The making of the COVID-19 generation

By Sylvain Charlebois
Professor, Dalhousie University
Courtesy of Troy Media

People under the age of 30 will pay a dear price for the global pandemic and could even be renamed the COVID-19 generation.

After almost five months, most would agree that the older generations – although perhaps medically affected by COVID-19 – have been largely unscathed economically.

Baby boomers and older generations have lived long enough to have careers, raised children and see their pensions turned into annuities. COVID-19 won’t affect them as much.

Generation X members will also be sparred as they have been given a fair shot at life in general, minus a couple of major bumps such as the 2008 recession and the bust.

The newly-designated COVID-19 generation, however, is another matter.

Some argue that a generation can hardly be defined by books written by people presenting an array of theories. There’s some truth to that. Generation Xers, millennials and generation Z members were born out of fiction, in a sense. A series of hypotheses led social scientists to suppose that a large group of individuals share common values and see the world in similar prescribed ways.

Boomers, on the other hand, were delineated by the Second World War, which in and of itself was a very powerful, transformational moment. It was global and many lives were destroyed, ruined and changed forever. Wars change the world.

COVID-19 has similarly disrupted many lives, unfairly punishing the underprivileged, women and minorities. It has even discriminated against people with other fatal illnesses like cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

For months, the entire globe has been focused on one thing: COVID-19.

COVID-19 is a true threat to humanity, make no mistake. With little science, measures had to be taken whether we agreed with them or not. COVID-19 will mark many lives by the time it’s done – and humanity’s reaction to it will impact billions of lives.

The lockdowns, and the economic wrath that followed, will leave a definite scar on the lives of many young people.

The COVID-19 generation will build what German sociologist Ulrich Beck called a risk society. It will be the opposite of what most past generations have experienced, which is the influence and dominance of the nation state. The nation state society is focused on the production of wealth and comfort for the majority.

A risk society will be obsessed with potential future disasters and devastating occurrences. Some argue that our modern society was already there. Certainly, the nation state’s ability to fully distribute wealth has often been disputed.

The COVID-19 generation will likely accept that all new risks are inherently created by humans. Modernity and progress, then, are seen as threats rather than solutions. Younger people will see global risks like climate change very differently. Important risks for the COVID-19 generation will often be borderless and pointing at who’s responsible will be almost unfeasible.

It’s a very different way to see the world.

In food production, some risks will be given a second and more committed look. Think of food safety and how to mitigate risks across supply chains. And the role of genetic engineering in agriculture may be more frequently questioned.

If a cultivar is created or a new food product is launched, a generation fixated on risks will accept that potential human diseases and food recalls are created simultaneously. Risks related to globalized industrial food production models may no longer be the side effects of progress, but rather seen as a prominent focus for society.

Most countries will come out of this crisis deeply in debt and politically fractured. Some observers suggest the COVID-19 generation will lean toward an eco-socialist perspective, but this doesn’t by itself address broader needs.

We may also see an acute allegiance to global authorities, rather than nation states. The United Nations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), will likely have more currency in the future. It will be one of few plausible ways to address challenges like climate change and, yes, future pandemics. There will be others, no doubt, due to the globalized nature of our existence.

Considering that food is a necessity, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see publicly-owned supermarket distribution networks, combined with nationalized financial sectors to help those disenfranchised by the current regime. Nationalizing some of the major agri-businesses and food processing facilities could also be possible.

And the establishment of a guaranteed income, a concept long advocated by social groups, is now in reach for the COVID-19 generation.

For this generation, sustainability and the ethical treatment of animals could also become prominent issues related to food production. Animal production will be under even more scrutiny and meat-free diets may become more influential.

COVID-19 will likely create a generation for which wealth creation is not the answer but rather the source of societal ills.

In the end, perhaps young people severely affected by COVID-19 may follow the path laid out by older generations. But at the very least, they deserve to be heard when the time is right.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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