5 COVID-19 and the Generational Divide

Kyla Hammock

Introduction

If I say Boomer or Gen-Z, you have two completely different stereotypes in your head. The truth is that each generation has a stereotype that is more different than the last. I know you love and respect your grandparents, but do you agree with them? The generations differ on many different levels, but let’s start with defining them. The Silent Generation are those born between 1928 and 1945. The Baby Boomers are between 1946 and 1964. Generation X are between 1965 and 1980. Millennials are between 1981 and 1996, and the last generation we will be comparing is Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012. The years are adjustable, but they are all in different eras of American History.

There are various trends in the difference between generations. The overall level of education has increased throughout the generations. Less people from younger generations are dropping out of high school. A 2019 Pew Research study found that 30% from the silent generation have less than a high school degree, as compared to only 8% of millennials. While more are going past getting a bachelor’s degree, from 15% having a bachelor’s degree or higher to 39% (Bialik and Fry). This is partly due to the increasingly competitive workforce. The highest paying jobs are going to those with more degrees. Soon, a Master’s degree will be the new normal.

As the generations changed, so did the gender differences. In 1968, the Silent Generation’s men outpaced women by 8 percentage points in college completion. In 2018, the Millennial’s women outpaced men by 7 percentage points in college completion (Bialik & Fry). America is slowly reaching sexual equality, and it is more socially accepted for females to receive higher education. With education changing, the workforce changed too. The percentage of males and females working between the ages of 22 and 37 have changed accordingly. Males have slightly decreased, going from 92% employed in the Silent Generation to 83% employed in the Millennials. Females have increased significantly, going from 40% employed in the Silent Generation to 73% employed in the Millennials (Bialik & Fry). There was also a trend of those with college degrees making more money, and those with only a high school diploma or completing some college making less money. Seeing as college has become more expensive, this trend has widened the gap between socioeconomic status. This is represented in the increasing difference in income level vs. level of education across generations. It also makes sense that data concludes that Millennials without a bachelor’s degree are more likely to be living with their parents (Bialik & Fry).

The generations also differ in marriage, family, voting, and diversity. Younger generations are getting married later or opting not to get married at all. They are also becoming parents later in life. Even though there are more Gen-Xers and Millennials, more people from the silent generation and baby boomers voted in the 2016 election (Bialik & Fry). With the rising generations, America is becoming more diverse and more educated.

Different generations may not agree with each other, but there should be a level of respect between all of them. Certain generations are more likely to abide by science and government regulations based on scientific findings, and different generations use social media differently. This plus the onset of the Coronavirus has increased the generational divide across the United States.

Connection to STS Theory

A common STS theory is legacy thinking, which is an inherited method of thinking imposed from an external source without objection by the individual, due to the fact that it is already widely accepted by society. The younger generations are breaking the mold. They are choosing to object to their parents’ thinking and form their own ideas. The most famous example during this time is Kellyanne Conway and her daughter Claudia Conway. Legacy thinking can impair the ability to drive technology for the betterment of society by blinding people to innovations that do not fit their accepted model of how society works. In this case, political culture is shaping the views of different generations on technology.

Another common theory of STS is social construction. Social construction is ideas, objects or events created by a series of choices humans make and their interactions. Social interactions and choices shape the perception of and understanding toward certain events and subjects by different groups of people. Each generations’ social constructs may be a little different. Based on their political leanings, the older generations may have more defined understandings while the younger generations are more open minded. Younger people may call for more equality in society and don’t care for class, race, money, and citizenship as much as other generations.

Public’s Response

Each generation has responded to the virus in slightly different ways. Some are getting more attention and or backlash than others.

Gen Z has chosen to ignore safety precautions, not because they think they’re invincible, but because they do not want to live a restricted life (Hoffower). This has unfortunately increased the spread of the virus. Young people are often seen as irresponsible, but at their age the brain is still developing and it seeks new experiences. Studies show that during this period in a person’s life, their social environment and interactions with peers are important for brain development, mental health and the development of a sense of self. Lack of peer contact may disrupt this development and lead to long-term issues (Keates). Gen Z can’t completely be blamed for their actions, because adolescents are meant to interact with each other. However, the extent that they interact is their fault. There are ways they can interact with each other without throwing large parties that break all the guidelines. But who hasn’t broken a rule or two at that age?

Millennials are largely staying home and following CDC guidelines. Most are able to work from home and are taking this time to work on themselves, or catch up on their TV shows. For many, social media is enough to satiate their need to interact. Generation X has claimed that their upbringing has prepared them for this. Apparently, Reagan, the AIDS and the crack epidemic, along with other factors have helped them thrive in these times (Hoffower).

Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation have been more cautious than others, because they are largely publicized as the most “at-risk” demographic. They are more likely to become seriously ill or die because of their weak immune systems and underlying health conditions. Because of this, they have been treated as less important. Before it even came to America, COVID-19 was presented as only dangerous to older adults. Their deaths haven’t warranted in-depth media reports like those from younger generations. This has created an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ phenomenon between younger and older generations (Fraser et al). Though older adults account for most of the hospitalizations, an increasing number of young adults are testing positive. This is everyone’s problem and everyone feels its effects. The value of life has become increasingly age-dependent, which has become apparent as COVID-19 has progressed. How everyone perceives their susceptibility corresponds to their behavior and its consequences.

Generational relations aren’t all bad, and many adolescents are helping the older generation stay safe and adapt. From young people delivering groceries to their elders, tending to their gardens, and working to effectively communicate to older generations, there have been many stories that restore faith in intergenerational relationships (Fraser et al).

Social Media

Social media has become a giant and it is used for more than just keeping in touch. Research shows that about 62% of Americans get their news from social media (Simplilearn). Because of this, many issues that usually get overlooked can find a population who can help address it. People can receive support on many issues, though some support doesn’t go past the screen (Simplilearn). Social media has also become a good marketing medium and many companies use it for product development and advertisement. With the right digital footprint, small businesses can really take off. But with one mistake, businesses can die before they get started. Even though social media has become an integral part of society, older generations have yet to embrace it. About 79% of the silent generation use legacy media, mainly TV news, habitually. Among Baby Boomers 51% use TV news and 46% use radio news habitually (Ghersetti & Westlund). As for Generation X, 48% use online news and 40% use social media. Millennials have 67% social media and 62% use mobile social media (Ghersetti & Westlund). This study didn’t include Gen Z, but we can assume they follow the trend and are more extreme than Millennials in social media use. This study highlights habitual use, so there is overlap in the type of media used by each generation. A person isn’t limited to getting information from one source, but the majority of use is expected between generations.

Seeing as most older adults don’t use it, ageism is especially evident in social media. With #BoomerRemover trending, older generations were painted as sitting ducks against COVID-19 and their death was ‘inevitable’ and ‘normal.’ Younger adults perceive themselves as invulnerable to the virus, and often use this to justify not following government social distancing guidelines (Fraser et al.). For example, a study analyzed tweets made about older adults the first week after schools in the US closed down because of COVID-19. It discovered that 31.9% were personal opinion, 29.6% were informative, and 14.2% were jokes and ridicule (Jimenez-Sotomayor et. al.). The latter got the most attention from the media. Under further analysis, 17.6% were considered ‘humorous’ and 21.9% were likely intended to ridicule or offend someone (Jimenez-Sotomayor et. al.) Although these percentages weren’t big, it was enough to catch the eye of many news sources. In reality, Gen Z was only making jokes about the messages the news sources were spreading. If it wasn’t labelled as an ‘older-adult’ problem, the younger generation wouldn’t have felt it appropriate to make such jokes.

Politics & Culture

"Donald Trump" by Pikrepo is in the Public Domain.
Donald Trump was the President when the Coronavirus came to America. As the leader of the federal government, he had a lot of say in how COVID-19 was originally dealt with.

To understand the change that COVID-19 has caused, we have to understand what people’s views were like before the pandemic started. The political difference was always apparent. When comparing the approval ratings of our last two president’s first year, a certain trend can be observed. For Trump’s first year, only 27% of Millennials approved of him, and 36% of Gen Xers approved. Conversely, in Obama’s first year, 64% of Millennials approved, and 55% of Gen Xers approved (Pew Research Center). On the other hand, 46% of the Silent Generation and 44% of the Baby Boomers approved of Trump’s first year. They had less of a difference between presidents, with 49% of the Silent Generation and 55% of Baby Boomers approving Obama’s first year. Millennials are the most liberal and Democratic of the adult generations. They are also the most diverse, with 40% being non-white. In contrast, 79% of the Silent Generation are white. Gen-Z is the most diverse generation yet, and are lean-left more than Millennials (Pew Research Center).

Politics has seen a shift in the last couple of years. With the Coronavirus coming on an election year, it has become another topic of debate on how to handle it. Initially, Conservatives were alarmed by the threat and Liberals played it down, but when it came to America, this soon switched. Liberals began to panic, and Conservatives either denied, or focused on its governmental effects. President Trump focused on the possible slowdown of the global economy, so much so that people accused him of ignoring the epidemic (Barbieri). With the upcoming election, it is evident that the American people want change, whether that be the radical President Trump, or a new President in Joe Biden. Apparently, it was the latter of the two, since Biden recently won the election.

On more controversial topics, the younger generations are more prone to call for change. The major differences are between the Silent Generation and the Millennials. As of 2017, 52% of Millennials believed that racial discrimination was the reason why many blacks can’t get ahead. Only 30% of the Silent Generation believe that is the cause, contributing it to their own responsibility. On the other hot topic of gay marriage, Millennials and Gen-Z remain the strongest supporters, though all generations’ support is rising. The value of immigrants is another topic of disparity. About 79% of Millennials believe they add value to the country, while 47% of the Silent Generation agree with that rhetoric (Pew Research Center).

Since the beginning of the pandemic, racism has gotten worse. Specifically, against those of Asian descent. Sadly, this is common, in times of crisis minority groups tend to be the scapegoat and are subject to racist and exclusionary practices (Mansouri). There have been cyberbullying, physical attacks, trolling, and wild conspiracy theories made about Asian people. Some world leaders even join them, President Trump has called COVID-19 the ‘Chinavirus’ on more than one occasion. Seeing as the younger generations are more diverse, they take more offense to these statements. In this time of equality, if those statements aren’t degrading to someone, it’s someone’s friend or teammate.

Conclusion

"Three generations of love and laughter" by Obra Shalom Campo Grande is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
This image depicts three generations of one family getting along with each other. Though generations within a family may be getting along and the pandemic may have even brought some families closer to each other, different generations as a whole continue to be pitted against one another.

The Coronavirus has been detrimental to both our physical and social health as a country.  With everyone quarantined and the upcoming election, all of the preexisting issues boiled over. Teens had more time to bully and criticize behind a screen. Everyone had time to watch TV news, and form their opinion on what they were saying. They were certain that their opinion was better than everyone else’s. With the election, the nation’s problems were in the forefront. COVID-19 was a problem that was costing lives, and it had no end in sight. This should have been the time for everyone to unite together, but instead the nation was split even more.

References

Barbieri, Katherine. “COVID-19 Impact: How the Pandemic Is Affecting Politics.” University of South Carolina, 14 Apr. 2020, www.sc.edu/uofsc/posts/2020/04/covid_impact_on_politics_barbieri.php.

Bialik, Kristen, and Fry, Richard. “How Millennials Compare with Prior Generations.” Pew  Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, 14 Feb. 2020, www.pewsocialtrends.org/essay/millennial-life-how-young-adulthood-today-compares-with-prior-generations/.

Fraser, Sarah, et al. “Ageism and COVID-19: What Does Our Society’s Response Say about Us?” Age & Aging, vol. 49, no. 5, 2020, pp. 692–695, https://academic.oup.com/ageing/article/49/5/692/5831206.

Ghersetti, Marina, and Oscar Westlund. “Habits and Generational Media Use.” Journalism Studies, vol. 19, no. 7, 2018, pp. 1039–1058, EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/1461670X.2016.1254061.

Hoffower, Hillary. “From Gen Z Spring Breakers to Toilet Paper-Hoarding Boomers, the Coronavirus Pandemic Is a Case Study in Generational Differences. Here’s How Each Generation Is Dealing with It.” Business Insider, 13 Apr. 2020, www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-generational-effects-millennials-gen-z-baby-boomers-2020-4.

Jimenez-Sotomayor, Maria Renee, et al. “Coronavirus, Ageism, and Twitter: An Evaluation of Tweets about Older Adults and COVID‐19.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, vol. 68, no. 8, 2020, pp. 1661–1665, https://agsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jgs.16508.

Keates, Nancy. “Why the Teenage Brain Pushes Young People to Ignore Virus Restrictions.” Wall Street Journal, 4 Aug. 2020, EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=144908139.

Mansouri, Fethi. “The Socio-Cultural Implications of COVID-19.” UNESCO, 22 Sept. 2020, en.unesco.org/news/socio-cultural-implications-covid-19.

Pew Research Center. “The Generation Gap in American Politics”. Pew Research Center, 1 Mar. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/03/01/the-generation-gap-in-american-politics/.

Simplilearn. “What Is the Major Impact of Social Media.” Simplilearn, 22 Sep. 2020, www.simplilearn.com/real-impact-social-media-article.

Images

“Donald Trump” by Pikrepo is in the Public Domain

“Three generations of love and laughter” by Obra Shalom Campo Grande is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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