Millennials bore COVID’s economic brunt. Will boomers help them out?

Altaf Qadri/AP
Indian police officers detain members of National Students' Union of India, the student body of the Congress party, as they protest against rising unemployment in the country in New Delhi on March 12, 2021.
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Left or right, rich or poor, East or West. Maybe none of these dividing lines will shape the post-pandemic world as much as old or young.

The generation gap is not new. But the pandemic has widened the gulf between millennials and Generation Z on the one hand, and baby boomers on the other. COVID-19 has affected them in dramatically different ways.

Why We Wrote This

Older adults have suffered most from the physical effects of COVID-19; young people have borne the economic brunt. Will boomers help them rebuild their futures?

Older people have been more vulnerable to the physical effects of the virus. Young people have borne the brunt of its economic fallout.

Hundreds of millions of young people have lost their jobs as a result of pandemic shutdowns. Many of those jobs may never come back. Tens of millions more have seen their education interrupted.

The challenge facing governments worldwide is to help young people rekindle their aspirations and recover their opportunities. They must ensure that young people learn the skills they will need in the post-pandemic economy, and that the jobs are there for them when they have learned.

Massive pandemic recovery packages mean that for once the money is there to fund such efforts. Now it’s about governments’ priorities, about how much these things matter to them.

What if the defining fissure in our post-pandemic world doesn’t prove to be between America and China, left and right, or rich and poor? What if it’s an older, deeper, and broader rift – the generation gap?

It’s looking ever more likely that the 2020s will be shaped by that familiar dividing line, now inescapably magnified by the pandemic. On one side are the so-called millennials and Generation Z, born since the 1980s. On the other, the post-World War II baby boomers who hold the lion’s share of economic and political power.

To borrow the jokey barb that’s gone viral among young leaders and activists, we may be entering the “OK, boomer” decade, when the postwar establishment will increasingly have to reckon with the influence, needs, and policy preferences of their children and grandchildren.

Why We Wrote This

Older adults have suffered most from the physical effects of COVID-19; young people have borne the economic brunt. Will boomers help them rebuild their futures?

The change had been stirring before the pandemic. Young peoples’ life prospects were disproportionately set back by the 2008 world financial crash, and new generations of activists have taken the lead on a range of issues affecting their future. Exhibit A: the seismic effect of a Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, in driving climate change up the policy agenda.

But the pandemic has moved those generational issues to center stage, intensifying the pressure on governments to be more innovative as they navigate the road to economic recovery.

Reports from around the globe have drawn a clear picture of the dramatically different ways younger and older people have been affected by the pandemic. Older people have been more vulnerable to the physical effects of the virus. Young people have borne the brunt of its economic fallout.

Hundreds of millions of them worldwide, in both wealthy and developing countries, have lost their jobs. Especially if they worked in the informal or gig economies, or in service industries like travel or restaurants, they cannot know when such jobs will be available again. Some may not return at all.

John Minchillo/AP
Mikel Haye poses for a portrait in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Mr. Haye lost all three of his part-time jobs shortly after the pandemic struck and had to decide how to spend whatever money was left after paying the bills on the apartment he shares with his unemployed mother and two brothers. On food? The car insurance? His phone bill?

Millions of other young people about to take their first step onto the employment ladder have seen their high school or college education disrupted, or even halted altogether.

The specifics differ from country to country, but the overall picture doesn’t.

In Britain, people under 25 have accounted for two-thirds of jobs lost during the pandemic. In the European Union, youth unemployment had just fallen to its pre-2008 level before the pandemic in most member states. Now it is rising again.

A survey of college-educated millennials late last year in India found nearly 1 in 5 had lost their jobs during the pandemic. In Saudi Arabia, unemployment has risen to an unprecedented 15%, and about two-thirds of the jobless are young people.

Over half of Nigerians between the ages of 15 and 24 are jobless, a far higher rate than among older workers. In Latin America, the latest survey from the International Labor Organization found nearly 1 in 4 young people out of work at the end of last year.

In the United States, unemployment now stands at about 6%. But for 20-to-24-year-olds, it’s nearly 10%; for teenagers leaving high school, nearly 15%. And the pandemic has upended many young lives in other ways. Over half of American 18-to-29-year-olds are now living in their parents’ homes, the highest level recorded, outstripping the Great Depression of nearly a century ago.

The looming challenge is how to respond: how to help young people recover, and rekindle their aspirations and opportunities. How to avoid what some experts are calling the prospect of a “lost generation” in which millions continue to be underemployed, unemployed, or not motivated to seek work at all – severely straining countries’ economic, social, and political fabric.

Youth advocates, economists, and other policy experts broadly agree on the overall imperative: post-pandemic programs specifically targeted at young people.

A range of specific ideas has been proposed. Some address urgent needs, like support for young people to stay in school, or to tide them over as they look for work once pandemic-hit economies get back on track. A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank wants the government to subsidize companies to stage a “national hiring blitz” for young people.

Other proposals focus on a longer-term response: a joined-up assault on the obstacles to youth employment ensuring that young people learn the skills needed for the post-pandemic economy and that the jobs are there once they do so.

How policymakers choose to move forward seems sure to test relations across the generations as no other issue in recent years.

That’s partly because so many of the governments making the decisions remain in the hands of baby boomers – in some cases, leaders born even before the end of the last world war.

But there is another reason there will be such close policy scrutiny.

The economic upheaval caused by the pandemic has set the stage for historically large government finance and investment packages to put national economies back on their feet. For once, it’s not a question of finding the money to fund better schooling, more job creation, and broader social opportunities for young people.

This time, it’s about priorities; about how much these things matter.

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