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Generational Warfare in a Pandemic

The fault line in this crisis is a small cohort of wealthy boomers against everyone else.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you graduated college or high school at the nadir of the Great Recession and then had to cobble together a living in a decimated job market with ruinous amounts of student debt, odds are good that you’ve been objectively screwed yet again by a fresh economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. “Millennials now are facing the second once-in-a-lifetime downturn of their short careers,” The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey wrote last week. “The first one put them on a worse lifetime-earnings trajectory and blocked them out of the asset market. The second is sapping their paychecks just as they enter their peak-earnings years.” So far, it’s been a massive hit to take: A recent report from Data for Progress found that 52 percent of voters under the age of 45 had “lost their job, been placed on leave, or had hours cut” because of the pandemic, compared to only 26 percent of people over 45. It was another reminder that despite the universalist rhetoric being used in some circles to describe the pandemic, it is a highly political and unevenly distributed crisis.

Yet, despite the mounting evidence that millennials are in for another major life setback, politicians and commentators made this same group a target for contempt in the early days of the outbreak. “Time for millennials on spring break to grow up,” Republican Congressman Pete King scolded in March. “Stop swarming beaches and bars and spreading Coronavirus. Forget your selfishness. Show some responsibility like previous generations made America greatest nation on earth [sic].” Beyond the fact that the youngest millennials are now in their mid-20s (and the oldest fast approaching 40), King’s attack was a generation-war distraction from the more pressing problem of governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis refusing to close beaches as the virus rapidly spread. Others, too, latched on to the idea of millennials (and not, say, federal and state governments) as somehow uniquely indifferent to the pandemic. “One of the things that terrifies me now is, as this is spread in the west is, there’s this sense of invulnerability among millennials,” a World Health Organization official told Time.

The irony, at least according to a few accounts, is that baby boomers around the country have been actively flouting social distancing guidelines. They’re also, on the whole, better equipped financially to face a new downturn: Boomers are the generation that currently owns the bulk of the country’s wealth, and they count among their members most of the policymakers that set the stage for the current disaster through decades of free-market policies and various austerity measures. But even as the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief so many of our society’s existing fault lines, it’s also exposed the limits of generational warfare. In the face of a pandemic and looming recession, it’s basically become a one-sided, though mutually assured, death pact.

Shutdown orders across the nation prompted a flurry of half-joking speculation that Generation X, a cluster of former latchkey kids raised on pop culture that plumbed social alienation, was uniquely prepared to weather quarantining at home. But, as author Ada Calhoun told CNN on Monday, members of Generation X—the last generation for whom a college degree paid off as an investment—are also now members of a “sandwich generation,” squeezed from multiple sides. In a pandemic, and particularly for women, that means caring for both children and aging parents, the former of whom are still required to keep up with classes, while the latter are at heightened risk for contracting the virus. “It’s now on Gen X women to keep their parents from dying while learning how to homeschool, while either working from home or dealing with a job loss and profound financial insecurity, and no social network aside from what we can cobble together online,” Calhoun said. “It’s a perfect storm of pressure.”

Even members of the purportedly comfortable baby-boom generation are almost certain to face serious economic distress in the wake of the pandemic. A Bloomberg Businessweek report last month found that many late baby boomers, now between the ages of 55 and 60 and on the cusp of retirement, had less saved in their 401(k) accounts than previous cohorts did at the same age. That’s the result of a dysfunctional, patchwork retirement system that forces Americans to fund retirement through individual and employer-sponsored contribution plans like 401(k)s (and meager Social Security payments) rather than pensions; as Bloomberg noted, late boomers are the first age group to rely primarily on such investments, which have been further depleted by the economic crash. “Even those who have savings and other resources now fear that the financial stability they had envisioned for their post-working years is gone,” The Los Angeles Times noted.

What’s more is that the wealth held by boomers—while greater in total than that held by other generations—is, unsurprisingly, not distributed all that evenly among the group. According to economist Mark Blyth, the top 20 percent of baby boomers own 85 percent of that generation’s financial assets, and 50 percent of boomers own no financial assets at all. Likewise, a study of older adults found that while only 8 percent of whites over the age of 65 lived in poverty, 18 percent of Latinx seniors and 19 percent of African Americans did.

Perhaps more significant than any generational fracture, then, is the division between what we might call the ownership class and everyone else. Well-off boomers will likely emerge from the disaster relatively unscathed, but to a large degree, so will their kids. That gap has structured inequality in the United States over the last four decades and will likely shape every aspect of the country’s coronavirus recovery, from who has early access to testing to who ends up working into old age because they can’t afford to retire in a downturn. But these disparities, now sharpened in the destruction of the pandemic, also suggest that the fight ahead is less a conflict between age groups and instead a cross-generation struggle for a decent living for all.

As Vice’s Zeeshan Aleem wrote in 2019, “Every generation has a small set of elites whose interests diverge from the rest and play an outsize role in structuring political economy—one day, Gen Z will have its own lot.” While the Generation Z economic elite has yet to emerge during this pandemic, Forbes reported earlier this month that a group of 10 billionaires—which included millennial Mark Zuckerberg and Gen Xer Elon Musk—had reaped around $51 billion between them as the result of a stock market rebound. Meanwhile, as unemployment claims have reached 22 million, the federal government appears intent on bailing out floundering corporations with little oversight. And the vast majority of us—regardless of age—will once again be left behind. Might be time, at least between the generations, for a peace treaty.