It’s impossible to say what the United States will look like when the COVID-19 quarantine is lifted, although there is little doubt some businesses and even entire industries will be swept away. Certainly the social distancing habit is likely to stick around for some time, if not forever.
However, there are many ways that the U.S. can bounce back in the months and years ahead. To do so, though, we must unlock the potential of rising generations and make an opportunity out of this crisis.
The first thing to do is reduce overly burdensome regulation.
As the country geared up to fight the virus, governments tried to speed the response by waiving many regulations. But these changes came too late. For example, Andy Kessler in The Wall Street Journal reports that a doctor from Johns Hopkins tried to get a COVID-19 test approved in January. “And we lost precious time when one of the original scientists submitted an application and was told that he had to submit it also by paper mail with a CD-ROM with the files burned on it,” Dr. Marty Makary explained.
The federal government isn’t ready for the digital age, but rising generations of Americans can change that. At Facebook, “new hires and even summer interns could, within a week of starting, see their features distributed to a billion users. That’s the speed of software in 2020,” Kessler writes. As another author puts it, “the faster things change, the younger and younger the best and most competent models get.” That’s Joseph Henrich in his book “The Secret of Our Success.” We need new generations to deliver that speed throughout the economy.
It’s important to note the main way that the current recession is different from the recession caused by the mortgage meltdown in 2008. In that crisis, Wall Street was the cause of the disruption. When the market started to drop, millions of Baby Boomers lost millions in their 401(k) accounts. Some, no doubt, shelved plans to retire.
This time, the banks are part of the solution, not part of the problem. The market has rebounded. It is down from February’s records, but (as of mid-April) the S&P 500 is still about 25 percent higher than it was at the end of 2016. So Boomers may still feel flush. Meanwhile, the older generation has been working from home for weeks now.
A good number of workers in their late 60s and 70s are going to decide they don’t want to go back into an office every day when this is all over. They will retire, switch to part time or work from home. This could present leadership opportunities for younger workers.
These generations are ready for more — and ready to work.
“My whole generation learned relentless work was the way to cope with the rolling crisis, with the mood of imminent collapse and economic insecurity that was the elevator music of our entire youth,” writes Laurie Penny in Wired. But that effort hasn’t paid off yet.
“Millennials and Gen Z are disillusioned,” Deloitte Global’s 2019 Global Millennial Survey found. “Many are not particularly satisfied with their lives, financial situations, jobs, government and business leaders, social media, or the way their data is used.”
The aftermath of COVID-19 could give these generations openings to show real leadership and finally be rewarded for their hard work.
They’ve earned it. A crisis can define a generation and even elevate it. “The experience of World War II in their development window may have forged America’s Greatest Generation, permanently elevating their national commitment and public spirit,” Henrich writes in his evolution book. And yet today’s generations may be even more self-sacrificing than that one was.
“As loudly as their contributions resound in history, two-thirds of them were drafted,” Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.) notes in his book “Knife Fights.” He adds, “This new greatest generation has fought longer if not harder than its grandparents did, and all have been volunteers.”
Nagl was writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we can add the battle against COVID-19 in there as well. Younger people were at little risk from the virus, yet volunteered to stay home to bend the curve and help their elders.
When this virus passes, the United States will quickly look very different. The very pace of change will be an opportunity. It’s time to embrace that change. As those younger generations rise, we can be assured the United States is in great hands.
Richard Tucker teaches an opinion writing class at George Washington University.