LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 17, 2020) — From the Great Depression to the Civil Rights Movement — each generation has been shaped by the national and international events that take place during their formative years.
Will the same be said for the COVID-19 pandemic?
Anthony Bardo, an assistant professor with a dual appointment in Health, Society and Populations and the Department of Sociology in the UK College of Arts and Sciences, believes it’s important to consider how perspectives will change. As a medical sociologist and health demographer, his research is driven by the desire to understand what contributes to quality of life across societies.
“In line with the age-old adage ‘without your health you have nothing,’ scholars and politicians have recently turned to measures of health and longevity to gauge quality of life,” he said. “Yet, as my research has consistently shown — health is only one, and not even the most important, component of quality of life.”
While it’s difficult to predict the future, Bardo’s expertise and insight can help society prepare for what the world will look like months — or even years — from now.
And perhaps it’s worth considering how each generation might live their lives differently.
UKNow: The COVID-19 pandemic is changing many aspects of our lives. Can we expect some of those changes to be our “new normal” — not just for the next few months, but years?
Bardo: Indeed, many aspects of our lives have been touched — if not substantially altered. Our day-to-day behaviors, activities and routines are now shaped by mandates and policies aimed at slowing the pandemic.
Bardo: Actions tied to economic activities (e.g., shopping, work, leisure) will likely return to “normal” once government restrictions are lifted and community concern has diminished. However, our routines will likely continue to be shaped by a now cognizant concern for public health (e.g., hand washing, covering coughs/sneezes, isolating while sick, etc.). At first, these behaviors will likely be driven at the individual level. We may continue to see readily available sanitizing agents in public spaces, and organizations may even start to enforce sick leave policies. These circumstances beg the question, why were these fundamental functions not already ingrained in our society?
Bardo: It’s apparent that improvements in quality of life are no longer closely tied to technological development. Refrigerators, washing machines, and dishwashers were certainly game changers — as they allotted folks additional time for activities that were more enjoyable and/or meaningful. Yet, since the rise of the personal computer, national-level well-being has remained relatively constant.
What do we do with this new technology? We use it to purchase more things, spend more time working and less time in the physical presence of others. In a sense, we’ve been on a path toward social isolation for several decades by surrounding ourselves with more stuff and fewer people (at least in a physical sense).
Technological development has long been deemed the solution to enhance quality of life. It was widely thought that such advancements would ultimately lead to the “good life.” Now we may actually have begun recognizing that human interactions and meaningful pursuits are what we crave. Although e-commerce is at an all-time high, we’re not the least bit happier when packages magically appear on our doorsteps. Many are now working from home, but also yearning for some dry humor at the water cooler. Students had been begging for more online learning opportunities, but now they want nothing more than to come to campus.
Bardo: I’m not, nor is anyone else, sure what the future holds, but if we don’t take the time now to reflect on our experience, we’ll simply continue to fall subject to the same economic forces that have made life vanilla at best.
UKNow: As unemployment persists, many are concerned about their financial future. How will COVID-19 impact career trajectories?
Bardo: A useful exercise to consider is to draw on what we now know about the long-term implications of the Great Recession and how they differ by age group.
Mid-Career (late Boomers and early Gen-Xers)
Bardo: The current pandemic has ravaged the labor market. Unlike during the Great Recession, mid-career folks may find themselves facing greater challenges compared to those on the verge of retirement. For example, the current mid-career cohort should be in their prime earning years, but they now find themselves hit with a double whammy. The Great Recession stalled their upward mobility early on. Contemporaneously, retirement and “old age” were reinvented in such a way to extend traditional working age (e.g., 60 is the new 50). Moreover, these shifting age norms at the latter end of the life course have major implications for younger people as well. For example, young folks increasingly find themselves in a precarious state, as “adult” positions and the privileges they come with continue to dwindle — highlighted by a massive increase in mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Relatedly, the current mid-career cohort uniquely lacks the retirement savings that previous cohorts had. This is partially due to the above noted hamper in upward mobility, but also because this mid-career cohort are grappling with increased costs of education for both themselves and their children. Many are also simultaneously supporting their adult children and aging parents, and sometimes even their grandchildren. Macroeconomic circumstances cannot, or will not, provide the same opportunities to achieve the American dream as they once did. The current pandemic only makes the future seem bleaker.
Late Boomers and early Gen-Xers have a close relationship with adversity, and they have received relatively little support along the way compared to previous cohorts. They faced numerous socioeconomic woes at critical life stages. They were children during the Oil Crisis and may have “gone without” during their impressionable years. They were launching their careers during the dot-com bubble, and they are much more likely to have had made career changes compared to earlier cohorts. They were finally starting to find their way during the Great Recession, and they only recently recovered to pre-Great Recession status. Given the above circumstances, it’s not surprising that this age group is driving the “Deaths of Despair” — an unprecedented reversal in life expectancy because of increased mortality among whites in mid-life due to suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.
Bardo: In sum, the American dream certainly takes hard work and dedication, but opportunity is a prerequisite. Will opportunities abound post-pandemic? Maybe so. The more important question is, do we want the same opportunities that have provided less than an optimal quality of life?
UKNow: As teens become young adults, how might this pandemic change/shape their views on the areas below:
Bardo: A common strategy among young adults in response to the Great Recession was to shelter in higher education. For many this meant pursuing graduate degrees in lieu of entering the labor market after undergrad. The idea was that the recession would end, things would go back to “normal” and their lapse in employment would have been used to make themselves more “marketable.” Whether this strategy was effective remains an open question. What is clear is that the transition to adulthood has remained precarious at best, with even fewer road signs and landmarks than ever before. Moreover, the uncertainty surrounding higher education during this pandemic only adds to this dilemma — what to do?
Whether to pursue higher education may seem like a relatively straightforward decision, but this decision traditionally comes at an age when timing is particularly crucial. If young adults aren’t in higher education making themselves more “marketable” (we can no longer afford to learn for the sake of learning, or maybe never have), then what will they do? Maybe they will take up low paying jobs that are now deemed “essential.” Or as suggested by our political leaders, they may even “find something new.” Regardless of what path young people choose, we’re likely to see another baby bust.
Bardo: Child rearing is a key component of family formation, and it’s timing in the life course has major implications for one’s remaining years. Thirteen years ago, America was only coming to terms with decades-long shifts in traditional family values driven by an increase in female labor participation, two earner households and divorce rates. This is evidenced by attitude and subsequent policy shifts surrounding same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights.
While current circumstances reflect traditional telltale signs for a baby boom (what else is there to do than Netflix and chill?), we are going to have a back-to-back baby bust (opposite of baby boom). This not only has major implications for the future trajectories of young adults themselves, but also the many institutions that were designed to serve them. Moreover, who is going to pay the taxes to support our rapidly aging population?
Bardo: The unique socialization of Gen-Z (the children of Gen-X) has led to increased versatility in anticipation for a bumpy road. While certainly versatile, Gen-Z is often stereotyped as being overly individualistic or even narcissistic. On the one hand, the individualistic stereotype rings true. For example, there is no cultural glue that binds this cohort together nor any that ties them to their adjacent Millennials. This is largely due to technological development and the related rise in user-generated content. On the other hand, the narcissistic stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. For example, this cohort is leading the way in terms of equality and social justice — evidenced by the current protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Few cohorts — aside from the Silent Generation — have faced such levels of uncertainty during their formative years. Likely due to their formative experiences of social deprivation, Gen-Z and the Silent Generation share many characteristics. For example, the Silent Generation is often credited with forming the leadership of the Civil Rights movement. This may also be due to the circumstances of their respective parents, and the unique primary socialization they provided. The Greatest Generation enjoyed the Roaring Twenties and Gen-X soaked up the materialism of the 1980s and early '90s as young adults, and both historical periods were closely followed by turbulent times (i.e., Great Depression and Great Recession). Furthermore, both generations are characterized by a relatively high prevalence of mental health issues. Mental health was not well understood when the Silent Generation was young, but their relatively high levels of cognitive impairment likely reflects the long-term consequences of their exposure to social stressors. How might the COVID-19 pandemic impact both the immediate and long-term mental health of Gen-Z? Might the current movements come to parallel those of the Civil Rights era?
Bardo: Many of the issues that we face today can be linked back to the disappearing middle-class, as the social institutions that were designed to improve our lives (e.g., science, education, and medicine) have fallen under attack and those that were intended to keep us in our place (e.g., religion, marriage, and criminal justice) have simultaneously eroded. The idea of a “new normal” has been underway for a long time (arguably 50 years), and the current pandemic has only just thrown a wrench in these plans (e.g., What normal were we trying to achieve? Were “we” actually driving the train?)
UKNow: Protests across the United States are shining a spotlight on social injustice. Does COVID-19 play a role in widening social inequalities?
Bardo: We are certainly a nation divided, and the stressors of the current pandemic have heightened our awareness of our seemingly polar views. Maybe if we all took this time to come together around the common terms of our plight for the good life, we would finally recognize that we have more similarities than differences and that the only way to get there is if we stand together — well, at least six feet apart for now.
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