Masks? Commute? Office life in 2020 sparks debate across generations

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It’s time to wear shoes to work again. Time to get back in step with a commuter’s routine. Work from home is still in the mix, but in this year of dealing with COVID-19 concerns, the strict social isolation of the past seven months is being relaxed.

That’s the message coming from a variety of company leaders, including Raman Sehgal, the 39-year-old CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based ramarketing. He’s back in the office — and liking it. Meanwhile, the range of reactions from employees at his 40-person pharma marketing company is quite fascinating. 

Among younger colleagues, Sehgal says, “there’s a great desire to get back in the office. It’s mostly social, but it’s also a way of addressing the mental-health challenges of living on one’s own.” For older employees, in contrast, continuing to work at home often has its advantages.

Each U.S. generation — from the youthful Gen Z (age 24 and under) to the reluctantly aging Baby Boomers (age 56 to 74) — is its own story, in terms of how people are coping with the pandemic and reconnecting with the workplace. A systematic look at these differences emerges in the latest edition of LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index, which surveyed 8,485 LinkedIn members in two waves from Sept. 7 to Oct. 4.

Chart showing millennials are most concerned about "exposure to others" and three other health-related return-to-work issues

As the chart above shows, among people who have returned to the workplace, so-called millennials (ages 24 to 39) are the most likely to voice concerns. Their worries start with being exposed to others who aren’t taking safety guidelines seriously; their concerns extend to a lack of support from their employers’ sick leave and remote work policies.

By contrast, anxieties are lower for both the younger cohort of Gen Z and the two big older groupings: Baby Boomers and Gen X (ages 40 to 55). 

Among Gen Z’s optimists is Amanda Forbes, a 19-year-old student at the University of Central Florida, who’s looking to build a career in live-events management. Before COVID-19 hit, she was making rapid headway. Her internships and gigs spanned everything from stagehand work to the golf-cart driver who conveys performers to the stage. Then everything dried up. 

Undaunted, Forbes recently got certified as a “COVID-19 compliance officer” for entertainment events. She’s at peace with the idea that as concerts resume, they will involve reduced seating, greater separation, hand sanitizer at the entryways and other precautions. “I’ll feel much more comfortable myself with all these safety steps,” she says. 

If millennials are showing more anxiety, a variety of factors might explain why. Many of them have been in the workforce for about 10 to 15 years, which means pandemic-related risks and disruptions are arriving at an especially precarious time. 

They’re more likely to be starting families or raising young children;. They’re also more likely to be on the verge of one more stage of career advancement that finally means they’ve made it. All those factors intensify the stresses of being hastily disconnected from the traditional workplace — and then having to contemplate a less-than-ideal return scenario.

In June, a 5,412-person survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that 36% of people aged 25-44 (essentially the millennial group) were showing trauma- or stressor-related disorders. That was more than double the rate for people older than age 44. 

Within the Workforce Confidence survey, millennials (37%) were the ones most likely to express concerns about safety issues associated with large-group meetings at work, or with eating at work in shared spaces. By contrast, those two practices worried only 24% of Gen Z, 28% of Gen X, and 25% of Baby Boomers.

It’s worth noting that older workers are more likely to hold higher-seniority titles within their organizations. That can make their own return to the workplace less stressful for two reasons. First, they’re more likely to be the decision-makers who set standards on work policies, sanitation and the like.

Second, younger employees are the ones most likely to be working in front-line areas such as store clerks, receptionists and other positions where contact with strangers is frequent and health concerns may be greater.

One issue that didn’t seem to be a big stressor for any age group returning to work is the daily commute. Only 14% of Gen Z respondents saw that as a troubling issue; the percentages dropped further for millennials (13%), Gen X (8%) and Baby Boomers (8%). 

Ramarketing CEO Sehgal says he’s driving into work now, instead of taking public transit, as he used to do in the pre-COVID days. Traffic is lighter, so he can get to work quickly and avoid whatever health concerns might arise from being a passenger on Boston metro transit.

Overall, Sehgal says, he’s surprised how many COVID-19-related disruptions now strike him as just part of life’s everyday routines. Adding hand sanitizer to his routine in March seemed slightly horrifying. Now, he shrugs it off, or even giggles at the customer. “I refer to it as it hand-itizer,” he says, “because that’s what one of my little kids calls it.” 

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The latest Workforce Confidence survey also highlights some surprising attitude switches within specific industries in recent weeks. Fuller details are available in the links that follow. For people working in fields such as pharmaceuticals, mental health, restaurants and insurance, a more upbeat mood is taking hold.

But in other areas such as tourism, automotive and investment management, worries are growing. Sole proprietors also are confronting a less optimistic outlook.

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