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Episode 46: Pandemic Impact – From Baby Boomers to Gen Z and Beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting education and people both young and old right now. On today’s episode of the Supercast, Superintendent Anthony Godfrey talks to Kim Lear, a generational sociologist who gives us some insight on how different generations, from Baby Boomers to Gen Z and beyond are dealing with the pandemic very differently.


Audio Transcription

Superintendent Godfrey:
Welcome to the Superast. I'm your host, Superintendent Anthony Godfrey. Today we have the unique opportunity to sit down with Kim Lear, a Generational Sociologist. Kim, gives us some insight on how different generations from Baby Boomers to Gen Z and beyond are dealing with the pandemic very differently. Kim, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us on the Supercast.

Kim:
Thank you so much for having me.

Superintendent Godfrey:
You study generations. Before we talk about different reactions that people from different generations have had to COVID-19 and kind of the ongoing impact, can you just define the difference among generations? We throw these terms around sometimes nicely, sometimes as a pejorative term, but if you can, just kind of define those first and then let's talk about the reaction.

Kim:
Yeah. So the Baby Boomers are born between 1946 and 1964. The other groups that we're looking at are Gen X, 1965 to 1979, Millennials, 1980 to 1995 and then Gen Z after 96. I always make it a point to point out that, of course, and all of you listening, know that people are still individuals. This study of generations, at its core is this intersection of history and culture, getting an understanding of where we've been, how we got to where we are, and that can give us some insight into where we go from here.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Yes. Talk about some of the defining moments that may be interpreted differently across generations. For example, space exploration is viewed differently or there are different memories for each generation associated with that.

Kim:
Yes. So, one of the ways that I conduct my research is, my team and I, will separate our focus groups by generation and then into each focus group, we'll bring an institution or an ideology and ask that generation to talk to us about their first memory. So as Dr. Godfrey had pointed out, we'll use space as an example, the institution of NASA. When I bring that institution into a focus group of Baby Boomers, I ask, "What is your first memory of NASA?" I mostly hear landing on the moon. And that moment was such a loaded moment in American history, winning the space race, this incredibly optimistic moment of knowing that if you work hard enough, if you have the right technology, the sky's the limit. That is what that particular moment represented to so many young people, watching that in that moment.

Now, when I walk next door to a focus group with Gen Xers, and I asked them, "What is your first memory of NASA?" The most common response that I hear is the Challenger explosion. So again, we're looking at the same institution, but those early memories of that same institution can differ greatly. So for Gen X or as they remember it, there was a teacher on that shuttle, they watched it in school and they will say things to me like, "If we could have trusted anyone, we could have trusted the geniuses at NASA, but we were let down. That was really a moment of disappointment". And so it's in these moments of generational juxtaposition that we can begin to understand how a new generation steps into the world and may see things a little bit differently.

Superintendent Godfrey:
How does that apply to the pandemic that we find ourselves in? That's going to be a defining event I'm sure for this generation. How do you think that pandemic will shape Generation Z?

Kim:
I wish that I really had a crystal ball to know. I'll tell you can have some of the early predictions. One of the things that I study with each generation is, who is the hero of this time. So I'll use millennials as an example, where during the formative years of millennials, tech entrepreneurs, tech innovators really controlled the history, the heroic storyline, and that dictated a lot of consumer behavior that dictated a lot of workplace aspirations where now, we have a new generation coming up and their heroic storyline is a little bit different. We see a lot of this focus on our healthcare workers, on our heroes, you know, and the who the hero is kind of beginning to change in the midst of COVID. And I think that could have some impacts on consumer behavior, on workplace aspirations.

I think COVID is accelerating a lot of the trends that already existed for Gen Z. More of a focus on health and wellness. I think in the midst of an era of a time where there is a virus and people with pre-existing conditions are more vulnerable, you do start to see even more of a shift than we already did around health consciousness and things like that. I think that will accelerate for Gen Z. And I think the biggest way that this will impact Gen Z is how adaptable and resilient they are forced to be. And it isn't only COVID, although of course, in this moment, it is a hard time to be young. And I'm sorry for telling parents that because they're going to be okay. I think the skills that they're learning right now are going to be so helpful to them in the future, but it's sad.

They're  going to have an unceremonious catapult adulthood, and there are moments that we cherish that mark this time for us, that they will not have. But they are finding other ways to show up for each other. I'm hearing so many stories about these socially distanced, birthday parties and graduations, where young people are showing up in each other's yards with signs and that kind of thing. It's like they're just finding such resourceful ways to be there for one another to adapt and in whatever comes next after this, I think that fundamental ability to change, to have a growth mindset to adapt, it's going to be imperative. And I think these kids have it.

Speaker 1 (06:37):
I interviewed students as part of a focus group as we were preparing the plan for reopening school. And from that conversation, one of the students coined this term kind of their COVID-19 Bucket List, where after all this has gone, they have plans for what they'd like to do. Things they'd like to do to make up for lost time. I know you've interviewed a lot of college and high school students. Is there that sense that they are making plans for how they're going to live life in a different way after all this is over?

Kim:
Dr. Ken Dykewald, who's a Gerontologist, a Psychologist ,his work that I really admire. He wrote a piece recently where he said, it almost feels like we're having like a collective near death experience. And in those moments, that's when everyone is faced with, what do I really want to do? You know, what legacies do I want to have? What is the community that I want to create? And in some ways, how fortunate are they that at such a young age, they get to grapple with those types of questions. What do I want to do? How do I want to spend my time? And I think that what you heard in from that student is so representative of what I'm hearing. There's also a very popular trend on Tik-Tok of all of these young people are talking about, you know, once I get back on to college, there's no excuses, everything that is presented to me, I'm going to say yes, every, every opportunity I'm going to do. And I think that my favorite prediction from a futurist is that we almost have this Renaissance, you know, this like 1920's era of absolute gleefulness as a result of what we're experiencing. And so I think what you heard is, I'm hoping, some of what we will see is young people taking advantage of everything that is beautiful about being young.

Superintendent Godfrey:
What is the impact you've seen on families in your interviews? And as you've studied, what's changed? I think that from my experience, we're spending more time together as a result of the pandemic and it's changed the dynamics. And I think that will change how it feels when kids come back to school.

Kim:
For the students who are fortunate enough to be in safe housing situations with supportive families, I think this has actually been a really meaningful time when I ask students, what's the biggest silver lining of COVID. Hands down, the runaway answer is more time with my family. And that is a response that I would expect to hear from parents who all of a sudden get a wind fall of time with their teenagers who wanted nothing to do with them. But to hear that from the teenagers themselves, and I think that's slowed down, you know, there's no fear of missing out. They're not constantly bombarded on social media with every party that's going on and everything that's happening outside of the walls of their house. They don't have that anymore, which creates, I think some peacefulness at home where they can really be there, be present with their families.

Superintendent Godfrey:
You mentioned about a stable home and a supportive home. If you don't have those things, I think the pandemic has probably emphasize those difficulties and make them more stark. Has that been your experience in interviews?

Kim:
You do have kids on one end of the spectrum, coming from very stable families, maybe families that have more money, we're seeing more private tutors, things like that with a very certain subset of students. And then of course, on the other side, you've got young students who are doing the best they can, their parents are absolutely doing the best they can, but both have to work, or maybe it's a single parent household. It can be difficult to level the playing field for students who are having such tremendously different pandemic experiences.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Stay with us. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, more with Generational Sociologist, Kim Lear.

Sandra Reisgraf:
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Superintendent Godfrey:
How has different generations reacted to the pandemic? I know that with every generation, there are different moments that shaped the way we view the world. So maybe older generations, what are you seeing there?

Kim:
Well, actually, a study just came out two days ago from Age Wave showing that older generations are actually doing better than other generations, which is almost counter-intuitive because the nature of the virus impacts our older population more than it impacts the younger generation. I think a lot of it has to do with the level of economic anxiety that exists with each generation where, for a lot of older generations, if they're stable financially, then this time can be somewhat okay. You know that they're not missing their weddings. They're not missing their graduations. They're not trying to raise small children at home during this time. And so, older generations have actually reported higher levels of happiness. Another possible reason for that is you seeing more, having a little bit more perspective, understanding that there's going to be these highs and lows to life and just not letting the lows get you as low.

So that could be another reason for it. Baby Boomers have been showing to be incredibly adaptable during this time. Necessity is the mother of invention and they still want to talk to their kids and their grandkids, and they many still want to work. They want to teach whatever that may be. And so technology is the only way to do that and they're doing it. And so that's been impressive. I think after this, we're going to see a lot of tech empowered elders. Then, kind of in a funny twist of events, this is during my Gen X interviews, there are a lot of Gen Xers who have somewhat recently become empty nesters. And around the time that campus evacuation started happening, they had just kind of started finding their footing again with their spouse, getting into a rhythm, their new norm.

And then all of a sudden they're college age, kids are back home and they're like, why are you here? So that's been sort of a funny thing to look at that. Young people are really okay with moving back home, but there are some parents were thinking, "Oh, we just had our freedom and now that's even being taken away." Millennials, absolutely the most economic anxiety, stepping into the labor force during a recession, statistically, it's hard to catch up when that happens. And then as they're entering their most expensive years, hitting another recession, it's the biggest thing that I hear around besides the health and safety of your loved ones, "What are you most worried about millennials?" It's being furloughed, it's being laid off. It's not being able to provide appropriately for their families. So they're all dealing with things differently, they're all up against something different based on their life stage and their situation. But I will say that overwhelmingly, I've been left optimistic by the adaptability and the resilience that people have shown in the face of such adversity.

Superintendent Godfrey:
I would agree. I've seen just a lot of efforts to come together, to look at things in a new way and to really unite and join forces to help support each other. And, unfortunately, sometimes it's a pandemic that brings us to that point. Not that we weren't already there, but it really makes us feel more keenly the need to rely on each other and support each other. And that's what we're really focused on as students return to school this fall is making sure that we create a safe environment. That there's a place for them to convey the concerns and worries that they have. But I think really focusing on learning and bringing them back to feeling the supportive environment at school, where they can form friendships and learn and feel like they're advancing and moving forward. You've talked about trends and traits in the past where trends show generally what's happening with a group that tends to have the same experiences, but we all have our individual traits. And we're all individuals, even though we talk in broad strokes about people of a certain age reacting, we know that every child, every employee, every parent is in a different circumstance and is going to react to this differently.

Kim:
Yes. That's so true and it's one of the reasons why in any work that I do, I make sure that people understand my expertise is limited. My background is in sociology. I'm specifically looking at what we share. And I think, even in times of so much partisanship and people having different ideas on things, whether we want to believe it or not, we do share so much. And that is the core of what I study. But of course, it's important for I'm a parent myself. My two kids are different, but as a parent, as a teacher, as an administrator, as a community member, of course, we have to look at that psychological side. Who are you? How does your brain work? How do you like to receive feedback? How do you learn? And no one knows that better than parents know their kids. And so there's a lot on the shoulders of parents right now. There's a lot on the shoulders of teachers, but it seems to me, especially here in the Jordan District, everyone is focused. Everyone is aligned on the same mission, which is, "Let's do right by these kids. Let's give them the education that they deserve".

Superintendent Godfrey:
Well, thank you very much for spending time with us, Kim. It's a pleasure having you and safe travels.

Kim:
Thanks for having me.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Thanks for joining us on the Supercast. And remember, education is the most thing you'll do today.

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