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Millennials, Gen X, Gen Z, baby boomers: how generation labels cloud issues of inequality

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Generations can be defined by family structure, stage of life or historical events. But most often, they’re categorised as “cohorts” of people born during a particular period in time. Catchy labels such as baby boomers, millennials and Gen X and Gen Z tend to stick with each cohort, which are assumed to have shared experiences, behaviours and ideals. This is known as a “cohort effect”.

But common generalisations – for example, that baby boomers are hoarding housing, while millennials have no hope of buying a home – can distort or mask the inequalities that exist within and across generations. So rather than pitching the generations against one another, perhaps it’s time to unpack some common assumptions, and question how much one generation really benefits at another’s expense.

The name game

Popular labels are applied to the generations currently living. The “silent generation” are those born from 1925 to 1945 – so called because they were raised during a period of war and economic depression. The “baby boomers” came next from 1945 to 1964, the result of an increase in births following the end of World War II.

After the baby boomers came “Generation X”, from around 1965 to 1976. The term coined by Charles Hamlett and Jane Deverson (originally referring to the Baby Boomers in their teenage years), was made popular by Douglas Coupland’s eponymous 1991 novel. The label reflected the counterculture of a rebellious generation, distrustful of the establishment and keen to find their own voice.

The cohort known as millennials – originally Generation Y – were identified by American authors William Strauss and Neil Howe as those graduating high school in the year 2000. With the popular focus on the millennium at the time, the name stuck. Although the birth date of this cohort can start from as early as the late 1970s, by some accounts, it generally ranges from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s or early 2000s.

“Generation Z” is the current name for the cohort born from the mid-1990s, though iGen, centennials, post-millennials are further possible labels for a generation that has grown up in a hyper connected world. A “new silent generation” is emerging for those born during the early 2000s, since like their great grandparents in the silent generation, their childhood is also deemed to be marked by war and economic recession.

From needy to greedy

Social and political conflict between generations often boils down to the seemingly unfair consumption of resources by the old. During the 1940s, the “needy” older generation were seen as a burden on the tax-paying younger generation. From the 1950s, older people were blocking beds in hospitals, when they should be in their own homes. More recently, older people are being told that they should move out of their homes and stop hoarding family housing.

Today, it’s often said that baby boomers benefited most from the welfare state, during a period when healthcare and education were free, jobs plentiful and housing affordable. There is also a fear that this generation will be the last to have good pensions.

But all of these arguments conveniently ignore the inequalities within generations, which are greater than the inequalities between them. Not only is there considerable inequality within cohorts, even greater divides are created by gender, ethnicity, disability, housing tenure and class.

Take housing, for example. While baby boomers are often accused of hoarding housing, the accumulation of housing wealth is more often a reflection of income and regional variances, rather than age differences. Between 20% and 25% of the housing wealth in the UK is owned by those under the age of 65, who are in the top 20% of the population in terms of income.

Society’s limits

Another example is education. While baby boomers and Gen X may not have paid for their university education, very few were actually able to take advantage. In England and Wales, participation was at 8.4% in 1970 compared to 33% in 2000. Overall levels of education have actually improved over time.

The problems facing younger cohorts have more to do with the social limits to growth than the cost of education. In 1976, sociologist Fred Hirsch suggested that while the economy continues to grow, enabling ever greater consumption, society’s social structures will remain limited.

So, though more people are gaining degrees, only one person can get the job or the promotion. Standing out from the crowd requires ever increasing educational qualifications, work experience or skills training. In Hirsch’s words, “if everyone stands on tiptoe, no one gets a better view”.

With limited opportunities in society, rationing is achieved through higher entry requirements to both the labour and housing markets. The extent to which people can meet those requirements is still a matter of where they were born in the social hierarchy, rather than when they were born.

Indeed, wealth is generally transferred from older to younger generations via inheritance, rather than withheld: the problem is that this reinforces inequalities within cohorts, as richer people benefit morefrom transfers of family wealth. People’s access to health care, education and housing are determined by policy and the economy, not their date of birth, and the hype about generational conflict only serves to mask the real inequalities in society.

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Quarantine Reflections: How Businesses Must Lead From The Heart Now

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Bisila Bokoko, born in the Equatorial Guinea, raised in Spain and now resident in New York as a businesswoman, communications consultant and motivational speaker, is a global citizen like no other.

Straddling these regions for her wine and sports retail businesses and a library project she is spearheading in Senegal, Bokoko has been on self-quarantine for the last four weeks in her Manhattan apartment, after a recent work trip to Spain.

Here, she sheds light on the Covid-19 crisis that she says has made her more reflective of how she needs to rethink her businesses. “It is an extremely confusing and challenging time with such a huge impact on everything,” she says. “Life is never going to be the same again.”

The coronavirus outbreak has changed the way we eat, shop and consume, she adds, with the most dramatic change happening in retail, because of changing values and new priorities.

“The center is going to be the human being, and the wellbeing of the human,” says Bokoko. “And this will not be from an individual perspective, but in relation to each other. We have to be a more collaborative economy, because how we are, will affect everyone else. As leadership, we now need to lead from the heart.”

In this FORBES AFRICA interview, Bokoko speaks to Managing Editor Renuka Methil, also about how the current crisis will throw up new opportunities for local African art and the fashion business.     

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New York On Lockdown

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As I walk through Brooklyn Bridge Park, gazing at the magnificent Manhattan skyline on the East River, at first glance it looks as crowded as it usually does. However, if you look closer, it’s not your typical mixture of tourists with their cacophony of foreign languages, photographers with tripods, or teenagers on skateboards. The park is filled with lone joggers, parents in yoga pants pushing double strollers and carefully guarding kids on scooters. No one plays volleyball in the sand by the river. No one picnics in the barbecue area. Everyone keeps a friendly and polite distance, some people wear face masks. And yet, it doesn’t really look like social distancing, or the lockdown that it is–ordered by the mayor and the governor of New York in an effort to contain the spread of the Coronavirus.   

That peaceful picture of joggers and children playing shouldn’t fool anyone. The five boroughs of New York City – Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx  — are hit hard by the rapidly spreading Coronavirus. With the death toll rising – 678 patients had died in overcrowded New York City hospitals by March 28, and the number of cases in New York state has surpassed 53,000; the five boroughs of New York have become the epicenter of the pandemic. 

The healthcare system is overwhelmed. I spoke with four medical professionals in the city and they all confirm the disturbing reality that is in the news. The hospitals don’t have enough protective gear, single use masks have been reused, hospitals do not have enough beds and ventilators. Medical personnel intubate patients non-stop, assisting them with breathing. The city hospitals have set up makeshift tents to triage COVID-19 patients as well as to act as morgues. The government’s delayed response to the virus’s spread is costing many, many lives. 

One thing that is striking about New Yorkers – my home of seventeen years – is how people come together and support each other. After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001; during the power outage in 2003, when the entire city went dark for hours; and after the devastating hurricane Sandy in 2012. 

On the day when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, New Yorkers, predominantly liberal democrats, were especially sensitive with each other, calmly sharing their sadness and expressing worry for the future of their country. Today, when schools, non-essential stores, bars and restaurants are closed, and many people are isolating and trying to follow social distancing guidelines, members of communities come together to help each other: buying food for older neighbors, helping with disinfecting door knobs and elevator buttons. Mental health professionals volunteer their services to the anxious and scared. At grocery stores and pharmacies only a few people are allowed in at a time, people are waiting outside, standing about two meters apart, and the doormen pour out hand sanitizer into people’s palms. 

Besides solidarity and respect, there is also fear and anxiety. Service and food industry workers are out of work, facing months of hardships. According to the New York State Labor department, during the first days of the lockdown, in some parts of the state, there was a 1,000% increase in unemployment claims as 1.7 million people called to file for benefits. Well over a million children from financially strained families relied on school lunches, and those are now provided at meal sites. But that also means the disparity in incomes in New York has been underscored by the Covid 19 impact, and the inequality between the haves and have-nots will continue to be exposed.

Forbes headquarters in New Jersey has been working remotely since the first week of March. We quickly re-organized: the entire company of 400 people has migrated into a virtual workplace, with a highly mobilized virtual newsroom. Besides holding daily meetings and video calls, our teams get together for virtual hangouts to keep each other’s spirits up. 

The city authorities were slow to respond to the Covid-19 spread. For weeks, when it was clear the crisis was imminent, eight million New Yorkers commuted in crowded subways, went to crowded restaurants and bars, and also traveled to and from crowded international airports, breathing in each other’s air. 

In the absence of the pandemic team, fired by Trump in 2018, the federal government’s response was slow to respond to the disaster. The Trump administration failed to prevent this crisis underestimating the danger of Covid-19: “We have it totally under control,” he said in January, when the virus was already spreading. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.” The government failed to test people in a timely manner. In New York,  Mayor Bill De Blasio and the governor Andew Cuomo stepped in and tried to help the hospitals secure supplies and additional testing stations. They are still trying.

Meanwhile, the city is contemplating closing parks and other public places. Maybe even prohibiting people from leaving their homes, or perhaps prohibiting them from leaving New York itself. For the next few weeks, the Big Apple will stay confined indoors. Stay home, don’t spread, save lives.

Katya Soldak, Forbes Staff, Business

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Here’s How Much It Could Cost If We Stop Social Distancing

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Topline: This week, President Trump floated the idea of easing up on social distancing measures on the theory that the damage caused by shutting down the economy might be greater than the cost of letting the virus run its course—some models suggest, however, that reopening the economy too soon could be exponentially more expensive.

  • If the United States were to abandon aggressive social distancing measures after 14 days, more than 125 million people will contract the virus, some 7 million could be hospitalized, and 1.9 million people will die (accounting for other factors like infectiousness and hospitalization rates), according to a model built by the New York Times
  • If social distancing goes on for two months, the model predicts that 14 million will contract the virus, with fewer than 100,000 deaths.
  • There’s no debate that the broader economy is going to suffer even at the current rate of spread. Morgan Stanley is predicting a 30% drop in GDP next quarter. U.S. GDP is currently $21.43 trillion. A drop of 30% would mean a value-loss of more than $6.4 trillion (for context, the economic relief bill signed by President Trump this afternoon is worth about $2 trillion). 
  • If the outbreak worsens due to relaxed social distancing measures, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate even greater economic losses.
  • Economists can calculate the average value of one life saved using a model called the value of a statistical life. It’s a fuzzy metric used by some government agencies that is based on how much a person is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death. Right now, that figure hovers around $10 million.
  • “If we could prevent a million deaths, at the usual way we value [them] of around $10 million each, that’s $10 trillion, which is half of GDP,” says James Hammitt, a professor of economics in Harvard’s health policy department. 
  • University of Chicago economists have arrived at a similar conclusion: they’ve found that under “moderate” social distancing measures, 1.7 million lives and at least $7.9 trillion could be saved. 

Big number: The average cost of a hospital stay for a mild case of pneumonia is $9,763, according to Peterson-KFF analysis (pneumonia is commonly associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus). The median total cost balloons to $88,114 for the most severe cases that require more than four days of ventilator support. Seven million hospitalizations for patients with mild cases would cost more than $68 billion. If 17% of those patients required ventilator support, as was the case in one Chinese study, the cost of hospitalizations alone could add up to a staggering $161 billion, and that’s before the cost of other health complications related to the virus is accounted for. 

Crucial quote: “Anything that slows the rate of the virus is the best thing you can do for the economy, even if by conventional measures it’s bad for the economy,” University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee told the New York Times

Key background: In some ways, all of this discourse is more than a century old. A new paper released yesterday found that during the1918 flu pandemic—the closest historical analogue for the current coronavirus outbreak—cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively to slow the spread of the virus through social distancing and isolation of cases suffered no greater economic damage than those that didn’t. “On the contrary,” the authors write, “cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experience a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic.” Seattle, Oakland, Omaha, and Los Angeles, for instance, implemented stronger containment measures than Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Philadelphia and all saw a much larger surge in job growth after the crisis was over in 1920. 

Tangent: Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggested earlier this week that grandparents might be willing to die to preserve the economy for their grandchildren. “No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” he said. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” His and Trump’s comments sparked a backlash among progressives on social media on Tuesday, when the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet trended on Twitter as users voiced their fears of the pandemic, and of the government’s response to it. “I’ll let Wall Street flat line before my grandma does,” wrote one Twitter user. 

Sarah Hansen, Forbes Staff

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