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Is One Generation Taking The Coronavirus Less Seriously Than Others? Not Really.

There’s been a lot of finger pointing in the past few days over who isn’t taking the coronavirus seriously. Some have pointed to millennials out at bars or brunch, saying they are not taking recommendations to stay home and avoid crowds to prevent the spread of the virus. Others have gotten frustrated with baby boomers stubbornly carrying on with their weekly gatherings and travel plans. (President Trump asked Americans to avoid unnecessary travel in new national guidelines Monday.)

But when you look at recent polls, there just isn’t any evidence that one age group is more concerned than another about the spread of the disease. And furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be an age gap in people’s willingness to adopt preventive measures.

We looked at five polls conducted in the past eight days that asked Americans whether they were concerned that they or someone they knew (including a family member) would contract the virus, and in every age group, a majority said they were concerned.1

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some differences among age groups. There were, they just didn’t add up to a clear trend. Of the five polls we looked at, two found an 11-point gap between the share of people in the oldest age group who said they were worried that they or someone in their family would catch the virus and the share of people in the youngest age group who said the same.2 (Around 65 percent of the oldest group in both surveys said they were “somewhat” or “very” concerned, while that number was just under 55 percent for the youngest group.) One poll found a 10-point gap in the opposite direction: 68 percent of the youngest age group said they were worried, while 58 percent of the oldest age group said the same.3 And two polls found smaller variations — one found that older respondents were about 7 points more likely to be worried, while the other found essentially no difference between the oldest and youngest groups.4


How should you social distance?

We do have a little bit of evidence that younger people are more concerned about spreading the coronavirus than older Americans. In an Elon University poll conducted March 16-17, about two-thirds of 18-to-24-year-olds and 24-to-44-year-olds said they were worried about spreading the coronavirus to others, while only 48 percent of those 65 and older said the same.

This is important because, according to experts like Gillian SteelFisher, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who has studied public response to pandemics, people are motivated to take preventive action based on how much risk they believe they personally face and how they think their actions might affect others.

SteelFisher told me that people can be motivated to change their behavior when they feel their actions will be effective in helping reduce the spread of a disease.

“Social distancing is hard, and so, when we can see other countries where case counts are coming down [after social distancing started] …, it can really be motivating for people to see that those things are having an effect. Otherwise, it’s like, gosh, is this worth it?” SteelFisher said.

But right now, at least, three polls show that both young and old Americans are adopting preventive measures like social distancing at similar rates:

  • Almost half of baby boomers (ages 55-73) and members of the silent generation (age 73 and up) said they had canceled plans to avoid crowds, as did 54 percent of millennials and Generation Z (ages 18 to 38), according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted March 13-14.5
  • And in a YouGov poll conducted Tuesday, while the youngest age group was less likely to say they were avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining distance of approximately 6 feet from others when possible, other age groups all said they were adopting social distancing practices at similar rates. About two-thirds of 18-to-24-year-olds said they were doing so, while the other age groups ranged from 73 percent (among respondents 25-34 and 35-44) to 79 percent (among those older than 55).
  • Finally, 45 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds said they were now less likely to go to restaurants or cafes, per a Morning Consult poll conducted March 13-16. Among those 65 years and older, 49 percent said the same.

The attitudes and behaviors among younger and older people during this pandemic are not set in stone, though. In fact, they could change very quickly, particularly since so much about the coronavirus is still unknown, and maybe an age gap will appear as we get more data. But right now, there just isn’t a sign of one.

Footnotes

  1. Pollsters unfortunately aren’t consistent in how they break down respondents into age groups, which can make comparisons difficult, but the five polls we looked at are: an Economist/YouGov poll conducted March 15-17; a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted March 11-15; a Morning Consult poll conducted March 12-13; an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted March 11-13; and an ABC News/Ipsos conducted March 11-12.

  2. The Morning Consult poll, in which the oldest age group was 65+ and the youngest was 18-29, and the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, in which the oldest age group was 65+ and the youngest was 18-34.

  3. The Kaiser Family Foundation poll, in which the oldest age group was 65+ and the youngest was 18-29.

  4. The Economist/YouGov poll found just a 3-point gap and ABC News/Ipsos found older Americans more likely than younger ones to be concerned, 72 percent vs. 53 percent. In both polls, the youngest age group was 18-29 and the oldest age group was 65+.

  5. Rates were a bit lower among Gen X (ages 39-54), at 41 percent.

Likhitha Butchireddygari is a politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.

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