Covid-19 and generational change: why we’re all millennials now
Investors who want to understand the long-term impact of the Covid-19 could do worse than consider how different generational cohorts have responded in recent months, argues Dr Paul Redmond¹.
It was Lenin who said there are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen. He might have been talking about the Russian revolution but the well-worn quote works just as well as a commentary on our times. As the Covid-19 crisis rumbles on, so many of the things we’ve taken for granted have fallen away to be replaced by uncertainty – and with a rapidity as surprising as it is unnerving.
For Dr Paul Redmond, director of Student Experience and Enhancement at the University of Liverpool, one of the keys to understanding the events of recent months is to view them through the lens of generations.
“There’s no doubt Covid-19 has turbocharged an evolution in the way we live and work,” he says. “It’s been a great equaliser and has forced all the different generations to get up to speed with technology that was already there but which was probably underutilised. In that sense, we’re all millennials now.”
So, how have different generations responded to the exigencies of lockdown? For baby boomers², Redmond says, lockdown is something to be endured but which has also brought some positives. “I get the sense some boomers are finding a silver lining in all of this despite the hardships,” he says. “Many of them are retired, so career worries aren’t to the fore. They’re also more likely to have paid off mortgages and to be receiving index-linked pensions so perhaps finances are less of a concern.”
Similarly, says Redmond, for the silent generation³, while the fears around the virus are real there’s also maybe a sense that society has discovered a newfound appreciation for the wisdom of a cohort that’s lived through difficult times and understands how to deal with loss.
When it comes to the world of online working, it’s the millennials and Gen Z-ers⁴ who are in their element. “It’s how many of them wanted to work anyway,” says Redmond. “For millennials, the concept of putting on a suit and tie and commuting into work was weird to begin with anyway. They used to ask me: ‘Why are we even building car parks in the university?’ Now, circumstances have shown how things we viewed as permanent fixtures maybe aren’t so relevant. Perhaps we don’t need as many of the bricks-and-mortar trappings as we once thought we did.”
The generation that’s really struggling in Redmond’s view is Generation X⁵– the squeezed generation. “They’re concerned about their careers and their finances,” he says. “They worry about their children if they have them but they’re also kept awake at night worrying about their parents’ generation and how they’re affected.” Anecdotally, this is the generation that dreams about going to the pub or has become nostalgic for their daily commute. They miss contact with friends but also having their own space, says Redmond. “There’s a sense of wanting to return to the rituals that once brought coherence and order to their lives.”
The Covid-19 graduation cohort
None of this is to downplay the anxiety different generations are feeling, however. For millennials and Generation Z in particular, uncertainty around higher education and future job prospects are tangible. Many universities have responded to the crisis by postponing or abandoning end-of-year exams. Lectures have been cancelled. Next year’s in-take will be the first to experience Freshers’ Week in an age of social distancing. The job market will struggle along with the economy and many students hoping to do internships as the first step on their career path will likely be disappointed. As in so many areas, long-honoured rights-of-passage are on hold in the interest of the greater good.
But here again, Redmond highlights technological ‘fixes’ that been adopted with relative ease across the generational divides. In many universities, traditional exams were already in the process of being phased out in favour of more realistic and relevant forms of continual assessment – and Covid-19 has merely expedited this. Likewise, those cancelled lectures have been replaced by live-streaming and online catch-ups. Come the new academic year, social distancing apps, which are already being trialled, will be available to help prevent a second wave of infections. Virtual internships are being touted as an online alternative to the real thing.
“There are whole new ways of learning and interacting that are coming into their own,” says Redmond. “Whether that’s understanding Zoom etiquette or, for lecturers, keeping the attention of students through the course of a livestream. All of us are learning new skillsets. In the world of academia, I suspect the days of the 400-seat lecture theatre are numbered. There will definitely be lecturers who miss the whole theatricality of that face-to-face contact but the move to a hybrid online educational model was already underway. Now, changes that once seemed far off have been adopted more quickly and more seamlessly than any of us expected.”
In the world of work too, Covid-19 has dismantled norms with a speed that would have been unthinkable just months ago.
“Organisations have had to become much more flexible,” says Redmond. “Working from home is now the rule rather than the exception. Even after lockdown ends, I don’t think things will go back to the way they were.”
Here, Redmond references the work of Douglas Macgregor⁶ and his concept of the X and Y people manager. X-type managers, typically, view the workforce as in need of constant monitoring. Failure to do so risks nothing being done. Y-type managers, on the other hand, leave their workforce to get on with it, trusting people to act responsibly.
“My view is that in this environment, X-type managers have more or less had it,” observes Redmond. “Presenteeism is a thing of the past and we’re now living in the age of the Y manager. The new reality is that it matters less what time you log in as long as the work gets done.”
In other areas, too, the crisis has created a more caring society. Redmond points to the number of students from his university that have volunteered their time – from medical students being fast-tracked to work on A&E to others working as van drivers or working for charities delivering food. In this sense, he says, the crisis might have healed some of the cross-generational angst generated by the Brexit vote. “If you were looking for silver linings you could say Covid-19 has brought the generations closer,” he says. “One thing is certain. When this is all over, we’ll value being together – being able to interact face-to-face – much more than we ever used to.”
²Broadly defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, during the post-World War II baby boom.
³Generally, those born between 1928 and 1945.
⁴Millennials: those born between 1981 and 1996. Gen Z: the cohort born from 1996 through to the early 2010s.
⁵Gen X refers to the cohort born between 1965 and 1980.
⁶Douglas Murray McGregor was a management professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is best known for his Theory X and Theory Y as presented in his book ‘The Human Side of Enterprise’.