March 14, 2021

Wounded by both a pandemic and recession, millennials are reliving the history of 100 years ago

[Business Insider, Getty Images]

  • Millennials are defined by the Great Recession and the coronavirus pandemic, says gen expert Neil Howe.
  • It’s a repeat of the GI Generation, who came of age during the Spanish Flu and Great Depression.
  • The pandemic and economic crash defined older and younger cohorts of both generations, but in reverse.

Millennials have lived through two recessions before the age of 40, the scars of which have accentuated an intra-generational divide.

“The Great Recession hit the early wave of millennials,” Neil Howe, the economist, historian, and demographer who coined the term “millennial,” told Insider. “The pandemic recession is squarely impacting the late wave of the millennial generation.”  

Howe’s definition of millennials is a bit more expansive than the Pew Research Center’s, encompassing those born between 1982 and 2004. He based this on “location in history, attitudes and behavior and perceived generational break points,” he said.

Kentucky restaurant
Younger workers have been hit hardest during the coronavirus recession. 

The older cohort of millennials, born in the 1980s, graduated into a blighted job market with stagnated wages amid rising living costs, a tough combination that made it increasingly hard to pay off student debt. This group is the cohort that recovered slowest from the Great Recession, according to a 2018 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. It found they had wealth levels 34% below where they would most likely have been if the financial crisis hadn’t occurred. 

Younger millennials caught the slow recovery period, having watched their older peers bear the brunt of this economic pain. But now, they’re the ones getting slammed by the coronavirus recession. Younger workers have been hit hardest in terms of layoffs and pay cuts, affecting their ability to build wealth. The very youngest, per Howe’s millennial definition, graduated into a similar job market to the one their older brethren did a dozen years ago.

Millennials are repeating the history of the GI generation

This isn’t the first time history has seen a generation defined by both a pandemic and recession. 

Howe drew a similar parallel between millennials and the Greatest Generation, which he calls the GI generation. They were born between 1901 and 1924, by Howe’s definition. The early cohort was hit by the Spanish influenza and the depression of 1920, Howe said, whereas the Great Depression hammered the later part of the generation — something like the reverse of what millennials have gone through.

The Spanish flu ravaged the US from 1918 to 1920, and eventually killed 50 million people worldwide. In 1920, the economic climate had taken a turn. The Dow plunged by 46.5%. Unemployment soared from 4% to nearly 12%, and the GNP plunged by nearly 17%, according to libertarian think tank The Mises Institute. The depression lasted until 2021. 

1918 spanish flu pandemic
Like millennials, the GI Generation lived through a pandemic — the Spanish Flu. 

That turnd out to be just the prelude to the Great Depression, which hit in 1929 when the stock market crashed on the historic Black Friday. It is still known as history’s worst economic downturn, although the depths of the coronavirus recession in March and April 2020 saw unprecedented economic damage, according to data that doesn’t go back far enough to make the two comparable.

The nadir of the Great Depression came in 1933 when 15 million Americans were unemployed, whereas unemployment during the coronavirus recession peaked at 23 million, although the American population was much smaller 90 years ago.

The Great Depression was another defining period for the second half of the GI generation, which overall came of age amidst a collective 10 years of hardships. “About a decade later, you kind of get a double whammy,” Howe said of both millennials and the GI generation.

Forged in the fires of adversity?

Generations have historically been divided by impactful events that create fear and uncertainty to such an extent that how people view the world, past, and future are changed forever. A typical cut-off for generations is when one cohort can’t remember the events that another cohort does. 

It’s why some generational experts have speculated that the coronavirus pandemic will be the dividing line between Gen Z and the generation that follows it. A Bank of America Research report deemed the forthcoming generation “Generation Covid,” or Gen C, which it said will be defined in part by their inability to remember the pandemic. lp

But Howe said he thinks there will be another breaking point post-pandemic that will mark the end of Gen Z and the beginning of a new generation. The pandemic, he said, is just another defining point for millennials.

The generation has certainly had a rough ride, but if they are indeed repeating the GI generation’s history, there is reason to be optimistic. The GI generation later went on to make civic investments in America’s future, in part by building a ton of infrastructure and backing programs like the New Deal and minimum wage laws.

If hardship leaves a generation with a hunger for a restructuring of the economic system and rethinking of opportunity, then another generation’s perspective will have been changed by impactful events.

Much like the GI Generation, millennials have the potential to lay a new economic framework for future generations. After all, as President John Adams once said, “People and nations are forged in the fires of adversity.”

By Hillary Hoffower 

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