As the scale and nature of the COVID-19 pandemic becomes clear, 30- and 40-somethings have urged their 60- and 70-something parents to take more serious precautions. Fifty-something parents are remarking to their 20-something children that this is the most significant disruption of day-to-day living to occur in their lifetimes, while offering the reassurance that the virus poses its least threat to the young. But is that true?
While the Wuhan coronavirus is a greater existential threat to boomers than to Millennials, it isn’t always true that that which does not kill us makes us stronger. As Karl Mannheim noted in his 1923 essay “The Problem of Generations,” generations are not so much defined by biological categories as by world events. And this pandemic may come to define Millennials.
Boomers are often accused of having had it easy. As children, their neighborhoods were safe; as adults, their houses were affordable. Sure, they had some struggles: keeping jobs, paying mortgages, staying married, supporting us and their elderly parents for longer than they’d anticipated. Some of their children, now well into adulthood, have enjoyed similarly decent lives, growing up in the Cold War, when neoliberalism was still trendy and men still asked women out face-to-face.
But Millennials have had a different experience. The Berlin Wall came down before they knew what it was. They witnessed 9/11 and the Iraq War through innocent eyes. Then came the 2008 financial crash. Now they’re the generation that doesn’t own, but rents; holds down jobs, not careers; and pays offs student loans, not mortgages. They even appear to have lost some interest in sex and marriage. The idea that they will enjoy a greater quality of life than their parents is laughable, but most of them are not laughing; they’re resentful. Intensifying their anger is a fear that previous generations have also managed to ruin the planet, saddling them with the supposedly catastrophic effects of climate change.
This is why so many Millennials are drawn to the ideas of those such as the French economist Thomas Piketty, who rejects “propertarianism” and would “democratize” the economy by nationalizing key industries and banishing the market from many spheres where it currently holds sway. They like ideas such as universal basic income and a wealth tax of up to 90 percent. In Spain, they support Podemos; in Greece, Syriza; in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn; and in America, Bernie Sanders. In the 2016 primaries, more young people voted for Sanders than for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. According to one poll, 51 percent of Americans aged 18–29 have a positive view of socialism.
Politically, the result is an intergenerational gulf. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 64 percent of Brits over the age of 65 voted Leave, compared with only 29 percent of those under the age of 25. The same disparity was seen in Conservative voters in the 2017 and 2019 general elections. This global pandemic may not kill as many millennials as it kills boomers. But there’s a real possibility that it will destroy our already-diminished economic inheritance. And if that happens, another danger looms: Opportunistic socialists will have a chance to make their case to a resentful generation that has neither the personal memory nor the grasp of history necessary to resist their advances.