Hospital beds for COVID-19 patients
The 202-bed federal medical facility set up inside Palomar Medical Center to treat COVID-19 patients. Courtesy Supervisor Kristin Gaspar

Our Competitive Edge Research & Communication survey of 542 California voters is clear: the coronavirus is an almost universal concern. By huge numbers, old and young are united by the fear of the virus invading their communities. But once we dig into the California psyche, disturbing generational differences emerge.

First, the elderly rarely believe there is a good chance they or someone in their household will become infected with COVID-19. Nearly two-thirds older than 76 say that is unlikely. Huh? Aren’t they the ones most at risk? In contrast, forty-five percent of those 58 to 76 believe they’ll likely get COVID-19, and fifty-seven percent younger than 58 say the same.

Perhaps older people are less fearful because they take more precautions. Maybe they’re extra careful when they go out, but the poll shows they’re like the rest of us when it comes to complying with the Governor’s stay-at-home order, which is to say most do go out for “essential” reasons.

Perhaps older voters are better informed. Older folks do consume more media and may therefore know that only one in 30,000 Americans (as of this writing) have passed away due to COVID-19. Then again, the media hasn’t been the most sober information source during this crisis, so that’s probably not it.

It’s more plausible that the elderly may simply see the current crisis differently. Having lived through many national trials, “this too shall pass” may be their coronavirus mantra. Indeed, while only four percent of all Californians think their neighbors are overreacting, it’s those older than 70 who most often say they’re going overboard.

Turning to the pandemic’s economic fallout, older residents are far more blasé. Seniors older than 66 predict they’ll be insulated from the widespread retail and business closures and the cutbacks to workforce hours. Mostly retirees, they’re probably right. Forty-five percent of them report they are “not that likely” or “not at all likely” to lose income.

At the same time, two-thirds age 66 or younger are likely to take an income hit. The workforce-age electorate will feel COVID-19 in the pocketbook, retirees not so much.

Angst over the government’s handling of the economic side of the crisis runs extremely hot among those younger than 41. More than one-third of them believe Washington’s “cure” will be worse than the disease. Only twenty-four percent of the middle-aged and, remarkably, only two percent among the oldest generation feel the same way. It’s as if the young and old generations are in two different worlds.

A portrait of the older generation would have a bemused look on its face, as if to say, “what’s all the fuss? It’ll be fine.” Not only do those in their late 70s, 80s or 90s think they’re not going to contract COVID-19, it may occur to them that society is over-reacting.

With the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Deborah Birx, exhorting “the Millennials” to do their part to protect their parents and grandparents, there has been an overt generational aspect to the fight against COVID-19. The battle has been framed as the younger generation saving the older generation.

That framing is likely to run into trouble as this crisis plays out. We have an older generation who doesn’t believe it needs saving, and a younger generation who believes it will inherit a bankrupt future. With an economy hemorrhaging jobs and productivity while in an induced coma, Millennials see themselves — when they eventually get back to work — toiling harder and paying higher taxes to repay enormous debt and backfill healthcare and pension obligations that the state and municipalities will be unable to afford. It’s their world that’s been up-ended. This pandemic will end, but those who haven’t retired worry the financial bloodletting will continue.

John Nienstedt is president and CEO of Competitive Edge Research & Communication, a national polling firm headquartered in San Diego since 1987. Data can be found at CERC.net.

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