Life after lockdown: New social contract

Myth debunked: Millennials are not job hoppers and actually switch jobs less often than others in previous generations.

THE Covid-19 pandemic is still with us. And, appears to be growing rapidly globally.

As I write, already close on 17 million are infected worldwide, with more than 650,000 deaths. Scientists have started to warn of a surge in deaths from malaria (by up to 35% over the next five years), tuberculosis (by 30%) and HIV (by 10%) due to the disruption of health services caused by the pandemic.

Indeed, Covid-19 and actions taken in response to it could well undo some of the advances made in these three major diseases over the past two decades, compounding the burden caused by the pandemic directly. Yet, even in economies with the worst outbreaks, just 5%-15% of people have been infected. But, with most of the population still susceptible, getting back to life as usual is quite difficult.

The disease can again grow rapidly, and hospitals overwhelmed. A recent paper in the medical journal Lancet, estimates that 4.5% of people infected by Covid-19 globally are likely to become so ill they require hospitalisation. More will need to be done to protect the endangered.


As I see it, a vaccine is the best way out of this. But even the most determined optimists reckon it will be at least early in 2021 before one becomes readily available. In the meantime, the world is preparing to learn to cope with Covid-19.

As countries now loosen restrictions and open borders, cases are beginning to rise again. If left unchecked, they will swell into another wave of infection. All-encompassing national lockdowns are known to wreck economies.

So, countries are looking for middle-ground measures that will prevent the disease from overwhelming hospitals, while loosening some of the more severe restrictions. Used together, these measures will probably ward off new waves of infection.

Whether governments will choose to implement them – or have the means to do so – and whether people will follow the new rules is less certain. Still, the priority is to shield from infection those who are most likely to become gravely ill. That’s not easy if large numbers are becoming infected.

To prevent the virus from spreading uncontrollably, governments will rely on a combination of three key measures: (1) testing (& tracing) and quarantine; (2) changing behaviour to reduce transmission (including social distancing, wearing masks and handwashing); and (3) adopting circuit-breakers, targeted lockdowns of outbreak hotspots. This has been rather popular in East Asia, and is now being adopted elsewhere.

Whether countries will experience a new wave of the disease depends on how people behave and how quickly authorities can detect an increase in cases. A lesson to be learned is not to underestimate even a small outbreak; it can easily be the core of a bigger transmission.

Double whammy

So far, the pandemic has led to a distinct generational divide. It’s true the elderly (65+) are more vulnerable to the virus. But those under 40 (largely the Millennials – those born between 1981 and 1996, i.e. aged 24-39) have suffered the more serious economic blow – a double whammy of sorts: a setback from the earlier 2008/09 global financial crisis, and now Covid-19.

All this is happening at a time when Millennials should be in their peak earning years. Indeed, Millennials feel that – as of today – they are still below (in income and wealth) where they are expected to be, against the older generation at similar ages (the baby boomers).

As a group, today’s generation of Millennials is diverse (in terms of country’s history, culture and heritage), majority non-white (certainly in US) but mostly educated. The older Millennials now face another recession; even as they have yet to really recover from the last one.

Most have difficulties finding a job, and today carry “wage scars” – where the lower salary they started with in the last recession, stays with them; posing a drag on future incomes even as they change jobs.

Their situation is likely to be exacerbated now by Covid-19. Most Millennials work in services – likely to be on short-term, temporary or zero-hours contracts – the sort of jobs in hospitality (restaurants, cafes) and the gig economy. These happen to be the most vulnerable to be cut in a lockdown!

This has also been the case with Gen Z (the younger cohort of Millennials) who have just come on to the workforce. A recent Fed study shows that 16% of US Millennials have insufficient savings to cover an emergency expense of US$400. Indeed, non-white Millennials, including women continue to struggle. The pandemic brought these disparities into sharp relief. For the college educated, the impact of student debt has been devastating. They also face cultural pressures from extended families – often assuming obligations (not unlike Asians) well beyond the immediate family.


I recall reference to “avocado on toast” for brunch with US$8 coffee by privileged Millennials at the extremes of the consumption function at macroeconomic classes – one of a series of myths to explain the economic travails of Millennials. The most common being: “Millennials are job hoppers.”

Easily debunked because, in practice, Millennials actually switch jobs less often than others in previous generations. Another: “Millennials are socialists.” Just because Millennials elevated Jeremy Corbyn to lead UK’s Labour Party, and Bernie Sanders to the verge of presidential nomination.

Still, Covid-19 is likely to sharpen this leftward shift that society is really rigged against them. That the post-war social contract of free healthcare for seniors and tax breaks on mortgages (a form of “boomer socialism”) does not appear to work for them. Recent polls show that Millennials “prefer to live in a socialist country” – where healthcare and education are a basic right that governments must provide.

Of late, their “socialist” leaning has veered towards student debt forgiveness. This mountain of debt is what’s holding them back. Millennials have seen the cost of a college degree rise rapidly – up 70% since the turn of the millennium. Average millennial student debt today exceeds US$30,000.

For them, the other big barrier to wealth creation is the cost of property – a complaint of Millennials in big cities as 10 years of low interest rates have helped to drive prices ever higher.

Further, schemes that encourage home ownership do not take into account their burden of student debt. There is a palpable mood of discontent at the status quo, motivated by both the coronavirus and racial and social injustice.

The pandemic does not give equity any noticeable priority. Effective political change is needed.

What then are we to do?

Covid-19 is here to stay. We have to adapt to live with it. To do so, nations will have to change people’s behaviour. Countries facing the first wave were caught off-guard, in particular failure to protect: (i) residents of care homes (accounted for 40% of Covid-19 deaths in US); and (ii) people with certain health conditions – including obesity, diabetes and heart disease (in US, 38% of adults fall into this category; nearly 50% is of working age).

As I see it, ensuring people understand how to assess their own risk is crucial. Covid-19 thrives on close contact. So social distancing matters a lot. Four things exacerbate its spread: being at close quarters; and for a prolonged period; among a large crowd; and activities where people breathe out forcefully.

In combination, these create “super-spreading” conditions. So, there are now more targeted rules. The extent to which people will comply (wearing masks and social distancing) depends on how and from whom they get the message. Messaging has to start at the top. Politicians tend to lose the peoples’ trust by contradicting the experts. In the end, what’s needed is to change mindsets. Each person has the ability to influence his own risk. That’s a big challenge.

Of course, past experience does shape attitudes. Levels of compliance also depend on fear – backed up by hefty fines and strict policing, needed to build collective discipline. But even as people take precautions, most are desperate for life to return to something like normality.

This can come about only when people begin to really worry about others as much as about themselves. Just as important, people have to play by the rules of the new normal. For Millennials, they need a new social contract that includes, protects and empowers them – that which promotes their welfare. Details in my next column. Similarly, the big picture remains one of widening inequality. Sadly, there has been little evidence of egalitarian concerns in pandemic management.

Dare we look forward to new ideas to inspire and build a less unequal world since we still have a way to go into the pandemic?

Tan Sri Lin See-Yan is a former banker and Harvard-trained professor.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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Lockdown , Lin See Yan , Covid-19


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