This nation is on the verge of a meaningful leadership transition. Given the craziness of 2020, you can’t help but to think about what the future will look like and who will be guiding us through these tumultuous times. These thoughts are not being driven by the upcoming presidential race, but a different transition that is gaining steam thanks to the pandemic. COVID-19, and its uneven effects on people of different ages, is the latest phenomenon to underscore the differences between younger and older generations. But these differences go beyond age, and, with COVID as the catalyst, are empowering young people to take on larger, leading roles in many areas of modern life.
The pain and suffering that COVID has wrought upon the globe have been devastating and tragic. The pandemic has been particularly cruel to older people. Americans aged 50-64 have a 4x higher chance of being hospitalized due to COVID than those aged 18-29. In the US, over 90% of the roughly 200,000 COVID deaths have been among people over 55, a demographic that I am, reluctantly, approaching. Accordingly, older Americans are proceeding cautiously as businesses and institutions reopen. As evidenced by the many new stories coming from college campuses, younger people feel much less vulnerable to the effects of COVID. Consequently, it is the younger generations that will be on the leading edge as society returns to normal.
It is our younger coworkers that are more likely to be living in a one-bedroom apartment or have young kids at home. Not surprisingly, they will be the ones most anxious to return to the office and leave the isolation and chaos of the home-office behind. It will also likely be our younger colleagues that will be more willing to hop on a plane or train and re-embrace business travel. As a result, our younger colleagues will have an opportunity to accelerate their careers and professional exposure, while the rest of us slowly, cautiously reenter the traditional work environment.
The other impact of COVID has been an increased reliance on technology. Under lockdown, being technologically savvy is critical to everyday living. What was once the bastion of the young, older Americans have been flocking to ecommerce to safely shop for necessities. The Commerce Department noted that ecommerce sales spiked 44% in Q2 2020, as Americans were forced to shop in ways that involved little human interaction. This shift was perhaps most apparent in online grocery, which has long struggled with adoption: Q2 2020 sales were triple what they were in Q2 2019.
Whether it is web-based shopping, video calls or collaborative docs, those among us that entered COVID with strong technical skills have been fairing much better than those of us less tech savvy. While I have always embraced technological advancements throughout my career, it is not as innate to me as it is to recent college grads who grew up tech-enabled. Most 25 year olds probably don’t remember a world before Facebook. And for those in school now, during their toddler years they were probably more attached to their iPad than they were to their favorite blanket. With the advent of virtual learning in our schools, students as young as second grade are being asked to seamlessly transition between Zoom videos, Google docs and web classrooms; skills that many of the teachers are struggling to master.
COVID has created a shift in the age-related power dynamic. The younger generation is being asked, and is often forced, to step up. The older generations are realizing that they don’t feel comfortable doing something as simple as a Zoom call without at least one Gen Z colleague nearby to help address any technological glitches that may arise. Personally, while working from home during lockdown, it was always nice to know that my kids were around to act as a mobile IT department.
The passing of the torch from the old to the young is natural and inevitable. But COVID seems to have accelerated this transition, at least temporarily. So, while COVID will leave behind many painful memories, it may also accelerate the maturation of younger generations. It can be tough for us “seasoned” employees to acknowledge, but more than ever, we will be looking to our younger colleagues to lead us. However, I’m not riding off into the sunset just yet. After all, no matter who wins the upcoming election, I am still going to be a full generation younger than the president.Read the full weekly consensus