Is there a generational divide in attitudes to pandemic measures? It's complicated

Polls suggest gender and awareness can matter more than age when it comes to how Canadians view the threat from the coronavirus pandemic.
Rather than generational differences, polls suggest there can be deeper divides based on gender and awareness when it comes to public opinion on the COVID-19 pandemic. (Frank Gunn / Canadian Press)

Pictures of partying springbreakers flooding the beaches, ignoring calls to practise social distancing to stem the spread of COVID-19, have given a lot of people an image of a generation blithely indifferent to the survival of humanity.

But recent polling data in Canada suggests that, just maybe, the kids are alright.

There are certainly some variations between how different generations are viewing the pandemic. But they don't suggest that one generational cohort is taking it significantly less seriously than another.

The latest polling by Abacus Data, which interviewed 2,309 Canadians online between Friday and Tuesday, found 40 per cent of respondents saying they were extremely worried, or worried a lot, by the COVID-19 situation.

With 37 per cent of respondents overall reporting being worried, Canadians between the ages of 18 and 29 were just about as likely to be worried as those aged 60 or older (36 per cent). In fact, it's people between the ages of 30 and 44 who reported the most concern — perhaps because they're the ones most affected by school closures and the demands of working from home.

Abacus found that gender was a starker divide than age. By a margin of 15 points, women were more likely to be worried than men. With just 25 per cent saying they were worried, men between the ages of 18 and 29 were the least concerned. Women the same age were twice as likely to be worried.

But older men also were more likely to report being worried only a little or not at all: between 40 and 41 per cent of men over the age of 45 expressed little concern, compared to between 26 and 27 per cent of older women.

While young men were less likely than older men to say they were worried only a little or not at all, young women were more likely to be concerned than older women.

It makes it difficult to make simplistic, sweeping assumptions about an entire generation.

People try to put us down

A survey by Léger for the Association for Canadian Studies (conducted Friday through Sunday, interviewing 1,508 Canadians online) points in the same direction.

It did find that younger Canadians and men were more likely than older Canadians and women to say that the COVID-19 pandemic was being "blown out of proportion." About 14 per cent of Canadians over the age of 55 agreed with that statement, compared to 27 per cent among those aged between 18 and 34.

But the same poll found young Canadians were just as likely as older Canadians to be afraid of contracting the virus (57 to 56 per cent), to say they were maintaining social distancing (84 per cent for both age groups) or to agree that the pandemic was affecting their usual habits of eating at restaurants or going out in public (82 to 84 per cent).

Only nine per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34 said they planned to visit friends in the coming week.

This does not suggest that young Canadians should be singled out over the community spread of the novel coronavirus.

The polls are also capturing opinions in a fast-moving situation — and those opinions are shifting just as quickly.

Things they do look awful cold

Abacus found an increase of 27 points in just two weeks in the share of Canadians who think it's likely they or someone they know will get the disease — up to 55 per cent.

Fully 65 per cent of respondents said they expect the worst is still to come; only five per cent of Canadians took the more optimistic view that we have already passed that point.

And increasing awareness of the pandemic corresponds with increased measures taken to prevent its spread. A poll by the Innovative Research Group conducted last week found younger Canadians were making fewer changes to their behaviour than older Canadians — except among those who were paying attention. Among those who had discussed the pandemic "many times," said the poll, there was no difference whatsoever associated with age when it comes to how likely people were to make changes to their behaviour.

Altogether, these numbers show that there are a number of factors contributing to how different Canadians are reacting to the crisis. Generational divides are strongly coloured by gender and awareness. Young people who have discussed the pandemic are doing more to prevent its spread than older people who haven't. Older men are less worried than younger women.

It's more complicated and nuanced than it seems — like a lot of things right about now.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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