Fairness across generations

14th July 2022

Author: Dr. Wendy M. Purcell PhD FRSA, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University
Goal advisor for a fairer society, and Series Editor for Emerald's 17-book series 'Higher Education and the Sustainable Development Goals'

Dr Wendy Purcell

In envisaging a fairer society[i], one among our assumptions is that things will improve with each subsequent generation.

This is a foundational principle of sustainable development, captured by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its report 'Our Common Future' that states "…development must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".[ii] However, not only are we depleting natural resources from one generation to the next, with over 400 million hectares of forest lost in one generation alone[iii], species extinctions accelerating [iv]and sea level[v] and temperatures[vi] rising, we are also experiencing declines in economic, social and health measures.

The current generation is, on average, worse off financially than their parents, carrying more debt, with fewer opportunities to accrue wealth and thrive. Life expectancy has decreased over recent years, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and mental health is worsening. So, to create a fairer society we must expressly consider fairness across the generations.

A generation is influenced by demographics and shaped by the world around them, with five generations (see Table 1) in the current workforce and each with its own attitude toward life. Every generation is an asset.

Domains Maturists/ Traditionalists Pre-1945 Baby Boomers
Gen X
Gen Y/ Millennials
Gen Z/ Zoomers
Formative experiences World War II Rationing Recession
Rock ‘n’ Roll
Nuclear family
Cold War
Post-War Boom
Swinging Sixties
Moon landings
Youth Culture
Women's liberation
Fall of Berlin Wall
AIDS epidemic
First PC
Rise of divorce
9/11 Attack
Economic crisis
Internet World Wide Web
Social media
Reality TV
Google Earth
Great resignation
Global warming
Mobile devices
Energy crisis
Global focus
Attitudes Loyal but traditional
Sense of duty
Work-life balance
Driven but entitled
% Global population 5 15 20 27 32
% US Workforce* 2 25 33 35 5
Aspiration Home ownership Job security Work-life balance Freedom & flexibility Security & stability
Technology Disengaged Early IT adopters Digital immigrants Digital natives Technoholics
Device Car TV PC Smartphone AR/VR
Work Job for life Employer-led career Loyalty to profession over employer, portfolio career Work with and not for organizations Move between employers & pop-up business
Communication media/ preference Formal letter/ Face-to-face Telephone/ Face-to-face, phone & email Email & text message/ Text message & email Text & social media/Text messaging Handheld/ Facetime

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adapted from various sources[vii],16,19.

Financial insecurity

Whether it’s downward mobility or the hollowing out of the American middle class[viii], the gap between upper- and lower-income households is growing. Many Millennials are worse off than their parents – a first in American history[ix].

Millennials – especially Black Millennials – have lower home ownership rates than previous generations. Among Americans born in the late 1980s, half of those aged 30-years are in jobs with lower socioeconomic status than their parents compared to those from the 1930s 70% of whom did better than their parents[x],[xi].

Rates of absolute mobility, i.e., the share of children with higher inflation-adjusted incomes than their parents, have plummeted from around 9 out of 10 to just 1 in 2[xii]. The middle class has suffered the biggest losses over those at the top or bottom, with huge differences in net wealth between the Baby Boomers and Millennials.

Health inequity

Life expectancy in the U.S. went down by over two years (from 78.86 years in 2019 to 76.60 years in 2021), a net loss of 2.26 years[xiii], the biggest drop since 1943. Many other peer countries also show a decline, albeit a smaller one (0.57 years) some of which has been regained. This gives a widening gap in life expectancy between the U.S. and similar economies of more than five years.

The decrease in U.S. life expectancy was highly racialised, with Hispanic and Black populations experiencing the largest losses in life expectancy between 2019 and 2021 likely due to both handling of the pandemic and the legacy of systemic racism in the country.[xiv] This data contrasts with a global life expectancy that increased by more than six years between 2000 and 2019 – from 66.8 years in 2000 to 73.4 years in 2019 with healthy life expectancy (HALE) also up by 8% over this period.

Gen Zs, ranging from middle school students to early professionals, are reporting higher rates of anxiety, depression, and distress than any other age group[xv]. The mental health challenges in this generation are so concerning that U.S. Surgeon General issued a public health advisory in December 2021, to address the mental health crisis following in the wake of the pandemic.

Multigenerational workforce

There are generational differences among colleagues who grew up in separate times, whether it’s a liking for ‘phone calls over text, lone versus collaborative working, or leadership styles and preferences. That’s not to say we are confined into a generational box – we can definitely teach an old dog new tricks! But generational diversity is something for us all to consider and for leaders to master in leading the multigenerational workforce[xvi].

The so-called Great Resignation[xvii] following the COVID-19 pandemic, saw more of the younger generation departing for pastures new with different preferences[xviii] for remote and hybrid working across the generations. A 2021 survey[xix] found that nearly 70% of Millennials were happier because of remote work, compared to almost 60% of Generation X workers and just a third of Baby Boomers.

An age-inclusive workforce is key to a fairer society, with generational diversity sustaining higher levels of productivity, problem-solving and value creation.

Pandemials & higher education

A new generational term, ‘pandemials’ was recently defined[xx] to describe those old enough to be conscious of the full impact of COVID-19 on their lives, but not old enough to remember life before 9/11. As these represent many current and prospective students, higher education is looking to understand more about them.

Pandemials experienced, often firsthand, the deep connections between health, society, the economy, and our planet. They know we can’t have a thriving economy, with prosperity for all, or a fairer society based on equity on a dead planet! So, they’re interested in sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals. Students want to be part of the change they want to see; they want to make a difference and want learning that is impactful and a higher education sector that cares and is walking the talk.

Higher education can really lean in and deliver the kind of education that connects students with a more sustainable future, and that means we need to create radically inclusive learning communities, with curricula and learning pathways that are flexible, and connected to the societal challenges of our day. This demands interdisciplinary approaches, enabling students to work alone and in teams, it means partnering with businesses and non-profits, and working in the community as well as on campus.


Dubbed the unluckiest generation in our history[xxi], Millennials lived through the 9/11 terrorist attacks and entered the labour market in the recession around the same time. Their early years were spent struggling to find work in the recovery and then came the Great Recession and another recovery followed by another recession.

The average millennial has experienced slower economic growth than any other generation in U.S. history, with lower earnings, lower wealth, and delayed milestones, such as home ownership.

Millennials are getting married later and having children later, and, at an age when Baby Boomers and Gen X were building equity, Millennials have no housing net worth[xxii]. While they are more educated, the rising debt burden outstrips the gains they made in education.

The large African American and Hispanic millennial populations continue to suffer the effects of systemic discrimination and the wealth gap between Black and white households continues to grow[xxiii].

Gen Z/Zoomers

Gen Z grew up in challenging times, from the 2008 stock market crash, warnings of the climate crisis and now into the recent pandemic and social awakening around injustice. They are experiencing the most anxiety and depression and are finding it hard to pay for some basics.

With inflation at a 40-year high[xxiv], the prices of major Gen Z expenses like gas, rent, food, and tuition are rising fast. A recent poll[xxv] found over 90% of Gen Z is anxious about their finances, with many moving back to their parents[xxvi] to save money and focusing on jobs that provide more financial security.

Zoomers are also one of the most progressive generations, embracing a new sort of activism in pursuit of social justice – tackling climate change, immigration, and racial injustice, seeking greater meaning and relevance in what they do. They are hungry for change.

Call to action

There are myriad inequalities across the generations[xxvii]. However, a fairer society is one that leaves no one behind[xxviii], is just and inclusive.

Generational diversity is an asset and ageism is a barrier to equity. So, in considering generations as a theme, we need to stop talking about a fairer society as if it were a tomorrow problem. We need to address it as a challenge for today and start doing something about it for all our generations – now!


our goals

Fairer society

We are passionate about working with researchers globally to deliver a fairer, more inclusive society. This perhaps has never been more important than in today’s divided world.