Millennials and baby boomers are not at odds over coronavirus

Daniel A. Cox March 20, 2020

All it took was a few Instagram pictures of young people socializing and a juvenile nickname for the novel coronavirus — “Boomer Remover” — to set off a round of generational finger-pointing. Politicians and public health officials accused young people of failing to heed public health warnings to maintain social distance and self-quarantine. A recent Wall Street Journal story suggested the growing pandemic would set off a major generational clash. But has the response of young adults to the pandemic been so uniquely cavalier? Are young and older people responding to this crisis in such different ways?

Because the coronavirus presents a greater threat to older Americans, we might expect to see a corresponding gap in concerns about it. However, there are only modest differences between the generations. More than half (51 percent) of Gen Zers and millennials say coronavirus is a real threat compared to 57 percent of baby boomers, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. Another survey showed that Boomers are also less worried about contracting the virus.

The NPR survey found that Gen Zers and millennials are more likely to report having changed their personal behavior to avoid crowds. Fifty-four percent of these young people say they have cancelled social plans, while only 41 percent of Generation X and 48 percent of baby boomers have reported doing the same. According to a recent Morning Consult survey, millennials are no less likely than older Americans to avoid gatherings with friends and family. And millennials are actually more likely to report working from home.

And it’s young adults who appear more concerned about the potential health threat the coronavirus presents to the broader US population. A new Pew Research Center survey finds that 55 percent of young adults say the coronavirus outbreak is a major threat to the broader public. Meanwhile, fewer than half (43 percent) of seniors agree, even as older Americans are more concerned about the personal health risk.

Current public opinion surveys do not reveal a consistent generational pattern. There will continue to be anecdotal accounts of young people behaving irresponsibly. But there are stories of older Americans brushing aside concerns about coronavirus as well.

Attitudes about the coronavirus are evolving quickly as more information becomes available. A recent story in the The New York Times reports that young adults account for a significant number of hospitalizations. And Americans — both young and old — are making decisions based on imperfect information from a multitude of sources.

There are important differences in the values, political priorities, and experiences of millennials and baby boomers, but, when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, younger and older Americans are not responding so differently.

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