Coronavirus has changed how we live our lives, possibly for the better and for the long-term. A country that was previously divided over Brexit, and regional and generational inequalities, has temporarily put those divisions on hold. But what impression and reaction will Millennials and Generation Z have to the most socially and economically-disrupting crisis since the Second World War?
According to research from Deloitte, Millennials and Gen Z are a “generation disrupted”. These two generations have been brought up on the internet, cheap international travel and high career expectations despite the rocky economics surrounding the high cost of living and weak job security. The monumental cost and repercussions of putting the economy on standstill for weeks (possibly months) as a result of the coronavirus will be paid for by these generations for the rest of their lives, despite the already economic precariousness facing them.
Some of them will graduate this year into a world with no jobs — déjà vu for the class of 2008 — despite studying themselves into debt, which will of course be wiped clean after 30 years, thus encouraging the normalisation of unpaid debt. How are Millennials and Gen Z to react politically to significant events, such as coronavirus, if they are continually being faced by crises?
If crisis is the new norm, and coronavirus is the ultimate political wake-up call, there is a strong argument for following the logic of Milton Friedman, who wisely pointed out that: “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function. To develop alternatives to existing polices, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable”.
Have we, and especially Millennials and Gen Z, reached a point of political inevitability?
If coronavirus poses the biggest health risk to people who are older, and the subsequent economic burden is passed on to younger generations, surely the point has now come for a more radical political plan that provides a better society for these generations and their children.
Take employment — March 2020 was the first time in history where the UK workforce was ordered by the Prime Minister to work from home. For some, such an option was not possible, but for others who can, it has brought a variety of benefits. From 2008-2018 there has been a 74 per cent increase in the number of people working from home. Research has shown that young people between 16 and 34 years old are more likely to spend most of their time working remotely compared to those over 35.
Despite this, young Brits face an impossible choice in the job market, particularly if they are part of the 50 per cent who have attended university and live in an expensive but dynamic city, such as London. It also goes for those who live somewhere more affordable, perhaps a town in the North East, but have a job with less prestige or pay prospects.
Post-coronavirus, forward-thinking companies should do away with the old presenteeism culture and normalise more remote working which can be more productive, less stressful and better for employees’ wellbeing than working in an office in an expensive city. Remote working has quickly become the new norm for many because of coronavirus, with many deserting coronavirus-stricken London in favour of less densely populated spots in the UK which are cheaper, cleaner and greener.
The urgency with which the government has acted to contain the spread of coronavirus has shown the same sense of urgency can be applied to climate change. The UN Secretary-General said last month that the cost to human lives and livelihoods as droughts, wildfires, floods and extreme storms take their deadly tolls will be more severe and last longer than the coronavirus.
Indeed, a new United Nations report highlights how last year was the second warmest year on record, with the last decade being the warmest on record. People who have directly been affected by the impact of climate change are more likely to change their lifestyles and habits to protect the environment. A year ago, most of us would not have predicted the extreme behavioural changes that we have all had to adhere to, such as social distancing.
The 21st century has undoubtedly brought about many unexpected and positive changes; but the unpredictable and hazardous nature of climate change demands that future generations are well prepared for the huge geographical, political, economic and social disruption that climate change will bring. Such changes would be far more damaging than coronavirus. There is no better opportunity at present to prepare. At some point there may be a cure for coronavirus, but climate change has no cure — and isn’t prevention better than cure?
The benefits of technology, the prioritisation of welfare over economics and the immediate decrease in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions could soon be the new norm. Radical ideas — such as the 19th-century introduction of hand washing with soap to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses — quickly became the new norm.
Interventions are more effective if they take place during moments of significant change, and for Millennials and Gen Z now is the time for them to wake up to the fact that this century will be disruptive and unstable. If coronavirus isn’t the political wake-up call, then what will be?