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Generation COVID

23 minutes


Dan Woodman

TR Ashworth Associate Professor in Sociology, University of Melbourne

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Episode Notes

If you’re a millennial, spending part or all of your young adult life living at home with your boomer parents has been the norm for a while. After all, rents are high and work is insecure. How else are you going to get ahead?
But what we weren’t banking on was Covid-19 lockdown, when everyone was forced to stay home together 24/7.

From lockdown to easing of restrictions and the many variations within these extremes, what exactly has been happening inside Australia’s multigenerational homes? And will the pandemic create a “Generation Covid” – people whose lives are forever marked by the pandemic? Join Ginger Gorman on this episode of Seriously Social as she chats with an expert in intergenerational relationships, Melbourne University sociologist Associate Professor Dan Woodman.


Ginger Gorman:    Good day, and thanks for joining us wherever you may be and whatever you may be doing.

You are listening to Seriously Social. This is the podcast where we use the lens of the social sciences to help us consider how COVID-19 is impacting Australian society, our relationships, human connections and societal structures. We get experts to give us new insights and help us think about things in new ways.

With me now is Dan Woodman, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Melbourne and President of both the Australian Sociological Association and the Council of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences.

Now, Dan’s expertise is in generational issues and today we’ll be chatting about how the pandemic is impacting those people and these relationships.

Dan, thank you so much for joining me.

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:     Great to be speaking with you, Ginger.

Ginger:                  What’s your interest in generations?

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:                      So, with some colleagues at the University of Melbourne, I am running a project called Life Patterns, which has tracked two cohorts of young Australians through their 20s as they make that transition to adulthood to look at how that transition has changed. But the two groups we followed are part of what in the popular discourse is called Gen-X and Gen-Y or the millennials.

So, we’ve had this amazing dataset where we’ve surveyed people every year and also done interviews with a subsample of the group to really look at how that transition to adulthood, but more broadly, how life in Australia is changing, how the kind of possibilities for the kind of ways you can build an adult life have shifted across those two cohorts. So, that’s given us some great insights into the way Australia as a whole has changed, but how that might have different effects based on when you’re born.

Ginger:                  Dan, I read an article that you wrote a couple of years ago based on this research project in The Guardian. And you were really delving into how millennials are relying on their parents more, often boomers, financially and for accommodation. And basically, you were indicating that family resources matter much more than they did a generation ago. So, looking at that research now in the context of the pandemic, what are you noticing with all these families where young people and boomers are living together?

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:                      Yeah. So, over the last 20 years, and really going back before that, the language of generations is often used for bashing each other over the head with, basically: selfish boomers, narcissistic millennials, these kind of things, a language of generation wars.

I’ve really noticed that when I started doing this research, the millennials, we tended to call them gen-Y before that ‘millennial’ label really stuck, were copping it all the time in the media. And then, over the last few years, maybe as some boomers have been retiring or those jobs in the media have disappeared and new, maybe less secure jobs have emerged, but there’s a whole cohort of millennials journalists, who finally got a chance to say something back the other ways. And the boomers have copped it a lot as well.

So, in the public discourse, there’s this real sense of a generation clash where there’s these two generations where the one is losing out at the expense of the other. That is too simple. But then there are other social scientists who say, “Look, this is just inequality as it’s always been. It’s class, it’s things like that and this is how it’s always been. That’s how capitalism works.”

But we made some really, really big changes in how the economy works that shape the life of the millennials. They kind of pulled away some of the security or some of the supports for that transition to adulthood and it didn’t throw them back just on their own resources. Really, and partly deliberately, it made the family more important as the support that lasts well past when maybe for the baby boomers, you had the opportunity to really be independent.

So, on the one hand, we have made changes that have affected the life chances of new generations, but the way that has worked has actually made certain kinds of intergenerational solidarity, particularly in family groups, even more important than it used to be.

Ginger:                  But what’s happening now in the pandemic because where you may have had everybody going out to work and everybody going out to do university or various other activities, now we’re not going out, obviously? So, everyone’s jammed in there together.

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:                      Yeah. As a parent of young children, I’m very viscerally aware of this sense of being jammed in together with everyone. And there are some lovely parts of it, but there are also some challenges. So, one of the ways we’ve managed to have this asset price boom that we’ve had around housing in Australia, and other things, and extend the time people spend on average in education and manage a transition to work that maybe takes longer is for young people to stay in the family home for longer than they used to. So, that’s a clear pattern we’ve seen in our research.

Again, on average, some people do still move out early, although some people, and it’s much more common these days to move out for a while and then go home again, either to save some money or with your tail between your legs in some ways. And there’s very early evidence.

This is not from my own study, but just from reading some of the statistics that are coming out now that maybe some young people are starting to move home right now in response to just to manage the day-to-day life of the crisis, but also jobs disappearing, or just wanting those supports when they may be needing to go into university or TAFE face to face at the moment.

Ginger:                  That’s right. I wrote an article for the ABC about the mental health of young people between 18 and 24 and Professor Patrick McGorry, who a lot of people would now, who’s the sort of godfather of mental health in Australia, especially for that group. He’s very worried about that cohort just because they are in insecure work a lot of the time and a lot of these jobs are gone in the pandemic. Universities, TAFEs have been shut. So, you’re getting droves of young people, who maybe were exploring a fledgling independence, moving home as well.

So, I’m wondering what is happening inside households around Australia at the moment where you’ve got all these intergenerational relationships and they’re not getting a break from each other.

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:                      One of the things that has changed that’s allowed these intergenerational households to develop and to function, and sometimes even thrive, is that although in some ways millennials are more dependent on their parents’ generation for support than they use to be, culturally things have changed, so you can live at home. Again, this is speaking in generalities, but you can live at home as a young adult and get treated as an adult.

Your parents won’t be saying, “You have to follow the rules in my house. No intimate partner is ever allowed to step foot in or stay overnight in this house,” or those kinds of things. So, one of the ways we did it was that intergenerational households still could live a relatively independent life.

One of the really interesting things I’ve looked at in our study of this transition to adulthood in Australia has been the way that some of the complexities of the schedules of everyday life, particularly for young people, working those casual jobs. They might have night, evening hours, variable hours, mixing work and study with their social life is that the people’s schedules are all over the place. And that can actually help in some ways because you might want to spend some time with your parents, but there are other points in your week and month and year where you kind of pass like ships in the night. You won’t be in each other’s faces all the time.

And I think for some people, it’s been lovely to be in each other’s faces all the time, but I think there are a lot of people out there who have also found that a real challenge. And that sense that you can live with your parents as a young adult and still be independent has really disappeared quickly. It’s completely disappeared quite quickly for the time being.

Ginger:                  And it will be interesting to see what happens into the future because this moment we’re having now of a global pandemic feels very much like a turning point in history, like the great depression or the great wars. And these big events do change young people in the years ahead. So, I’m wondering what this generation of changemakers, who are, say, 15 into their mid-20s, our future leaders in all kinds of fields, if you want to phrase it that way. What is going to happen to them because of these experiences, Dan?

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:                      Yes. There’s always a large degree of speculation in all these things. But I’ve seen a lot of articles and some more academic writing start to come out about how things are going to be totally different after this. And I’m a little bit sceptical of that because I think we’ve seen the capacity for us to return to our footie games and shaking hands and going to the movies and other things after previous pandemics.

And economically, what people tend to mean when they say, “This is such a big event. We can’t go back,” is that we shouldn’t go back because I think what we had before this wasn’t working very well for everyone. So, as much as anything, it’s almost like a political statement. And what these events can do is kind of reset the stakes of politics. So, sometimes, you see takes on generations where they treat a new cohort like they’re all of one with all one value set.

Just as a little bit of an aside, when I teach my students about this, I show them some very influential work on generations that I think is very simplistic that kind of maps all the generational cohorts and says, “If you’re in this group, you like to do this and you like to think like this.” And one of the things it says is that millennials and Gen-Zs, the 18, early-20-somethings now really learn through kinaesthetic means, through movement and dance, basically.

And I show that to my students and say, “Well, because of this research, what we’re going to do is we’re going to dance our way through the rest of this semester. All lectures will be dance-based. All assessment will be dance-based because this is what the research is saying you want.” And then I say, “Actually, I’m joking. You can all sit down after we loosen up.”

And about 10% of the class look really disappointed that they’re not going to dance and 90% look really, really relieved. And I think it’s the same when I do the same exercise with Gen-Xs or boomers. What the generational work often does is take small, but sometimes significant changes and make them into these generational‑defining oppositions whereas the best work on generations really thinks about how this will just change the stakes or the problems that a cohort has to deal with. And the people in that cohort will do it in more than one way, lots of different ways.

Ginger:                  I take your point, Dan, completely. However, I have been wondering things myself in terms of whether there will be a Generation COVID, if you like. Just with my own children, I’ve been wondering things like will they be hesitant to touch other people? Will it be harder for them to make relationships because they’re worried about getting sick? Will they want much more secure work and go for, say, jobs in the public service where they’ve got a lifelong career rather than insecure work as I am currently in? Will there be swings towards certain kinds of behaviours, which are a result of what is happening now?

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:                      Yeah. That’s a really interesting question and I have seen the term ‘Generation COVID’ being thrown around already. In earlier points, I’ve seen people talk about these big events as generationally defining. So, the Vietnam War or some people talked about September 11 and the war on terror in these terms.

And I think there’s a degree of truth to that, but it’s almost like there are some generational dimensions to it, but it doesn’t override… Also, I guess, things about our humanity that seems they have quite a lot of resilience. And what it does is just reshape the way people go about that. So, people who are part of that popular cohort called Gen-X grew up with their ideas about intimacy shaped by the HIV pandemic and some really confronting ads and other things. It absolutely shaped their attitudes and views and the way they acted, but it doesn’t stop a search for intimacy.

And I think we’re going to find that kind of need for human touch and connection in various ways will return after this pandemic, but maybe with some new elements added on top, at least for the immediate future.

So, the way I like to think about this is that these events can kind of set the scene for people to think differently about how to live their life, but for some, that’s going to mean thinking differently about how it’s possible to return to the things that they value.

Ginger:                  I was talking to your colleague, Richard Holden, Economist, in one of the podcasts about the economic changes that were going to occur because of COVID-19. And he was talking about a reset or a sort of solving of some of the problems that we already had in the economy. So, perhaps we are going to see a solving of some of these problems, which are already in people’s lives in a positive way. In fact, the changes might benefit society and benefit individuals.

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:                      Yeah. There’s absolutely the chance of that. It’s kind of an opportunity, but the way it often works out is there’s kind of a reset or a change in the kind of arguments we have, but there’s still usually a left and right.

The people talk about the baby-boomer generation and that counterculture around the Vietnam War in the late-’60s and other things as generationally defining, and it was. But it was also the birth of not just a new left. It was like a new right that also really had its beginnings at that time, and in some ways, it has shaped politics just as much as that new left. And I think we will probably see that again.

But Richard is absolutely right. This is time for a reset, but it also might mean that the people have to rethink or go about getting the things they want from work in a different way.

I have a recent journal article that came out at the end of last week that looked at attitudes towards job security in the two cohorts in my study. So, this group that finished school in the early-1990s comparing them to a group that finished high school in the mid-2000s. And it was very funny and somewhat against the generational stereotypes of both of the cohorts both in their early-20s and even when they were 30 really put job security and a job that gave security as the most important thing.

So, that hasn’t changed, but what really changed was the two cohorts, when they were young and even when they got to 30 thought about job security in a very different way. It was about a set of skills that their work might give them that gave them security to find other jobs and have opportunities for the cohort who finished in 2006, which was quite different to the group who finished in the early-1990s.

So, sometimes, what these generations are about is not a radically opposite view on what life should be like, but a different understanding based on the structures they face about how you go about doing that.

Ginger:                  It’s really interesting and I think what I’m hearing you say is that we need to look at this in all its complexity and not try to boil things down in a black and white way because it doesn’t really serve us.

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:                      No, exactly. That’s right. So, my view is generational or cohort factors really do play an important role in shaping our lives and our opportunities. But some of the generational talk really gets into black and white where it’s almost like generations is a sociological factors, a play in the world, more than there is a group that you can call the millennials, who will think of themselves as the millennials and all act as millennials or Gen-Z’ers or baby boomers. Our lives are shaped by generations, but also by all those other factors that social scientists look at.

And really, some of the most interesting questions are about how all those factors intercept. So, I sometimes push back against colleagues who talk about generational factors as somehow opposed to thinking about class or if you’re talking about generations in your same class doesn’t matter, or gender or other things, whereas I think we need to look at the way these, maybe you’ll call them longstanding divisions, take particular shape at particular times in our history. And they do change the way that our class, gender and our ethnic background and these things shape our life chances.

Ginger:                  Dan, one of the things that I was thinking about being a mother of a nine-year old and a seven year old was our generation of parents and whether we actually have the skills to bring these kids up because none of us have ever lived through, firstly, a global climate emergency and, secondly, a global pandemic. And those two factors, frankly, scare the bejesus out of me because those are not skills my parents gave to me that I can give to my kids. I don’t know what those are.

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:                      Yeah, that’s it. I can’t remember getting a good education in pandemic response or climate change emergency when I was in school. It’s really interesting because some of the really foundational work in the area that’s called the sociology of generations came from scholars riding in the aftermath of the First World War.

And they were talking about what it meant for the cohorts most caught up in the fighting, young adults, and how they will build lives that would have to look different in certain minds. And even if they did want to return to before that that would take a lot of work and that would have to look new in certain ways.

So, that kind of idea of a big change that the main things have to be different or are different was the foundation of this work. But the key scholar was a fellow called Karl Mannheim, a Hungarian German sociologist. And his real interest, if you read his work on generations is to set that scene and then ask about how intergenerational relationships of education are possible.

And he was saying, “Yeah, it’s like how do you educate when you’re really living in two different generational worlds in that sense?” And his answer, and I think this was ahead of its time for the early-20th Century, is that education can’t just be didactic. Really, the teacher has to be learning from the student as well.

And it’s kind of an attitude, a type of intelligence. You could almost call it generational intelligence. It’s aware of the way the world has changed and maybe shaped mindsets that you’re learning from each other across the generations, but also trying to recognize the way that being part of particular birth cohorts and growing up at particular times does shape your life and your attitudes. And that’s what we need to kind of communicate across and work across.

Ginger:                  Is that also what we might call resilience now? You’re not just teaching children. You’re learning from them, but you’re giving them a skillset which will enable them to deal with change into the future, although you yourself may not know what that change looks like.

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:                      You don’t want to romanticise or anything the horrible experiences people have gone through in their life, but some of the really exceptional foundational work in life course analysis of the effects of both cohorts looked at the Great Depression.

And the children and young people of that time really did, in some ways, the story that came out of it was one of suffering, but then of resilience and bouncing back. In some ways, it was harder for the adults and young adults, who had children at that time and then that unfolded over their life course.

But there are some ways that these experiences are a chance for people to build attitudes and mindsets and ways of thinking about the world that might give some individual resilience, but maybe more importantly, allow us to have a new kind of social resilience or solidarity, which is a new opportunity to connect across some of these generational differences and other differences; not to obscure them at all, but to take them seriously and ask, “How do we build societies that are going to work for all of us in these conditions that we’re going to face?”

Ginger:                  Dan, thank you so much for talking to me today.

Associate Professor Dan Woodman:                      Thanks.

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