Insights on the Cross-Generational Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis

June 9, 2020 Health Ideas Staff

Although certain age groups are at a higher risk of severe illness from the coronavirus, none are immune to the wide-ranging effects of the pandemic. It is clear, however, that different generations face different challenges amid today’s crisis — and that the environment in which one is born, grows up, works and ages is more than a small factor.

Here’s how each generation is being affected by COVID-19, and how these insights can help us better understand and address the needs of the post-pandemic healthcare consumer — likely to be a generation in its own right.

(Note: The following generational categories are based on Pew Research Center methodology.)

The Silent Generation: Facing a Double-Edged Sword

(Born 1928–1945; Currently Ages 75+)

Statistically, COVID-19 has been hardest on the elderly. According to a study published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases, the disease kills an estimated 13.4% of patients ages 80 and older.

Beyond the physical health risks of the coronavirus, the elderly population is particularly vulnerable to the effects of another growing epidemic — loneliness and social isolation. This presents a double-edged sword, as the same measures that have proven most effective in mitigating the spread of the virus have also been proven to exacerbate other health issues, which is concerning for a population already experiencing a higher instance of comorbidities.

As HMS’ Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gary Call told Healthcare Finance News, loneliness can impact medication adherence, lead to a rise in hospitalizations and increase the likelihood that a patient will end up in a nursing home — a setting in which nearly 26,000 COVID-19 deaths occurred, according to a newly released CMS survey.

Baby Boomers: “Who Are You Calling Elderly?”

(Born 1946–1964; Currently Ages 56–74)

Baby boomers have been witness to their fair share of conflict and social change, which could explain why they seem less concerned about the coronavirus than other generations, including, namely, their millennial offspring.

The age range comprising the boomer generation is significant. While a considerable portion — those 65 and older — are considered high-risk with regard to COVID-19, people are living longer and healthier. As amusing accounts emerged of millennials admonishing their parents for not taking the pandemic seriously enough, it has raised interesting questions about longevity — and what exactly constitutes elderly — in the age of active aging.

Generation X: Sandwiched with Responsibility

(Born 1965–1980; Currently Ages 40–55)

Generation X — aka, the “sandwich generation” — often gets overlooked in the cross-generational conversation, drowned out by the boomer-versus-millennial-and-Gen-Z noise. But in many ways, Gen Xers may actually be bearing the burden of today’s crisis. As both parents of school-age children and children of aging parents, many have found themselves thrust into the roles of caretaker and homeschool teacher in addition to working professional.

Based on earnings data, Gen Xers are largely at the peak of their careers, which makes balancing this new onslaught of responsibilities even more of a challenge. However, this generation is no stranger to crisis, as they were in the workforce during both 9/11 and the 2008 economic crisis. This could have something to do with the fact that Generation X appears to be taking the pandemic more seriously than others.

Millennials: Lonely…and Worried

(Born 1981–1996; Currently Ages 24–39)

Millennials, a percentage of whom graduated into a recession, are now facing more economic turmoil as they edge toward the height of their careers. Older millennials may also be experiencing circumstances similar to the generation that precedes them — caring for kids of their own while worrying for the well-being of their baby boomer parents.

Worrying is on brand for millennials, who some have even dubbed the “worried generation.” This may be attributed, at least in part, to having come of age amid the Great Recession, 9/11 and the housing crisis. They were also front and center for the advent of social media, which a growing body of research has linked to depression, anxiety and loneliness.

Many millennials had embraced the remote work movement before a pandemic necessitated it, and the lack of social interaction may have already started to take a mental health toll. In Cigna’s 2020 report on loneliness in the workplace, 71% of millennials reported feeling lonely.

Given the health implications of loneliness — and the fact that millennials’ physical and behavioral health is declining faster than their Gen X counterparts, according to a report from Blue Cross Blue Shield — continuing on the work-from-home trajectory could have negative long-term consequences for this generation in particular.

Gen Z: Low Risk, High Stress

(Born After 1997; Currently Ages 23 & Younger)

Born into an era of gun violence, school shootings, the climate crisis and, now, a global pandemic, Gen Z is stressed out. A 2018 report from the American Psychology Association (APA) found that 91% of Gen Zers ages 18 to 21 had experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom related to stress in the past month, and Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Survey found that nearly 80% of Gen Zers felt lonely. Today, Gen Z has seen graduations canceled, college life gone virtual and, for those newest to the workforce, the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. While this group may be low-risk in terms of COVID-19 outcomes, they are undoubtedly feeling the social, economic and mental health effects of the pandemic.

Although Gen Z has been found to have the poorest mental health relative to other generations, they are also the age group most likely to seek professional help for mental health issues, according to the APA. This, perhaps, will be an asset to this generation in navigating the post-pandemic world and could conceivably influence future generations to take mental health as seriously as the physical.

The More We Know

Generational characteristics are one example of how factors beyond clinical care can influence the health of a population. Understanding and addressing the diverse needs of today’s consumer is key to making healthcare more efficient, affordable and effective — and will be more important than ever as we navigate the many new challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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