The pandemic’s negative—and possibly long-term—toll on Gen X

Illustration of a woman who is mentally exasperated.

As vaccination rates rise and the number of infections fall, like the Brood X cicadas, we are finally emerging from our homes and learning how to re-acclimate after 15 months of isolation, anxiety and loss. 

However, despite the weight of the crisis easing, many Gen Xers are still coping with the pandemic’s negative and far-reaching implications on their psychological, physical and financial health. In a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 33% of Gen Xers said their mental health had worsened throughout the pandemic and 58% had experienced unwanted weight changes.

Sandwiched between two larger and buzzier generations — Baby Boomers and Millennials — Gen X has often been disregarded culturally. A cohort of roughly 65 million American adults aged 41 to 56, they joined the workforce in the midst of the early 1990s recession, followed by the Dot-com bubble and The Great Recession. They’ve lived through the assassination of Dr. King, the Cold War, 9/11 and Y2K. 

Chaos, crisis and uncertainty have plagued their entire professional careers. 

“We’ve basically had terrible luck. At every developmental stage, we have hit this kind of American culture vacuum,” said Ada Calhoun, author of “Why We Can’t Sleep, Women’s New Midlife Crisis” and a Gen X parent. “When we were little kids, it was the peak crime rate. When we were graduating, there was a jobless recession. It’s been one thing after the other.”

Despite being at the prime of their careers and representing 60% of the workforce, Gen X is commonly overlooked and undervalued. Significant interest has been paid to Millennials — particularly their needs and desires — by researchers and marketers, even though Gen X significantly outspends other generations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But that may change, due to the pandemic. “It is definitely a population we are paying close attention to,” said Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer for the Well Being Trust. Due to a rising rate of ‘deaths of despair,’ or lives lost to drug overdose, alcohol and suicide, the foundation recognizes the unique challenges this generation faces. “A lot of these folks are mid-career and have families, so the stress and ongoing burden of losing a job — which we know is a risk factor for things like suicide and drug overdose — is profound.” 

Many Gen Xers are facing their midlife crisis amid an ongoing crisis. They were already severely stressed about job instability and struggling to balance the competing demands of their young children and aging parents before the pandemic plunged the country into lockdown. Widespread closures forced working parents to juggle remote work with remote school. 

The so-called ‘slacker generation’ is slammed, and “no longer trying to keep up the façade,” said Calhoun. 

“Everyone had all this anxiety — a feeling that they could not possibly add one more thing to their plate because, if they did, it was all going to fall apart — and then, there it went,” Calhoun said. “They were waiting for the other shoe to drop, and that was the pandemic.”

And while the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is in sight, many Gen Xers have a grave fear about contracting the virus — the highest of all the generations — and deep concern for themselves and their loved ones.

Disconnected from their main social support systems, including childcare, grandparents and friends, many feel overwhelmed and overworked, both emotionally and financially. Meanwhile, in a recent March 2021 study by The Ohio State University, Gen X showed poorer physical health, more depression and anxiety, and higher levels of unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol use and smoking, compared to previous generations. 

When it comes to finances, Gen X also has a right to be pessimistic and acutely concerned. The economic strain left many of these workers in an extremely tight position. As a generation, they have been hit the hardest in terms of layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts during the pandemic, and also carry the most debt—on average $125,000. As primary breadwinners and spenders, their financial health is crucial to the overall economy. 

The good news is that they have a history of rebounding successfully: they are the only generation to recover the wealth lost during the Great Recession, according to the Pew Research Center.

The uncertainty about whether or when Gen X’s financial concerns might manifest themselves is complicated due to the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the pandemic itself. However, employers and institutions can play a crucial role in providing some certainty with mental health and financial security support.

Miller believes businesses — regardless of what industry or employee size — can support Gen Xers by providing flexible working schedules, wherever possible and communicating regularly with employees about the additional resources they’re providing, like mental health days, telehealth services and employee assistance programs.

“Employers need to reinforce to employees that it’s okay not to be okay, and you are here for them,” Miller said. “Not all employers will do this but, if they want to retain good quality employees, they’ll prioritize it.” 

3 Questions with Ollie Bishop, CEO of TIPi Group, owner of Roast, Kitty and Rabbit & Pork

As you start to firm how the business (a marketing agency) runs after a year working remotely, what’s been the biggest challenge? And how have you tried to address it?
We are proudly independent and wholeheartedly believe passion beats scale, no matter what your size. Working remotely naturally disrupts the camaraderie you get from working shoulder to shoulder every day. And it was felt at times. To address this, communication has been key to make sure people have a form of grounding and stability. Managing expectations while navigating our way through the economic downturn, temporary salary cuts and furloughs has been a challenge, and having regular open and honest conversations has helped steer us through this difficult patch whilst retaining a sense of unity.  

As a CEO, how has it changed how you approach running a business, particularly when it comes to how you get the best from the team?
To retain the same level of culture, we’ve had to put in 200% effort. You can’t just walk around the office to say hello and check in with everyone, you have to schedule a Zoom and it does become more tiring and less natural. In terms of motivation, there’s something very special about coming together as a team with a shared purpose. A big challenge over the next few months will be getting people into the office and showing them the appeal and benefit of doing so. Encouraging people to come out of their comfort zones is not an easy thing to do, especially after a global pandemic, but people need to get out and be together again. We spend a huge portion of our lives ‘at work’, and the people we meet in work settings often become friends for life. As a group internally, the next few months have never been more important to rally together to create a united force and reignite agency life; driving our culture forward again.

How do you balance prioritizing the mental welfare of your employees with the need to keep a business running? Often, people feel like the promises made by their bosses around mental wellness are performative given the pressures to work harder and longer at the moment?
Since March we’ve won a lot of new business, which has been great for morale. However, clients are demanding more than ever before. Agencies work well when you have a spread of clients working on full cylinders. Since the pandemic hit, there has been an imbalance of clients in terms of sectors and needs. This in turn puts pressure on agencies, and we’ve had to retain a very flexible way of working with clients and internal teams. We’ve had to push people to take holidays to ensure they take the breaks they need, even during busy periods, as well as offering mental health support to all staff. Everyone is going through a period of change, including our clients. With change, stress increases naturally. And the blend of working hard and increased anxiety is not a good combination, and can’t be ignored. We can’t predict how each individual will feel and listening to our talent and working with them to find the right balance is vital. Every business leader has to put huge value on people and their happiness. If you don’t it will have consequences. — Seb Joseph

Numbers don’t lie

  • 59% of 254 HR directors and managers expect a rise in resignations, with 32% expecting these within the coming four to six months.
    [Source of data: Cendex’s Recruitment, Retention and Culture report.]
  • 58% of 501 men believe that taking 6 weeks of paternity leave will set their career back and 55% fear losing their job by taking full paternity leave.
    [Source of data: The Harris Poll commissioned by Volvo Car USA.]
  • 88% of 500 U.K. business leaders are keen to explore progressive policies aimed at the future of work post-pandemic such as working from anywhere, unlimited holidays and four-day working weeks. 
    [Source of data: Owl Labs poll.]

What else we’ve covered

  • “It’s a business mistake to mandate vaccinations”: In the latest instalment of our Confessions series, we spoke to a CEO who believes bosses are walking a delicate tight rope when it comes to whether or not to mandate vaccinations for returning workforces.
  • While most businesses are planning ways to reinvent their physical office spaces, some organizations are betting the other way — on the traditional work real estate options and are planning to increase their footprints.
  • With an urgent race to solve the climate emergency we’re facing, many companies are looking at their role and pushing forward with ambitions to move to net zero. However, while many companies assess their carbon expenditure in the way of business flights, food and electricity, there’s one area that is least likely to be looked at but could have more of an impact — pensions.

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