Health and Wellness

The psychological reasons why Gen X may be taking COVID-19 more seriously than boomers and millennials

@criene | Twenty20

It appears some millennials and seniors haven't been as worried about their risk of contracting COVID-19: Over the weekend, many young people continued to go to bars and restaurants despite urging from public officials to social distance. Others struggled to convince older parents and relatives that COVID-19 is, in fact, a big deal. And a Harris poll on 2,000 adults published March 13 found 77% of adults over 65 and 67% of millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) said they're "unlikely" to catch the virus, which has infected at least 189,000 people around the globe. 

So, who is taking COVID-19 seriously? Possibly Gen X, who are born between 1965 and 1980 according to Pew Research Center, and are often referred to as the "sandwich generation" because many are caring for children and older parents. On social media this weekend, the hashtag "GenX" trended, with the "latchkey generation" saying that they were the most prepared to live in isolation.

From a psychological perspective, there might be some truth to this argument.

"Every generation will react differently [to COVID-19] based on the experiences that generation has had," Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of the nonprofit Mental Health America tells CNBC Make It.

One theory is that Gen X might have more experience working through tumultuous times, as they were in the workforce during other pivotal times like 9/11 and the 2008 stock market crash. 

And amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many Gen X-ers who are responsible for running households, taking care of children and caring for elderly parents must assume the brunt of stress.

"The sandwich generation is concerned about parents and children, and they are also the working generation that is concerned about how they're going to pay the bills next month," Gionfriddo says. In other words, they don't have a choice but to take COVID-19 more seriously.

Older generations, such as baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) and older, may have a greater set of experiences, but their attention is likely going to be turned to worrying about children and grandchildren than their own health, Gionfriddo says.

While those over 65 technically have the highest risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19, "your parents are going to feel that they are still capable of taking care of themselves," David Nace, chief medical officer of UPMC Senior Communities, tells CNBC Make It. That's at least in part because this may be the first time they're considered part of the "older" or "at-risk" population, which can be jarring. 

Younger generations such as millennials and Gen Z have their own reasons for responding in a way that some might consider nonchalant.

For one thing, these younger generations tend to "stare down" problems, which is a coping or survival mechanism, Gionfriddo says. For example, many young people continued to go to bars and restaurants, despite warnings to socially isolate to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"They just say, 'I'm going to face down death, because I see it so much less,'" he says.

And studies suggest that millennials are actually more stressed than other generations, which is why they're often referred to as "the worry generation." A 2018 survey from the American Psychological Association found that Gen Z adults are most likely of all generations to report poor mental health.

"When you tack on something like [COVID-19], you're basically not going to see as dramatic a change in their outlook, because the generation is already so stressed," Gionfriddo says.

Regardless of your age, it's important that "everyone understands more than ever that these threats are real," Gionfriddo says. To that end, you should take your fears and anxieties seriously, Gionfriddo says.

"Don't be shamed into thinking that it's not okay to feel worried," he says.

This story has been updated to include the date of the Pew poll and corrected to reflect that the "sandwich generation" is taking care of both children and parents. 

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