Isn't COVID Bad Enough Without Us Making It About Boomers vs Snowflakes? | Opinion

After years of "Snowflake Generation" derision, Millennials and Generation-Z have started punching back. First came the relatively benign retort of "Ok Boomer," a figurative eye roll from a younger generation sick of being blamed for many of society's ills. In the current age of COVID-19, "Ok Boomer" has morphed into a morbidly more derisive coronavirus nickname: "Boomer Remover."

If you find this offensive, it's hard to blame you. What the phrase signals, however, is that generational fissures have existed below the surface for some time. COVID-19 has merely brought them to light, but also offers a critical moment to address the country's generational divide.

The news is not all bad. Many heartwarming stories have emerged of a younger generation suddenly thrust into the role of minding the health of their grandparents. At the same time, the situation has made one's age, something that we often fudge or deny, even to ourselves, difficult to push below the surface, as society's oldest have been forced to acknowledge their age-based health realities and limitations. Even if well-intentioned, forcing non-essential older adults to stay in their homes has exacerbated existing concerns of elder isolation and its deleterious impact.

Among younger people, too, the virus has intensified existing concerns about loneliness and alienation. Already saddled with record-high student debt levels, an inability to purchase homes, and particularly resonant climate change anxieties, a new, coronavirus-specific narrative has emerged: younger people making further sacrifices (loss of jobs, restricted freedom, the long-term burden of paying off the debt incurred by policy responses to the crisis) in order to save the lives of, primarily, the older generation, who are at far greater risk of developing serious COVID-19 complications.

Although based on health realities, this generational narrative is nonetheless risky for multiple reasons. For instance, younger people themselves face serious risks associated with the coronavirus crisis, with the CDC reporting that 1 in 5 hospitalizations are people aged 20-44, and new complications emerging for the young, such as stroke risk and inflammatory disease. Much like misguidedly assuming that loneliness is only an elderly concern, framing the pandemic as an "older person's disease" puts us all at risk for not taking necessary prevention measures.

Also, generational tensions might afflict how we "get back to normal."In Sweden, where the government has thus far avoided lockdown, guidelines suggest that, among other high-risk groups, people over 70 should self-isolate, so as to enable greater freedom for other members of society. In a similar vein, as attention turns to reopening the economy, countries like Denmark have led the effort with its youngest citizens first, reopening elementary schools.

Should the U.S. employ the same sorts of age-based comeback considerations? On one hand, economists suggest that we should let younger people get back to work in order to salvage a fast-sinking economy. On the other hand, a record-high number of older adults need to continue working for financial solvency. So what would restricting their freedoms say about an American multi-generational society?

In order to prevent COVID-19 from creating an irreversible generational divide, we see three potential solutions:

  1. Focus on uniting generations. Even in the early days of COVID-19 panic, different age groups found it difficult to adequately urge one another to take proper precautions. Nevertheless, these tough, cross-generational conversations are precisely what we need to get through this. The truth is, generations are much more similar than they are different – in fact, research reveals greater variation within age groups than between them. The silver lining of a collective crisis is potentially catalyzing a shared search for meaning, such as tapping into shared life purpose searches among younger adults and older adults alike.
  1. Invest in communications technology. Amidst social divisions fostered in the Coronavirus era, we should also embrace the previously-overlooked benefits of technology like Skype and Zoom in bridging traditional age splits. Normal constraints, such as social separation and mobility differences, no longer apply as strongly. Investing in making these tools accessible, whether in terms of training for the old or affordability for all, can expand capacity at the same time that it alleviates traditional age divisions.
  1. Focus on a new "normal." People of all ages should understand that not everything is likely to return to normal, even in the long-term.Already, a brewing tension exists to some degree: older workers prefer traditional work arrangements and younger workers prefer flexible ones. Realistically, "normalcy" will likely fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes. Having all generational voices included in the conversation will maximize how society moves forward, both in the workplace and in broader society.

This pandemic is a watershed event for America. How we collectively manage the coming months will determine whether we will further polarize along generational lines or emerge a truly multi-generational society. Let's choose the latter. #InThisTogether

Michael S. North is an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at NYU Stern and Batia Wiesenfeld is the Andre J.L. Koo Professor of Management and Director of the Business & Society Program at NYU Stern

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​