The recession is creating another generation gap

Generation Z and Boomers are experiencing this economy very differently — and it shows

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 18, 2020 6:17PM (EDT)

Young adult man wearing a pollution mask to protect himself from viruses. His friends are in the background. They all are wearing masks. (Getty Images)
Young adult man wearing a pollution mask to protect himself from viruses. His friends are in the background. They all are wearing masks. (Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic has not only taken over 170,000 lives in the United States as of the time of this writing, but has wreaked economic havoc in the process. Yet the damage, though terrible for most Americans, has been felt in different ways by different generations, with younger people experiencing disproportionate struggles when it comes to unemployment and achieving major life milestones. In a sense, the economy's path of destruction is the opposite of the virus's — in that the COVID-19 mortality rate is linearly correlated with age; while the worst economic effects are felt by the youngest working-age Americans.

Notably, the average duration of unemployment has dramatically increased since the onset of the pandemic. This means a lot more now than it did prior to the pandemic, because the unemployment rate itself has surged: after staying at or below 5 percent from December 2015 through March 2020, it skyrocketed to 14.7 percent in April and has stayed in the double digits ever since. (As of July, the unemployment rate was 10.2 percent.) With more people unemployed than ever, the consequences of needing to spend longer unemployed are even starker.

This consequence has been born the most by Americans from their mid-20s to their mid-30s, although older Americans have also been quite hard hit. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average duration of unemployment in May 2020 was 10.7 weeks for Americans who are at or above 65 years of age, 11.8 weeks for Americans between the ages of 45 and 64, 9.7 weeks for Americans between the ages of 35 and 44, 12.2 weeks for Americans from 25 to 34, 9.9 weeks for Americans from 20 to 24 and 8.6 weeks for Americans between the ages of 16 and 19. This means that the longest stretches have been endured by Millennials (who were born from 1981 to 1996), followed by Americans who are middle aged and senior citizens.

Young people have also suffered the horrors of unemployment much more than their older counterparts. By contrast, the latest data indicates that younger people are experiencing higher rates of unemployment than older ones in the pandemic era. But this time around, Millennials and Generation Z have much higher unemployment rates than their Boomer and Gen X counterparts — twice as high, in many cases. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, as of July, 19.3 percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 19 were unemployed — almost one in five. That number was comparable for Americans between the ages of 20 and 24, to 18.3 percent; and 11.4 percent for Americans between the ages of 25 and 34. 

But there's a dramatic drop-off as you look at older workers. Only 8.1 percent of 35 to 44 year olds were unemployed, 7.8 percent of 45-55 year olds, and 8.8 percent of the 55 and older workforce. In other words, the youngest generations are experiencing unemployment rates twice as high as those 35 and older. That's a huge generational gap. 

There are other statistics which suggest that young people have borne a disproportionate share of the economic burden during this recession. An online pay service provider for U.S. small businesses, Gusto, found that workers under the age of 25 were laid off at a rate 93 percent higher than those who were over 35.

That's inflicted a psychological toll on Generation Z, who have become more risk-averse as a result of the economic setback. A senior researcher at Pew Research Center has commented that his data finds older Americans are more concerned about the health consequences of the pandemic while younger adults are more upset about the economic impact.

Many Millennials, who are slightly older than Gen Z, are suffering their second recession. Indeed, many Millennials were just entering the workforce when the 2008 recession hit, causing some to dub them "the unluckiest generation." As a result, Millennials have struggled more than their antecedents to achieve such milestones as getting married, starting a career, buying a home, having children and in general achieving financial independence.

If the 2020 economic setback had been the first major downfall since the Great Depression, Millennials would most likely be in a better position to endure it. Instead it has become the economic equivalent of a one-two punch, forcing millennials who were already struggling or had just begun to recover from the last crash to be knocked back by another one.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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