By Jim Wyderko, Associate
Each day, I seem to hear of a different friend who’s had their life uprooted by the COVID-19 pandemic. I hear of family members hospitalized, jobs lost and futures stopped in their tracks. I try to soothe the anxiety of friends with immunodeficiency disorders and comfort the disappointment of those forced to exchange their dreams for their parents’ basement. Every morning, I hear the same 6-minute loop of hold music stretched into a 4-hour long soundtrack as my roommate painfully waits for the unemployment office to answer his call. I shouldn’t be the first to tell you that the economic ramifications of this disease are taking a toll on the younger generation.
Meanwhile, across the country, corporate leaders and politicians are focusing on making practical decisions to help those immediately affected by the virus, as they rightly should. But as these tough choices are made in halls of governments and boardrooms across America, these leaders must be wise enough to not forget about Gen Z and young millennials, the 16-24 year olds that will begin their careers during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Those who are younger and healthy may be more likely to withstand the physical effects of the virus, but they are also more vulnerable to long-term financial and mental health-related consequences because of it.
We’ve already seen what happens when a generation of young people begin their careers in an economic crisis. Between the fall of 2007 and the fall of 2009, the unemployment rate rose by almost 8 percentage points for those aged 16-24 at the time. Now, 66% of those millennials currently have nothing saved for retirement, with many citing unemployment and stagnant wages as the main reasons. The current homeownership rate for millennials is a whopping 8% lower than it was for baby boomers and Gen Xers when they were the same age. The older members of the millennial generation were left in a hole that the majority never truly recovered from. Unless we take purposeful action to help the support the younger generation, history risks repeating itself.
Here’s what we already know:
- There are currently 21 million (and growing) working Gen Z and young millennials (ages 16-24), making up about 13% of the American workforce.
- This same age range (excluding minors) carries an average $22,000 in debt, much of it due to student loans.
- Those aged 16-24 are disproportionately at higher risk of losing their job than any other age group due to the current COVID-19 crisis.
- The service sector industry — hotels, restaurants, childcare, retail — is not only particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of the pandemic, but it also employs nearly half of the younger generation.
- Before the crisis, Gen Z and millennials were already more likely to seek professional help for mental health disorders than those in other generations.
- As the country begins rebuilding over the next few years, recent high school and college graduates will enter one of history’s most unforgiving job markets.
- There is every reason to believe that this economic downturn will last far longer and be more devastating than that of 2008.
While this combination of factors spells trouble, there is still time to take action. Learning from past financial crises, leaders can implement the support systems necessary to empower the younger generation and strengthen the long term sustainability of their organization in the process. If done correctly, my generation will not only emerge from this crisis with security and purpose, but also with a newfound sense of trust and optimism in American institutions – something that is sorely lacking right now.
If you lead a corporation, now’s the time to chip in to your employee’s student loan funds or help them get the most out of their 401Ks. If you’re a manager, now’s the time to implement mental health support systems for the young adults in your organization. If you’re a politician, now’s the time to begin seriously discussing reforms to the minimum wage and unemployment benefits.
This is not just good public policy, but the morally sound thing to do. If these leaders choose not to act, they risk leaving the youngest members of the workforce, once again, in an uphill battle.
Practically, the opinions, attitudes and loyalty of my generation should matter to all leaders:
- We’ll be more connected to brands that acknowledge our perspective.
- We’ll be more committed to employers that show a willingness to invest in our well-being.
- We’ll be more likely to rally around the politicians that fight for our future.
There has never been a better time to show young adults the importance of supporting each other in times of financial, social and political insecurity. You can give us confidence during these formative years, earn our trust and inspire us to uphold a culture of compassion throughout our future. But remember, this trust can’t be inauthentically bargained for; it must be earned through thoughtful, purposeful action.
So I urge you, leaders of society, keep in mind the younger generation. The decisions you make in the near future will leave a strong impression, whatever it may be, on the wellbeing, attitude and economic consequences of the young American workforce. We should be in this conversation. Our generation should be more than just a talking point. Whatever the consequences are, rest assured, we will remember them for years to come.