The millennial pandemic
The first time I heard COVID-19 referred to as "the boomer remover" was in February, during those eerie early days of the pandemic when we still had the capacity to marvel at the novelty of ideas like "quarantine" and "self-isolation" and "flattening the curve." Though the phrase originated with Gen Z TikTok teens, being a millennial — and therefore embarrassingly invested in what the generation directly below mine is "up to" — I found it irreverent and cheeky and the tiniest bit worrisome. My parents are boomers!
The phrase also reflected a surface-level truth: Older generations were largely the ones who were dying from the novel disease. At first this information was used dismissively, to downplay the pandemic deaths as being largely confined to nursing homes and health-care facilities. But the focus on who was dying also obscured another more complicated generational picture of who was catching and spreading the disease. Now, amid a resurgence of the COVID-19 around the country, it's become clear it isn't the boomers or their parents who are driving the pandemic. It's us, the millennials.
The reason recent deaths are relatively low, at least in part, is owed to younger people being the ones overwhelmingly testing positive for COVID-19 at the moment; the 18-34 age group in California, for example, is by far the largest demographic to test positive so far, followed by the 35-49 age group. Nationwide, that trend appears to hold: in Arizona, over 60 percent of new infections are in people under the age of 45, and in Texas' two largest counties, half of the emergent cases are in people under 40. (The standard definition of millennials, as people born between 1980 and 1994, puts the generation in the range of 26 to 40 years old). Speaking in late June, Vice President Mike Pence went as far as to call it "very encouraging news" that "roughly half of the new cases are Americans under the age of 35."
But it's not "very encouraging" at all. For one thing, while millennials, teens, and children don't tend to get as sick as older generations, they are not invincible. Many have died (there are around 3,000-plus confirmed COVID-19 deaths of people under the age of 45 in the U.S. so far) or been hospitalized, or will otherwise live with lifelong health complications as a result of surviving the disease. "I was laughing at all the memes and the jokes [about the coronavirus], and now I'm not," one 27-year-old coronavirus survivor told Kaiser Health News. "It's real."
Even more to the point, though, is the fact that "people between the ages 18 and 50 don't live in some sort of a bubble," as Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt recently put it to The Associated Press. "They are the children and grandchildren of vulnerable people. They may be standing next to you at a wedding. They might be serving you a meal in a restaurant." While it is still early, it appears that outbreaks among young people tend to foreshadow subsequent outbreaks in vulnerable populations, which leads to spikes in deaths. "We first see it in the community, and then we see it in the residents and staff [at nursing homes], and then you see the deaths," David Grabowski, a professor at Harvard Medical School, told The Wall Street Journal. The emergence of cases in younger populations shouldn't be written off; it's a grave omen of what's coming. A Japanese study shared by the CDC and cited by USA Today even "traced half the COVID-19 clusters in a community back to someone under the age of 40. Forty-one percent [of] the original cases did not show symptoms at the time of transmission."
Check out this helpful visualization of the ages of new cases in Florida. With many more cases in younger adults (orange band), we are closely tracking spillover into older adults (red and gray bands).
— Natalie E. Dean, PhD (@nataliexdean) July 14, 2020
But why are millennials getting infected at such high rates?
It's hard to shake the mental image of 22-year-old Brady Sluder announcing in a now-infamous TV interview from Miami that "if I get corona, I get corona — at the end of the day, I'm not going to let it stop me from partying." (He has since offered a sincere apology for his words). Videos and exposés of spring break mayhem, parties at the Lake of the Ozarks over Memorial Day, Fourth of July festivities, and flocks of unmasked people swarming outside of bars in New York can bring back stereotypes about millennials as being arrogant and entitled. Though these potential super-spreading events are probably no more dangerous than indoor church services, it proves some young people are willing to gamble their community's health for the sake of a few beers. It's a level of selfishness and ignorance that, while possibly over-reported, nevertheless deserves call-out and condemnation: even asymptomatic people can pass the virus on to others, including the wait staff who have no choice but to interact with reckless partiers. Even potentially safer-seeming activities, like visiting a reopened bar with a regulated capacity, are more likely to be attended by millennials than at-risk populations, and have seemingly proven to be a major reason why the disease has flared back up.
Even more than partying, though, the spiking cases among millennials, who are a favorite generational scapegoat for just about everything, are likely because young people are also the ones returning to work in droves at the behest of governors who view the health of the economy as more vital than their constituents' physical wellbeing. Nearly 60 percent of all bar employees, 49 percent of all restaurant and food service employees, and 41 percent of hair salon employees in 2017 were people between the ages of 21 and 36, Business Insider estimated last year. It's people in such service industry jobs who are among the most at risk of exposure to COVID-19, being as they are among the least financially free to choose not to return to work. And because young people frequently have only mild symptoms, if they're symptomatic at all, there's an even larger chance of going to work feeling fine and spreading the disease.
In this sense, anyway, responsibility for the reignited outbreak cannot entirely be dropped on millennials; it is first and foremost a failure of American leadership. Authorities and pundits alike have used the relatively low number of recent deaths in order to avoid having to actually do something substantive about the ballooning case numbers. After all, other countries also have 20- and 30-year-olds, and have managed to get their cases under much better control. While it may be tempting to be optimistic about the positive tests among young people, since the vast majority won't become gravely ill, our emerging millennial pandemic is certainly not "a good thing," no matter how anyone tries to spin it. It's still tragically going to be a boomer remover — one we should have been able to shut off by now.