Coronavirus quarantine? Gen X was made for this. Boomers and Gen Z, not so much.

We Gen Xers will take our time in the spotlight however we can get it — and hope that means more people listen to our advice on venturing out: Just Say No.
Image: Yes, a global pandemic has now become a generational issue -- as Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Zoomers all respond to the growing crisis in their own special ways.
Yes, a global pandemic has now become a generational issue, as baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials and zoomers all respond to the growing crisis in their own special ways.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News
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By Megan Gerhardt, professor of leadership and management at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University

In every crisis, there is an opportunity. Amid a global pandemic, it looks like my own Gen X has finally found ours. As the generation raised in the age of stranger danger and Just Say No, our inherent risk aversion is finally being recognized as a great strength and asset to the survival of the species.

Our independent streak was fostered by our need to fend for ourselves while our boomer parents toiled for long hours at work, making us more than comfortable with self-reliance and an afternoon spent on the couch playing video games. Now, for the first time in our lives, the question "Why can't everyone be more like Generation X?" is being uttered.

There's more to our pandemic best practices than having been born from 1965 to 1980 and raised on the movies “Outbreak” and “Home Alone."

And we Gen Xers have been quick to pounce on the moment. "Shout out to Gen X, the only generation who can keep our asses at home without being told, the motherf***ing latchkey kids, the generation used to being neglected by f***ing everyone," writer Lauren Hough declared in a self-congratulatory tweet last week. "We'll be the only ones left."

The best minds of my generation quickly responded to Hough with more backpatting. "As an X'er, I feel like my whole life has led up to this important moment when my nation will call upon me to do nothing," replied one tweeter. Another added: "We survived Reagan, the crack epidemic, the AIDS epidemic, the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, the S&L collapse all the while living on nothing but PB&J and ennui. The other generations should follow our lead on this one."

Yes, a global pandemic has now become yet another generational divide. Headlines have called out Generation Z and millennials for their inability to skip brunch, chastised the boomers for not taking the threat to their health more seriously and celebrated the Gen X talent for hanging out and doing nothing.

Far be it from me to take away from this rare moment of generational glory. But in fact, there's more to our pandemic best practices than having been born from 1965 to 1980 and raised on the movies "Outbreak" and "Home Alone" — just as there's more to the boorish behavior of many (though not all!) boomers, millennials and zoomers than their generational divisions.

Our differing reaction to and compliance with the directives on COVID-19 also reflect the phase of life each of us finds ourselves in, which is why it's important to understand that dimension, as well, before we point more fingers at one another. Or at least so we can point them at one another for the right reasons.

When it comes to Generation X, the formative experiences tweeted above have indeed positioned us well for our present reality of sheltering in place. Still, our current life stage also gives us increased motivation to be role models for staying home.

Gen X is the "sandwich generation," with many taking on dual responsibilities for caring for aging parents while still being in charge of growing kids. So while we are personally more than game to lie low and will make our children do the same, we are also calling our baby boomer parents and pleading with them to please stay in, as well. It's the ultimate role reversal for grown kids, suddenly stricken with worry about where their parents are and reminding them they need to wash their hands.

And why is it that we adult children are stomping our feet at boomers who aren't willing to heed the warnings, despite overwhelming evidence that they are at the highest risk from COVID-19? Generational issues are at play for sure: Baby boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, grew up in the era of optimism, literally conceived as the hope of an America victorious from World War II. They successfully fought for civil rights and women's lib, built impressive careers and, as a whole, experienced a level of success unthinkable to their parents.

And while their parents' generation was willing to accept the direction and authority of its government and leadership when sent to fight in the Second World War, boomers didn't follow suit when faced with the Vietnam War; many openly protested and even avoided military action, leaving a lingering distrust in their government's decision-making.

But again, their attitude has much to do with the stage of life they're in. As the country's elders, many boomers feel they have earned the right to make their own decisions and don't need their children giving them unsolicited advice.

During one of my own attempts to offer such advice, I asked my dad (71 and a proud boomer) why so many people in his generation were pushing back. After arguing that he thought the question was somewhat loaded to make boomers look like old curmudgeons, he finally replied: "We raised you and protected you and guided you along, how come you know everything all of a sudden? We have all our marbles (mostly) and feel competent to run our own lives."

Interestingly, there's another stage-of-life dynamic going on for many boomers — stemming from the unprecedented lengthening of life spans and, with that, the introduction of the period known as "active retirement." Many younger boomers are under the 60-year-old threshold to be considered at higher risk for coronavirus complications, and many over 60 don't look, feel or act "old." They don't connect those warnings for elderly people to themselves.

On the other end of the age spectrum is Generation Z, members of whom seem to be defying the social distancing rules even more than their grandparents. To some degree, it makes sense: Zoomers are the generation that's experienced a scandal or crisis in the headlines almost every day of their lives, leading them to selectively filter out the severe warnings as more "fake news." And for all their internet savvy, there's data showing Gen Z puts a high value on face-to-face contact, which may be fueling this urge to meet up with people regardless of the outrage directed their way.

But for them, too, their place on the arc of life experience makes a difference. The oldest of Gen Z are only 23 years old and likely responsible only for themselves. This reality, coupled with data that the virus is less likely to affect them severely, has led to what I call the "beach and brunch" phenomenon.

Youth, of course, is also synonymous with misperceptions of invincibility. As I heard one Gen Zer proclaim on the news the other night, "If I get corona, I get corona— I've been planning this trip with my friends for a long time!"

Millennials, together with Gen Z, belong to the most socially connected generations, so we would expect them to be OK with a little social distancing. However, this is where Gen X really distinguishes itself: Millennials were raised on play dates and back-to-back enrichment activities, making them the overscheduled generation, with many now feeling at loose ends with the sudden lack of direction.

It’s the ultimate role reversal for grown kids, suddenly stricken with worry about where their parents are and reminding them they need to wash their hands.

That doesn't mean all millennials are shrugging off the restrictions. In fact, millennial compliance is probably much more a factor of their life stage than their generation, because they currently span ages 23 to 39 — often a period full of shifting priorities. Older millennials are likely in the same boat as Gen X (we'll let you in; we're laid back that way), worrying about their older parents and their young children. Younger millennials are more likely to be joining their Gen Z friends in heading out to beach parties and restaurants.

Indeed, generational identity and life stage are both contributing to how we are reacting to our current reality. Thankfully, both are giving an ego boost to Gen Xers, who will take our time in the spotlight wherever we can get it — and hope that means more people are listening to the sage advice we have to share with other generations when it comes to heading outside: Just Say No.

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