewest educational qualifications suffer the most.

For such groups, especially those who are new labour market entrants, their already higher chances of under- or unemployment is compounded by the influx of other job seekers who are more highly qualified, and might not have usually been competing for the same jobs.

Similarly, among the elderly, not only is there a general higher chance of contracting and being killed by the virus, but there’s a marked inequality within this group – millions of low-income seniors face malnutrition and hunger as a result of the steps taken to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Lastly, let’s consider that being a “Gen Y” young adult who lives out of the parental home and losing one’s job will have very different implications if one has access to “the bank of mum and dad” to help pay rent, or a big enough family home to return to if, and when, such a route is needed.

What this hypothetical example brings to the fore is that generations, rather than simply divided or at “war” (before or during the pandemic), are highly interlinked, and are often inextricably bound together in processes of mutual care.

This is something to recognise rather than be critical of – indeed, as others have so aptly suggested, the pandemic has made clearer than ever that we must pursue a politics that puts care front and centre in life.

Such an approach requires that we think through and make clear generational interdependencies in conjunction with ensuring an attuned understanding of intragenerational inequalities, over and above succumbing to the temptation to discuss the fallout of COVID-19 through a generational lens that offers a relatively shallow, narrow, and partial picture of our complex social reality.

This article was published by Lens.