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December 2, 2020

What your team really fears about Coronavirus— by Generation

Hey, leader.

I know you’re overwhelmed.

As you attempt to lead your multigenerational team through this scary and tumultuous time, I want to provide you with a little context and information that may help you understand the different responses members of your team may be having based on their experiences as a generation. Keep in mind that generational context provides us with a backdrop of the story but it is not the entire story. Each of your team members has a unique experience of their own that may contribute to the response they are having to the pandemic and that should be considered when leading them through this time. However, I think some of this insight can truly help create awareness and empathy.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to have conversations about the Coronavirus and the impact it is having with members of all 4 generations that make up the majority of the workforce today-- Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z. As I synthesized the conversations and contrasted them, themes stood out. Based on the research I’ve done on generational differences, I want to share some of those themes and provide some explanation or context.

My last caveat is that the level of the team you lead may cause these reactions to differ. For instance, if you are leading a time of Directors as opposed to a team of frontline employees, the exposure to risk they are experiencing is quite different, making their fears differ.

BABY BOOMERS

“I am afraid for myself and my parents.”

Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, making them roughly 56 to 74 years of age. Depending on their age and/or medical condition, many Baby Boomers are afraid of contracting the virus for themselves or their elderly parents, as the CDC cites “older adults and people who have serious chronic medical conditions,” as those at high risk of getting very sick from the illness. This may lead to a higher level of anxiety associated with going into the office, attending meetings, traveling, etc. than their younger adult peers.

If they are uncomfortable working from home and are being asked to, the overall anxiety can be even greater.

Many Baby Boomers are in the “sunset” of their careers, if you will. Planning to retire soon, the health of their financial securities are of greater concern than their younger counterparts. The performance of the stock market we are all watching daily could directly impact their personal financial health, but it could also pose a mid-term threat to their job security. Sustained poor financial performance could mean layoffs. Because many Boomers find themselves at the top of the salary range, they are often an easy target. Not to mention the fact that landing a new, comparable job is harder the older you are.

And consider this-- nearly half of households headed by someone 56 or older have nothing saved for retirement. All of these are clear reasons to be anxious in the wake of the Coronavirus and why the fear of Baby Boomers may be different, thus show up differently in the workplace.

GEN X

“I am afraid for myself, my children and my parents.”

Gen X was born between 1965 and 1979, making them roughly 41 to 55 years of age. They were the generation hit hardest by the Great Recession in 2007 to 2009. They, like many Boomers, lost jobs, homes, financial securities and more. According to the Pew Research Center, however, they are the only generation to recover the wealth lost after the housing crash. Simply put, they don’t want to go through that again. Who would?

I can imagine that many Xers, like the few I’ve spoken with this week, are watching the financial market and growing a pit in their stomach. To avoid reliving the Great Recession and the aftermath therefore, they are responding quickly to the impending threat with a number of measures we will explore in a later article.

Gen X not only needs their job and financial assets to care for themselves and their children, but many are also caring for aging parents financially, emotionally and physically. While the financial impactions of the Coronavirus directly impact their ability to provide financially, they are also worried—what if mom or dad get ill? There are immense concerns and responsibilities to come along with that for Gen X from a professional and personal standpoint.

These things combined can help explain some of the fear and anxiety your Gen X team members are feeling right now. Overall, Gen X tends to be rather independent as well, so they have likely not shared these feelings with you.

MILLENNIALS

“I’m not really all that afraid.”

Millennials were born between 1980 and 1995, making them roughly 25 to 40 years of age. They are often referred to as the “Me Generation,” having grown up in child-centric households under the guidance of helicopter parents. They were raised in rather economically healthy times and are known to be optimistic like their Baby Boomer parents. Experiences are everything to Millennials and things come second.

Perhaps some of this explains why 80% of Millennials I have spoken to are not all too concerned with the coronavirus. In fact, many have joked about capitalizing on extremely low airfare and racking up a few additional passport stamps until it all blows over. [I would be a liar if I did not admit this has actually crossed my mind! I’m such a Millennial 🤦🏾‍♀️]

In all fairness and seriousness, many Millennials, particularly those who are older and/or have started families, may be having a similar reaction to the Coronavirus impact as Gen X. 73% of millennials are actively saving and 3 of 4 of those saving are putting money away for retirement, according to a 2020 report from Bank of America. This speaks to the fact that many Millennials are financially aware and have reason to be concerned with the financial impact of the Coronavirus. With their age and stage of life, however, their trepidation is not as strong.

For the most part, Millennials are considered “younger adults” and have a low risk of becoming seriously ill after contracting the Coronavirus. Many have also never experienced an economic downturn as adults or been drastically impacted by one as children, so there could be a little less economic fear for that reason as well.

As leaders, however, I think it is important to note that not all Millennials are reacting with the same level of calm and optimism, jumping at the chance to finally prove that working from home can work. Some are experiencing real anxiety that is likely similar to what I’ve described for Gen X, especially if their parents are of age.

GEN Z

“I’m afraid that our leaders are not really handling this well.”

Gen Z was born between 1996 and 2012, making them roughly 7 to 24 years of age. They are the smartest, most diverse, most globally-minded generation that we’ve ever seen at their age. They are extremely civic-minded and expect the companies they support and work for to be socially responsible. They are also the children of Gen X and experienced, firsthand, the impacts of the Great Recession as their parents lost jobs, homes and more when they were young. For this reason, Gen Z prioritizes financial security and values things over experiences (contrary to their Millennial counterparts).

You likely don’t have many Gen Zers in your workgroup today but if you work on a college campus or parent Gen Zers, you’ll likely see that their fear of the Coronavirus is less associated with them or their family/friends contracting the virus, and not even with the economic implications, but more with the way individuals in power are handling the pandemic. They are asking questions like are they being fully honest with us? Are they making aid available to all? Is my company doing anything to help those who are affected? What will my company do to protect employee’s income? Is my school taking the right steps to protect us? Are the decisions being made really just about money?

In leading Gen Z through this time, it is important to consider the fact that you are creating the blueprint for leadership for them and they are holding you, the organization and/or institution accountable for how we handle the people in this scenario, above all. Their fear is less about them and more about you. Am I/are we being led by the right people?

What Do I Do With This? 

A major part of being an effective leader of any kind is empathy-- your ability to understand and possibly relate to the people you lead. Depending on your generation as the leader, you may not have considered the differences in the anxiety your team members of other generations might be experiencing and why. 

Here is what I would like you to take away as you go back to leading your team:

  • The anxiety and fear my team members are experiencing does not start and stop at contracting the virus. There are layers and layers to the fears your team members are coming to work with during this time. Be sensitive to that and seek to understand. 
  • Each of my team members are responding differently to this crisis because their realities are different. The generational experience I’ve described above helps provide some context for what your team members may be experiencing and is a great place to start a conversation to better understand what they are personally feeling right now. 
  • I need to think about how I mitigate the fears of my team members, where possible, and work with other leaders to do so. We didn’t cover this in this article but my hope is that you realize the weight your team members are carrying and that it inspires you, as their leader, to help remove some of it in any way you can. Sometimes acknowledgment of the weight alone can go a long way.
  • This is an unusual and difficult time for us all. During difficult times is where true leaders arise. Take this context and this charge and let’s try to manage our fear and the fear of our team members as best we can.

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Raven Solomon


Raven is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Speaker, Author, & Strategist who helps organizations understand generations, racial equity, and their intersection.

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