How Different Generations Are Responding to COVID-19

In This Article

While certain age groups may be less vulnerable to the health effects of COVID-19, no group has zero chance of contracting COVID-19 and the global pandemic affects everyone of all ages and all walks of life. However, reports suggest that there are generational differences in how people are responding to this public health crisis.

According to a poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, while older people are more susceptible to complications from the virus, it is younger people who are the most concerned about someone in their home become sick.

News reports suggest a "millennial vs boomer" divide, implying that boomers are the ones taking things seriously while millennials are out partying, but this likely stems from a misunderstanding of the actual ages of various generations. The youngest millennials are now 24 and the oldest of the Z generation are only 23.

Generational Breakdown

  • Baby Boomer: 1946-1964
  • Generation X:  1965-1979
  • Millennials: 1980-1994
  • Gen Z: 1995-2012

It's important to note that these generation dates are approximate and there is some overlap. Some argue that those born between 1975 and 1985 represent a "micro-generation" known as Xennials.

So how are people of different ages responding to the pandemic and coping with what is happening in the world?

The Baby Boomer Generation

Baby boomers, born in an era of post-war optimism, have experienced a lot over the years. They've survived wars, social change, political upheaval, and more. This might be why they are often seen as being less worried about the pandemic than their kids and grandkids think they should be.

Younger generations may be frustrated by this, but many boomers may feel that they’ve gone through enough and are capable of taking care of themselves.

Concerns that people from the boomer generation are dealing with include:

Health

The CDC states that older adults over the age of 65 are at the greatest risk of developing more severe complications from COVID-19. In the U.S., 8 out of 10 COVID-19 related deaths have been among adults age 65 and older.

The CDC also estimates that between 31 and 59% of adults between the ages of 65 and 84 will require hospitalization if they contract the infection.

Because of this increased risk, the CDC recommends that those in this age group take precautions by staying home as much as possible, washing hands frequently, and maintaining at least six feet of distance between themselves and other people.

Family

While boomers may be less concerned about contracting the virus themselves, they may be worried about the health and well-being of their kids and grandkids. 

Finances

Older adults may be less worried about their work situation, often because they have retired or are getting closer to retirement. This doesn't mean that they are not worried about the economic fallout of the pandemic, including how their own kids and grandkids are fairing.

Some reports suggest that many boomers are doing little to change their habits in light of the pandemic. Only 38% of baby boomers reported that they were planning to curb their spending. And while Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z shoppers have increased their online shopping as a result of COVID-19, only 8% of boomers said they were doing more of their shopping online.

It might be tempting to get upset about how aging parents are reacting (or not reacting) to the pandemic, but it is important to stay empathetic. While it might seem like many boomers are ignoring or downplaying what's happening, there are indications that people from this age cohort are taking steps to protect themselves and others.

For example, one poll found that 34% of boomers reported that they were stocking up on basic essentials. Another survey of 2,000 Americans found that while baby boomers were the least concerned about contracting COVID-19 compared to other generations, 43% were worried about the possibility. Such numbers will likely continue to climb as the virus spreads.

If you are worried about your parents or grandparents, do what you can to gently encourage them to engage in social distancing and to stay home as much as possible.

Generation X

Some have suggested that Gen X adults are perhaps the most prepared to cope with the isolation of social distancing and quarantine. Known as the "latchkey generation," Gen X'ers learned to occupy themselves in the hours after school before their parents got home from work.

Gen X often gets neglected, but this generation is feeling the pull of many demands all at once. Sometimes known as the “sandwich generation,” people in this age group are caring for both their own kids and their aging parents. 

Concerns that Gen X is facing include:

Work

Employment upheaval means many are either working from home or facing an uncertain job future. 

Family

They have older parents who they need to worry about—and they may be stressed when their parents or older relatives don’t seem to be taking things as seriously as they think they should. 

Health

While it is older adults who face the greatest risk from coronavirus, this doesn’t mean that gen X adults have no reason to worry about their own health.

People with asthma, heart conditions, diabetes, liver disease, and those who are immunocompromised are more vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19.

Gen X is also worried about their own kids who are now out of school due to closures. These parents are trying to juggle their own anxieties with the stress of having to make sure their parents have what they need, figuring out how to financially cope with the situation, and are now faced with having to help kids with homeschool or distance education.

Millennials

For older millennials, this is their second time facing a major financial crisis. Like Gen X, they are worried about their older relatives, finances, and careers. Those with young children are also worried about caring for their kids, often while trying to work from home. 

Concerns millennials are dealing with include:

Concern for Parents

In what feels like a strange role reversal, many millennials have found themselves lecturing their parents for not taking social distancing seriously enough.

Family

School closures mean some millennial parents are trying to juggle their own telecommute duties with the role of stand-in teacher for kids trying to complete classwork online.

Finances

One report found that 47% of millennials were scaling back their spending in light of the pandemic.

Health

While the risk of complications in this age group tends to be fairly low, it is important to remember that everyone has some risk, particularly those with certain health conditions and that the risk of complications goes up as people age. Many people are also grappling with job loss and the resulting loss of health insurance.

Millennials have borne the brunt of blame accusations that they are being cavalier about the pandemic, yet polls indicate that people from this generation are actually taking the health crisis more seriously than older and younger adults.

"Millennials are not out partying," suggested Mairead McArdle, a reporter for the National Review in a tweet. "We and our anxiety issues are holed up working from home, watching Hulu, and yelling at our parents not to go outside. It's Gen Z you want."

Generation Z

As one of the youngest age cohorts coping with the pandemic (the oldest of which is 23 and the youngest is just 8), the concerns of Gen Z (aka “zoomers”) are a bit different than those of older generations. They are the least likely to experience health complications as a result of the virus. 

Early reports suggest that younger people are taking an individualistic attitude toward the pandemic, as many younger adults continue to go out and socialize even as health experts recommended people stay home and follow social distancing guidelines.

Some concerns that may be affecting people in this generation include:

Worry for Loved Ones

Zoomers might not be as worried about their own health, but they may be worried about their parents and older loved ones. This concern along with influence from their peers may help younger people start to take social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders more seriously.

Stress

A 2018 survey by the American Psychological Association found that Gen Z adults report having the poorest mental health of any generation. The added stress of COVID-19 may be putting even more pressure on the well-being of this generation.

Housing

Young Gen Z adults who were dependent on university housing may have found their living situation upended as campuses shut-down and told students to go home. 

And many have pointed out, stereotyping and demonizing zoomers is exactly what boomers, Gen X, and millennials have been accusing each other of doing for years. While some zoomers might be out partying, the majority are stressed and worried about school, tuition, and where they are going to go now that they have been kicked out of their campus housing.

What About the Next Generation?

Another concern for many parents and grandparents, no matter which generation they belong to, is what the pandemic might mean to the youngest generation. How will the social, economic, and political changes that result from the pandemic affect the future of our kids?

Transgenerational Trauma

An emerging subfield of psychology examines the impact of transgenerational trauma, looking at how traumatic historical events impact different generations and may even be transmitted through generations.

For example, researchers have found that people who lived through genocide in Ukraine exhibited changes in parenting, emotionality, health behaviors, and social cohesiveness. These changes impacted not only the survivors of the genocide but second and third generations as well.

We may not have a clear understanding of the long-term consequences for years to come, but looking at how past events have affected previous generations may provide some clues.

Just as the Great Depression and 9/11 led to changes in how people lived their lives, COVID-19 will most likely leave a major mark on both adults and kids. 

Healthy children may not have a significant risk of dying from the illness, but they are bound to feel the burden of trauma. How kids deal with this trauma depends on a variety of factors, including socioeconomic status. Poor children may bear the brunt of the trauma due to factors such as food insecurity, parental stress, and decreased access to education, among other things.

While it might seem like kids are too young to really sense what is going on, research suggests that children (though they might not show it) pick up on the same general sense of anxiety that adults are feeling.

While we might expect kids to just move on or bounce back once the threat has passed, the reality is that it's an experience that will help shape their growth and development. 

Because of this, it is important for adults to explore ways of talking to kids about the pandemic and find ways to help manage the stress and upheaval that children are going through—a task that may be especially challenging for parents and caregivers coping with the economic consequences of COVID-19. 

Ultimately, only time will tell the impact that the pandemic may have on the youngest generation of kids. 

A Word From Verywell

Even as generational jokes and complaints flood social media, it is important not to reduce individuals to stereotypes. We all have our own worries and past experiences that shape how we respond in the face of stress. What is important is to treat others with empathy and kindness.

Generational differences may play a role in the immediate health risk associated with the virus, but the long-term impact of the pandemic is something that will affect everyone of all ages.

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Article Sources
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