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Will Gen Z recover from Covid? Zoomers will enter the workforce against the backdrop of both the Great Recession and the Great Lockdown

For Zoomers, politicians have consistently failed to manage a succession of crises. Credit: Barry Lewis/In Pictures via Getty

For Zoomers, politicians have consistently failed to manage a succession of crises. Credit: Barry Lewis/In Pictures via Getty


April 21, 2020   7 mins

By the time my first-year university students turn 25 they will have experienced two major financial crises and a global pandemic.

That’s not bad going.

Born between 1996 and 2015, members of ‘Generation Z’ are now guaranteed to spend their formative years surrounded by economic shocks and stagnation. Given that what happens during these ‘coming of age’ years strongly affects our politics and how we see the world around us, what might this mean for Zoomers in a post-Covid world?

Unlike my students, I was born in 1981 which either makes me an old Millennial or a young Gen-X’er. Formative experiences for my generation included the dominance of the Conservatives and then the arrival of Tony Blair and New Labour, which seemed to usher in a new liberal zeitgeist. It was also a time of continuous economic growth, falling unemployment and expanding university education. There were certainly challenges but nothing seemed to go seriously wrong until the terrorist attacks on 9/11, or at least that’s how I remember it.

For my Zoomer students, however, the coming of age experience has been utterly different. Their formative experiences have included major economic downturns and recessions, international crises and divisive debates about the ‘losers of globalisation’ and the rise of global populism.

They were children when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Great Recession followed. They were in primary school during the years of austerity, and in secondary school when the country voted for Brexit (a contest which they were not eligible to participate in). And today, after having already been set back by the Great Recession, they are preparing to graduate and enter the workplace just as a global pandemic sweeps across the globe and pushes the economy into yet another financial crisis.

Whereas older Millennials entered the workforce as the Great Recession hit, leaving them to navigate a ‘double crisis’ that was political and economic, Zoomers are about to enter the workforce against the backdrop of both the Great Recession and the Great Lockdown, leaving them to navigate a ‘triple crisis’ that runs across politics, economics and health.

It takes years, if not decades, to make sense of generational effects, so we can’t know the true extent of the Covid fallout for years. But we can at least use past evidence to make a few informed predictions about the future.

We know, for instance, how values are shaped by what happens around us. It was the relative economic security and affluence of the post-war economic ‘miracle’ that at least played some role in encouraging the (then young) Baby Boomers to gradually move away from the concerns about physical and economic security that had dominated the minds of their parents, who had lived through two world wars, the 1918 flu pandemic and serious economic distress.

Coming of age between 1961 and 1982, the Boomers benefited hugely from the rapid expansion of the middle-class, welfare state and university education. They enjoyed rising living standards, rising life expectancy and did not need to worry too much about their basic security.

It was this wider environment that helped pave the way for the great ‘liberal revolutions’ of the Sixties. Boomers came together to push through a shift away from ‘materialist’ values — focused on survival, security and fulfilling basic needs — toward a new era of ‘post-materialist’ values where, because those basic needs are met, people had the resources to indulge other ‘higher-level’ concerns, over freedom, self-expression, social status and esteem. The political effects that followed — a preoccupation with lifestyle issues, minority rights, sexual liberation, environmentalism, and so on — were all downstream of this value shift.

Not everybody participated in this shift, of course. As we now know, the liberal revolution did not appeal to the economically precarious working-class and self-employed, low-skilled service sector workers and people without degrees, who still prioritise security over social status and group attachment over lofty appeals to universal principles. The Left’s failure to recognise this lies behind many of its crushing electoral defeats, like Jeremy Corbyn’s in 2019.

Nor did the liberal revolution appeal to traditional social conservatives who simply did not share these post-materialist values, no matter how many university degrees they won or how much money they earned. True, liberal progressives came to dominate the agenda, but they underestimated how, from the 1990s onward, these other groups would come together to try and slow the liberal revolution. This ‘counter-revolution’ would end up powering the rise of populist and conservative parties across Europe, pushing social democracy into an existential crisis and then handing victories to Brexit, Trump and Boris Johnson, among others.

Many liberal progressives hoped that young Millennials and Zoomers would come to their rescue; that these newly-ascendant generations would mobilise a backlash to the backlash. But that was based on the assumption that these same young voters would have a somewhat similar coming-of-age experience to their Gen-X parents and Baby Boomer grandparents; that they would enjoy economic security and be able to afford the increasingly expensive university education — two things we know are central to the development of post-materialist values.

Yet the Great Recession and the Great Lockdown give us good reason to question that assumption. Even before the latest crisis researchers in the UK were already warning that the inter-generational contract was coming unstuck.

And even before the first of these two financial crises, young voters were suffering from low wage growth, leaving them with similar earnings to cohorts born 15 years earlier, were more likely than their predecessors to work part-time, to work in low-pay jobs, to be less likely to move jobs and so less likely to achieve pay rises, to have lower rates of home ownership, to have harder commutes, to spend more of their incomes on housing and, at least for Millennials, to live on disposable incomes no higher than they were for Gen-X’ers at the same age.

In short, whereas Boomers enjoyed considerable improvements compared to their parents’ generation, for the Millennials and Zoomers, this generational progress has stalled. Even before the current crisis, these youngsters were sliding back down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, back toward those more fundamental concerns over economic security. The arrival of Covid-19 will likely entrench all of this, focusing their minds not only on economic security but, at an even more basic level, their physical security too.

This is especially likely to happen southern Europe, where Zoomers in the more impoverished and indebted south are already having a fundamentally different life experience from the same cohort in the more secure and stable north. Even before the coronavirus crisis erupted, Europe’s next generation of leaders were grappling with unemployment rates of only 6% in Germany and the Netherlands but 29% in Italy, 31% in Spain and 36% in Greece. The Economist recently referred to the latter as the ‘pyrrhic victors’ of globalisation; while they have played by the same rules as their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, and also previous generations, two financial crises in close succession mean that they “have singularly failed to reap the expected benefits”.

This not only helps explain why two million young Italians have left their families and country over the past decade, but also why we are now witnessing growing divides in the attitudes and outlook of Zoomers across Europe. As one study has shown, since the Great Recession younger people in ‘debtor’ states such as Italy, Greece and Spain have become far more sceptical of the EU than their counterparts in ‘creditor’ states like Germany, who have been much better insulated from the economic fallout. Such findings challenge the seductive narrative that Euroscepticism will steadily ‘die off’ and that a newly-ascendant generation of pro-Europeans is about to ride to the rescue. They also make it hard to avoid the conclusion that these divides will sharpen in the coming years, as different member states have very different experiences of the recovery.

This will have big political effects, even if we don’t see them for a while. As various academics have shown, economic crises also tend to be followed by a decline of trust in politics, a loss of confidence in how democracy is working and increased pessimism about the future. Just as the Great Recession was followed by a decade of political upheaval — one that witnessed the rise of populism, Brexit, Trump, the fragmentation of Europe’s political systems and also the rise of the Greens — it seems likely that the Great Lockdown will pave the way for something just as volatile.

Perhaps it will trigger a return to the familiar. If Millennials and Zoomers are now falling down the hierarchy of needs, then might they revive older debates about economic redistribution, jobs, taxation and inequality? We could be about to witness the return rather than the retreat of the traditional Left-Right divide in politics.

Who, then, will this young cohort trust to manage these pressing issues? Some thinkers have suggested that whereas the economic crash in 1929 represented a failure of markets that paved the way for a bigger role for the state, and whereas the stagnation of the 1970s represented a failure of the state that paved the way for the return of markets, then together the post-2008 Great Recession and post-2020 Great Lockdown might pave the way, once again, for the return of the state.

Zoomers, it seems to me at least, will feel especially comfortable with a new era of big government, especially if it is far more active against climate change and crony capitalism. After all, unlike their Gen-X parents and Baby Boomer grandparents, this is a generation that, in little more than a decade, has watched the state come to the rescue on not one but two occasions.

And who will be the main beneficiary of this new wave of disillusionment? Given that economic hardship has tended to benefit the Left more than the Right, one way to answer this question is to suggest that we might now see something of a return of social democratic and/or Green movements, especially when their economic radicalism is combined with the one issue that really does animate my students: climate change. Whereas the liberal revolution of the Sixties often presented environmentalism as a lifestyle or status concern, for today’s Zoomers it is both existential and apocalyptic; it is often seen as being as central to their sense of security as food and water.

Might this point to a continuing surge of support for Europe’s Greens? Perhaps, although until now this has mainly been a phenomenon for the more affluent Zoomers in northern Europe. Further south, it seems just as plausible to me that, when their counterparts start to look for answers, they might simply not look toward politics at all.

As Stuart Fox, a leading academic on generational change, told me: “I think we will see the economic consequences of this have more of an impact than anything else in the medium term, and the likely impact will be to make today’s young people even less interested in politics, and even less likely to be politically active, than the Millennials”.

Seen through the eyes of these Zoomers, politicians have consistently failed to manage a succession of crises: the Great Recession; a refugee crisis; the outbreak of Covid-19; and, most importantly of all for this generation, climate change. Perhaps then — when yet another crisis has been and gone — Zoomers will not ask who they should vote for but rather whether they should bother voting at all.


Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.

GoodwinMJ

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anne
anne
4 years ago

“Coming of age between 1961 and 1982, the Boomers benefited hugely from the rapid expansion of the middle-class, welfare state and university education. They enjoyed rising living standards, rising life expectancy and did not need to worry too much about their basic security.” Where did this weird idea come from? I was poor when younger in a way that would now be greeted with incredulity and horror. As in hungry and unable to dress repectably for work.

Sinclair Black
Sinclair Black
4 years ago
Reply to  anne

Outside toilet. No heating upstairs. Ice on inside of windows in the morning. Newspaper squares for toilet paper. All that and my family was not considered poor by the standards of the 1960s. Matthew has rose tinted specs re the Boomers. Life was tough for my parents.

Nunya Bizniss
Nunya Bizniss
3 years ago
Reply to  Sinclair Black

Three day weeks. Blackouts. Miners strikes. Frequent terrorist atrocities in the UK, as well as Cold War anxiety surrounding a nuclear apocalypse (anyone else remember those ads?!). Black Wednesday and the recession that followed, where many people lost (or came perilously close to losing) their homes. I most certainly had no sense of safety through the Gen X years.

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
4 years ago

Please forget about “sue” and just tax every chinese product 200% until the full cost of the pandamic is recovered. Suspend China’s membership to the World Trade Organization. Simple administrative stuff. Let them prove their innocence as they have already destroyed most of the evidence you would need for a law suit.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 years ago

I wonder whether, as the pandemic plays out, more people from all generations will see through the politically inspired pseudo science that underpins most government claims to be following scientific advice on the pandemic and also on climate change. I think there is a growing questioning of climate change dogma, just as there is already a growing questioning of the pseudo scientific claims underpinning COVID response.

I think a lot of the anger directed at Sweden for refusing to lock down is actually driven by fear of those who have promoted / religiously followed the pseudo science that Sweden may prove how foolish they have been.

Politicians have always used fear, whether that was fear of the nasty Soviets, then global terrorism, then climate change now a pandemic, which whilst widespread is not the mass killer it has been made out to be, to promote the importance of their role in society. The reality seems to already be dawning, as you say in your article, that politicians really don’t have any proper answers so why bother to vote for any of them. The reality that the “Great threats” that we need politicians to keep us safe from are not really as great as has been claimed and thence to the reality that scientific opinion is divided on these things too, but it is the side of what is actually a healthy scientific debate, where nobody has definitive answers because the only honest answer is we don’t really know, that best supports what the politicians want to hear that gets promoted and those who dare to speak out against it are stupid, racist, homophobic or whatever label is in vogue with the liberal elite at the time.

eamonnfoley
eamonnfoley
4 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Not a mass killer? Which pandemic are you following ? Look at Sweden’s death curve next to Norway and Finland. Don’t be like Sweden 🙂

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 years ago
Reply to  eamonnfoley

Deaths per capita in Sweden still well below UK. When we get to the end the death rate will be <1%. Covid 19 was downgraded as not an HCID on 19 Mar:

https://www.gov.uk/guidance

“The 4 nations public health HCID group made an interim recommendation in January 2020 to classify COVID-19 as an HCID. This was based on consideration of the UK HCID criteria about the virus and the disease with information available during the early stages of the outbreak. Now that more is known about COVID-19, the public health bodies in the UK have reviewed the most up to date information about COVID-19 against the UK HCID criteria. They have determined that several features have now changed; in particular, more information is available about mortality rates (low overall), and there is now greater clinical awareness and a specific and sensitive laboratory test, the availability of which continues to increase.”

Belgium stands out as by far the worst county in Europe:

https://ourworldindata.org/

I have not heard any coherent explanation for that from the “scientists” criticising Sweden

d.tjarlz
d.tjarlz
4 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

As far as Belgium goes the claim is, ” Health ministry spokesman Emmanuel Andre recognises Belgium’s way of recording deaths pushes the country to the top of the rankings but is unapologetic.

He argues it is the best way to get a true picture of what is really going on.

He said: “So the point of including suspected cases is to get the best picture of the level of this outbreak in our community, including outside the hospitals.

“And if we know this then we can better act on controlling this outbreak at the source of infection.”

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
4 years ago
Reply to  eamonnfoley

But look at it in the wider context and it’s trajectory is nothing like the the hardest hit Western European nations. Norway, Finland and Denmark will all need to return to the same levels of economic activity as Sweden and in fact, maybe doing so very soon.

Lockdown can only last for so long before the economic damage becomes too great. In the absence of an effective treatment or a vaccine, we are all going to have to learn to live with the threat of the virus, just like Sweden is doing.

Nunya Bizniss
Nunya Bizniss
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

“Politicians have always used fear… to promote the importance of their role in society. The reality seems to already be dawning… that politicians really don’t have any proper answers so why bother to vote for any of them”

I would add that politicians are also never held accountable when something goes terribly wrong. When time and evidence demonstrates that the public has been misled (often wilfully), there is never any reckoning.

There may be a brief furore, and a little hand-wringing. Perhaps a long and expensive independent enquiry or Royal Commission. Someone may resign from their Cabinet position. Noticeably though, in the last 20 or so years, they don’t appear to feel sufficiently uncomfortable to give up their lucrative constituency role as well. Scandal-induced by-elections used to be reasonably common, when public shaming was still something to be feared.

But the media dutifully plays its part in protecting its own. Closing ranks and distracting the masses before any real damage is done… and the whole circus rumbles on.

I would suggest that this has as much to do with the loss of trust as anything else.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Nunya Bizniss

You just need to look at the inquiry into the “war criminal” Phoney Blair to know everything you said is true.

Jordan Flower
Jordan Flower
4 years ago

OK, now do Chad.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
4 years ago
Reply to  Jordan Flower

Oh, I wouldn’t bring landlocked African nations into this.

Jordan Flower
Jordan Flower
4 years ago
Reply to  Dave Weeden

thank you for that

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
4 years ago

‘Perhaps then ” when yet another crisis has been and gone ” Zoomers will not ask who they should vote for but rather whether they should bother voting at all.’

Which will mean that their silly views can’t do any harm to the rest of us. Jolly good.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Whatever…by the time I was 25 I had lived through the power cuts, the ‘cap in hand to the IMF’, the Lib-Lab pact, the Winter of Discontent, the mass unemployment of the early 80s, the Cold War, Roland Rat…

You just get on with it. There was never any shortage of work, part time or full time. I came on to the jobs market in 1986 when, apparently, youth unemployment reached its peak. (The Guardian always illustrates this with that picture of two youths sitting on a fence with a power station in the background). I was 20 at the time and got myself a job as a copywriter in one of London’s better advertising agencies.

As for some of the other claims, I don’t recall the Blair years to be any more ‘liberal’ than the 1980s. And although I think Mathew is one of the more rational academics out there, II really find all this sociological Gen-this and Gen-that to be rather silly, along with all this ‘needs’ stuff. Most of these people have more stuff than they will ever ‘need’. And, as we saw in the London riots of 2011, the one material possession they might benefit from i.e. books, is the one thing they have no interest in.

i do agree with this:

‘Such findings challenge the seductive narrative that Euroscepticism will steadily ‘die off”. Marine Le Pen’s largest cohort of support came from the young in the last general election in France, and the euro has laid waste to the whole of southern Europe, as predicted by economists since 1970. Moreover, I don’t see why even ‘the young’ should be expect to admire or trust a bunch of unelected tyrants in Brussels.

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
4 years ago

Now we have sly sexism. Wow. Where can I get some of that?

Can I pick it up from the same place I get my male white privilage?

Sinclair Black
Sinclair Black
4 years ago

‘Great recession’, what great recession? I have lived through several and in the decade after the 2007 recession my income increased by 150%. The recessions of the 1970s and 80s lasted longer, had a bigger impact on unemployment (roughly 50% more) and devastated company and individual earnings far more than 2007. Even Wikipedia is trying to call 2007 a great recession. Twaddle. If it was that great then where is the depression that followed?

Recessions are cyclical and for those new to one each time it seems the worst ever. A little look at history will show that view as being mostly exaggeration or politically motivated wishful thinking.

Millennials have been underwhelming on many levels. Having them as parents for Gen-X dooms them to what? I am not sure but it will certainly be bad. Lets hope they develop some self reliance, personal initiative and drive. I am not holding my breath on that one.

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
4 years ago

So many false statements, where do you start? How about with “UK only 1.4% of reported rapes in 2019 will result in a conviction” The premise is all reported rapes are rape. Well it seems when tested by the courts the amount of rape reports that are actually rape is 1.4%.

But the omitted statistic is that most reports are culled prior to the being taken to court. The conviction rate in the UK of procecuted cases is 78%.

The goal of Femanazis like this author is to suplant the presumption of innocence with the presumption of guilt. Every man is a rapist until he proves otherwise.

Already the ability for a defendent to confront the accuser has been destroyed. Further steps are taken that so called victims can tell “secret advocates” and men will have to defend unspecified allegations.

Femanazism is a Cult filled with hate that strips any agency from a woman and replaces it with a victim mentality.

Let us proceed to the gender pay myth. The UK like all other western countries see the same general set of facts: Women are 70% of university graduates, occupy 67% of all government jobs and up until 32 years are paid on average 8% more than their male counterparts.

This advancement at 32 gradually declines until the age of 40 when men and women’s earnings reach parity.

The difference after 40 is directly influenced by many women choosing to work part time or not at all whilst mothering their children. (Oh so horrible. They have betrayed their sex)

All other nonsense spewed by Femanazis about gender earnings is because men travel further to work or are more flexible about working away from their family, work substancially longer hours and work very dangerous jobs. (97% of all workplace injury and death is male)

But I want to even the playing field. Next armed conflict we enact the Femanazi conscription act where we ensure that the 96% of fatalities from the next conflict are all women. Please enlist now to show that the next wave of Feminism (Cult of Neo-Marxist Femanazis) is on the front line.

My bet is neither Julie or any such Cult member is stepping forward. This whole narrative is a sham and we know it. That is why your Labour Party was decimated at the election.

kellylogan195
kellylogan195
4 years ago

The Great War, with the Holocast imbedded then immediately the Spanish Flu where probably well over 100 million patents and relatives and friends died , then 8 yesrds later the Great Depression ( which was a REAL depression, where a generation lost all their savings and asserts, these didn’t just last a year or two, but were years long in duration, then followed by the Second World War, and Korea, and you reckon these snow flakes are going to do it tough. Take an Aspro.

Jeffrey Shaw
Jeffrey Shaw
4 years ago

“We must always be available for destiny….” Jerzy KosiÅ„ski could have written those lines for Chauncey Gardener. In fact, I would appear that he did and that Chauncey has been elected and is currently in power.

Jeffrey Shaw
Jeffrey Shaw
4 years ago

In the penultimate paragraph – shouldn’t those be called LaKarens?