Coronavirus: Boomers, X’ers and Millennials React

This is the first in what I hope will be a series about the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. Many of the readers of my blog will be familiar with the generational theories of Strauss and Howe, but if you are not, I would suggest you start here.

For this post, the most important concept is that history has a cycle, and there are four distinct “turnings” or parts of the cycle. We are currently in the “Crisis” which will eventually lead to the next turning, the “High”. The last Crisis Turning was the period of the Great Depression and WWII. They typically last ~20 years, but it is often difficult to determine their start and end while still in the middle of one (much like an economic recession). After the fact they appear self-evident.There is a lot of debate about when the current Crisis started. But regardless of the start date, it does now appear that we are headed into the “climax” portion of the crisis where the whole world is consumed by events that define the next era. I had written about how this could be a war and thankfully that has not come to pass. But the COVID-19 pandemic may be even more costly in terms of loss of life and disruption of social and economic structures.

At this stage the pandemic is global but the loss of life is minimal. Projections point to the highest pandemic loss of life since the Spanish Flu in 1918-19. Governments worldwide have enacted oppressive restrictions that would have been thought impossible just weeks (or even days) before. I am writing this from Oregon where a “Stay at Home” order was just issued.

These restrictions on personal freedoms are perceived differently by the various generations. Note that I am focusing on the generations that are currently in the workforce:

 Boomer Generation (born 1943-1960): This generation is extremely individualistic and anti-establishment. The thought of group-think is an anathema to Boomers, even as they reach elderhood. Boomers, more than any other living generation, don’t want to be told by governments or organizations what they should or should not do. The result? Even though they are of an age where COVID-19 can have devastating effects (Boomers are currently age 60-77 years of age), they are also the generation least concerned with it. Boomers are often fatalistic and seem to believe that the world is going to end when they leave the stage.

Generation X (born 1961-1981): This generation is also individualistic but is survivalist rather than anti-establishment. Gen X’ers were raised as “latch-key kids” who had to fend for themselves from an early age. Many X’ers have been planning for the “Zombie Apocalypse” for a very long time and now that it is finally here, they are sounding the alarm and headed to the fallout shelters. Since all Gen X’ers are under 60, they are not likely to die from COVID-19, but they know that institutions that have been destroyed by the Boomers will be of little use in this crisis. Many X’ers are spending time lecturing their parents on why they need follow “Social Distancing” practices. Look for Gen X’ers to do whatever it takes to make sure that we survive this crisis.

Millennial Generation (born 1982-2001): This generation is of the same archetype as the GI Generation that fought in WWII: The Hero. Raised to be idealist and collaborative, they use social media to enforce social norms (adhering to what a Boomer would call “group-think”). According to Strauss and Howe this generation will rise to the call for action in the Crisis and be the foot soldiers that sacrifice to ensure the future of society. Unfortunately so far their life stage (young adults) and the fact that they are at limited risk from COVID-19 seems to have guided their behavior so far. Whether it is partying on Florida beaches or making up cynical meme’s for COVID-19, it sure doesn’t look like we are seeing the best out of Millennials so far. They do seem the best psychologically prepared generation for “Physical Distancing” since they were raised on social media.

Who’s Following the Script?

Back in 2009 I wrote about the generational “scripts” described by Strauss and Howe in their seminal work, The Fourth Turning. The scripts describe how each generation should behave to have a “successful” outcome from the Crisis. Let’s explore how each are doing on that path.

Boomers

Boomers are supposed to be our leaders during the time of crisis. You can read more about their ideal role in this post. Here is an excerpt from the the Boomer script:

Boomers must also display a forbearance others have never associated with them. By nature, they will always tend toward self-indulgence in their personal lives—but if they allow this to overflow into public life and demand generous public benefits, they will bankrupt their children financially, themselves morally. 

The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe, 1997

President Trump is a Boomer, and regardless of your political leanings, it would be difficult to say he has “cast aside self-indulgence or focused on collective sacrifice in the face of a crisis”. In addition he has not inspired the upcoming Hero generation (Millennials) as they showed in the ballot box in 2016. Unfortunately, this means that, at least in the US, we cannot count on Federal leadership to provide a clear vision of the coming transformation. This is not to say that the Federal government won’t be effective in fighting COVID-19, but that they likely will not bring the country towards a collective vision as part of that effort.

That said, there does seem to be a large role for State Governors, and 60% of them are Boomers (including Andrew Cuomo who gave this very Prophet/Boomer address yesterday). And although I don’t have the numbers for CEOs of major corporations, I suspect a majority of them are Boomers. The Senate is 61% Boomer as well. How much these leaders are willing to sacrifice for the greater good in the coming months will be a huge factor in the outcome. More than anything they must inspire confidence in the Gen X’ers and give a mission to Millennials.

Generation X

Gen X does seem to be fulfilling their generational script quite well. Whether they are fighting to keep both their parents and children safe, or demonstrating how to do social distancing, GenX’ers are easily the best prepared for a crisis of any kind. X’ers will need to continue to show that we can move past our cynicism and individualism and support community and the greater good. Strauss and Howe note that we can no longer be risk-takers, and I am confident that most GenX’ers are quickly circling the wagons in spite of what other generations say or do.

Survival skills are what a society needs most in a Fourth Turning, and those are precisely what the most criticized archetype—the Nomad—possesses in abundance.

The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe, 1997

While X’ers only make up about 30% of the Senate, they are 44% of the House (about equal to Boomers). For both houses of Congress they will be forceful voices for pragmatic, practical solutions to the crisis. They will likely be more willing to set aside partisan differences than their Boomer counterparts whose idealism can blind them to focusing on results. But we can’t look to Gen X’ers to lead the transformation as we remain “middle management” in the crisis.

Millennials

Although much has been made of how Millennials are disregarding the seriousness of this pandemic, I believe there is still a huge opportunity for them to step up as the crisis unfolds. In their script, Strauss and Howe write about the Millennials, referring to them by their “Hero” archetype:

Whether the Crisis will be won or lost will depend in large measure on the Hero’s teamwork, competence, and courage. By forever sealing his reputation for valor and glory, the Fourth Turning can energize the Hero for a lifetime of grand civic achievements.

The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe, 1997 7

Because the vast majority of Millennials will not get terribly sick during the pandemic, they may have new-found opportunities for employment. There have been complaints over the years that Boomers in particular are slow to retire leaving little opportunity for Millennials. That may all change quickly as we come out of lock down and find that young people are more willing to risk interacting with others in the public sphere.

But the big question remains whether Millennials will be able to look beyond their own generation and support the country in fighting this crisis. It is unclear to me whether they will have the “teamwork, competence and courage” in this crisis. Don’t get me wrong, in my work and other interactions with Millennials I have been impressed by their work-ethic, team-focus and determination. But will they actually have a call-to-action that gives them a chance to prove their value? That is, of course, up to our (primarily Boomer) leadership.

11 thoughts on “Coronavirus: Boomers, X’ers and Millennials React”

  1. Millennials make up slightly more health care workers than any other generation, and that will become more true as older personnel are tragically lost to the virus. Millennials are also the ones most likely to be demanding universal health care. If the virus turns out to be the enemy of the crisis, we may already be seeing their Heroic qualities emerge.

    1. I appreciate that perspective. Perhaps the role of Millennials will also show up in other “front-line” workers, such as grocery stores, first-responders and retail in general. Because of their relative “immunity” (I realize that everyone can get serious symptoms from the virus, but it does appear younger people are at a much lower risk) they can fill in for other generations in many ways. That, and their leadership for universal health care, more inclusivity, and generally progressive values might also come to the fore in the next election.

    1. Depends on how you define the generations. I use Strauss and Howe, which has Mills from 1981 to 2002 as birth years. That means the youngest are 18, which puts them decidedly on the beaches of Florida. That said, I have a 19-year-old myself and she acts more like a Homelander, so perhaps the cutoff is around 2000. But either way, there would be lots of Millennials down there along with Homelanders. I don’t use the nomenclature of Gen Y or Gen Z because it just doesn’t describe the generational characteristics at all and seems to imply that each generation is just like the last one but “+1”

  2. As a psychologist and boomer, I’ve had a passing interest the 4th turning hypothesis for some time, although I am not steeped in it as most probably are here. Still, it seems to me that the rigid 4-generation cycle may not be as key as the theory holds but that the cycle is more related to that which has been historically documented for thousands of years now: the propensity for human beings/cultures to recognize and adhere to universal moral codes and the tenets of natural law for a generation or two before sinking back into self-indulgence and preoccupation with worldly, rather than transcendent, matters, what the ancient Jews correctly identified as idolatry. When that happens, without fail, we get our asses kicked, wake up for a time, and move forward a couple of steps.

    The more informative template for these cycles may therefore be that of salvation history.

    1. I don’t think it is an either/or when it comes to the model being used to understand these cycles. One could argue that the crisis cycle creates the generational characteristics, or that the generational stack creates the cycle. It’s a chicken-egg argument. I also could see that there is another force at work (such as a spiritual one) that drives the cycles which in turn create the generational characteristics. These are not mutually exclusive theories – they can overlap.

      1. Indeed, I think they have probably overlapped historically at least as often as not. I was mostly thinking about how the 4th turning predictions seem to be getting more difficult to reconcile with recent events and their timing, i.e. that the “turning” of generations may be less influential that the theory seems to me to imply.

    1. I did a post a little while back about the timing of the Crisis: Trump and Generations Part 4: Parabellum. In that post I talked a little about how there is a debate in generational circles about whether we are in a cycle similar to the Civil War cycle, and that, perhaps, they alternate. Henry Kissinger wrote an article about the similarities and differences between our current crisis and that of WWII (https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-coronavirus-pandemic-will-forever-alter-the-world-order-11585953005). I agree with him that the US is much more divided than they were back then, and perhaps this is similar to the Civil War. And although at the Federal level we seem unable to mobilize a defense to COVID-19, the cooperation starting to happen at the State level is interesting.

      Either way, I think that the predictive powers of the Strauss and Howe theories are impressive. They predicted a climax to the current 4th Turning between 2020 and 2025. Looks like we were on the early side…

  3. Gen-Xer here. I just want to say I’m thrilled you made an update to your site on this topic. I really enjoy your take on applying generational theory to our current time. I’m usually in full agreement of your posts.

    I’d like to encourage you to make more blog posts if you can find the time. They are very insightful.

  4. I found your site with the search “what’s the deal with the new generation of rule followers?” So glad your site turned up!

    Born 1965 and own a Traditional Naturopathic practice. I’ve been banging my head on the wall, trying to figure out the mentality of my staff. When our community needed our services most, the staff wanted to shut down at the first sign of covid. They were more than happy to comply with the safer-at-home suggestions. When it was time to engage, they wanted to hide! In the last 3 months, I saw one solutions-based action, that allowed our clients social distance during treatments. Otherwise, it’s been a struggle to keep them working, and they are totally checked out mentally, in panic.

    When my son’s millenial friend complained about the long crosswalk wait, on the one-block walk to work, I said I’d just cross the street when the traffic cleared. His response was “I’d like to be at my new job for at least 2 weeks before they find out I’m a jaywalker.”

    That’s what sent me to the internet for insight.

    I now have a better perspective on this generation. Thanks again!

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