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SBJ Economic Growth Survey: Looking for Optimism? Talk to Younger Generations

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It’s back to business for Erik Milan, owner of downtown Springfield record shop Stick It In Your Ear LLC. Like many businesses, he temporarily closed in March amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But reopening doesn’t alleviate his uncertainty.

“No one can tell me what six months from now looks like. That’s really my concern,” he says.

The 12-week closure hit the store’s bottom line by an estimated $70,000 in lost revenue. It’s a similar story throughout the retail industry. However, Milan he says he’s received a confidence boost from customers since reopening June 15.

“I’m definitely concerned, but not in an overly fearful way,” he says.

One factor might be his age. Milan is 35 years old and, like most millennials, he emerged from the Great Recession in the early years of his work career.

Though the pandemic has shaken confidence in the local economy, Springfield Business Journal’s 2020 Economic Growth Survey found the psyche of younger generations are more apt to handle difficult economic circumstances.

Taken in April, 58% of respondents ages 18-34 marked a decline in business confidence from a year ago, versus over 65% of those 35 years of age and older. On the flip side, 7% of 18-34-year-olds actually expressed increased confidence in the local economy, while the positive sentiment was only shared by 4.6% of 55-plus respondents and 3.3% ages 35-54.

“They have more time to adjust and deal with the problems, and be able to still recoup from some of the problems a crisis can bring,” says business consultant Mark Holmes, who’s studied the multiple generations in the workplace. “Therefore, they tend to be more optimistic and not as pessimistic. The older generation is going to tend to be, at times, more negative and critical about that.”

The impact of COVID-19 is the latest in a number of economic downturns in the United States, including the Great Recession, 2007-09, and the dot-com bust in the early 2000s.

In research he conducted years ago regarding millennials, Holmes says he identified perspective and time horizon as the two biggest drivers of difference between younger and older workers.

Maranda Provance, a 31-year-old director of engineering for digital web development and marketing agency Mostly Serious LLC, says the pandemic has lowered her confidence in the economy. However, her view is buoyed by her generation’s ability to overcome adversity.

“I’m an optimist generally, and to a fault, probably. I always felt like I’ve had the support and skills I needed to bounce back,” she says. “Younger folks will have an easier time adjusting in the long run to the changes, with more focus on technology and remote working. We’re probably more well equipped to handle that.”

Though COVID-19’s impact hasn’t lasted long enough to decline economic activity for two consecutive quarters, the National Bureau of Economic Research announced June 8 the U.S. is in a recession.

Many millennials already have experienced and survived a major economic downturn – the Great Recession – and it wasn’t that long ago.

“We have the talent, the skills, the time – and technology is on our side,” Holmes says of the young workforce’s attitude. “We’ll make this happen.”

This year’s survey, again conducted by H2R Market Research, was originally held in February. A follow-up survey was completed in April to gauge how the pandemic was changing business.

Survey respondents also replied at a high rate of concern regarding COVID-19’s general economic impact locally and nationally. Again, the numbers are split by age: Roughly 80% of the 35-54 and 55 and older age groups said they were “very concerned,” while only 67% of ages 18-34 answered the same.

Hunter Chase & Associates Inc. President Mary Beth Hartman says she was among those very concerned about the economy in April. However, as local businesses have reopened in recent weeks and customers return, the construction company leader says her concern level is not as high.

“A lot of businesses have pent-up demand, so that’s encouraging overall to me,” she says. “I just feel like the economy is bouncing back a little quicker than what they thought.”

Still, Hartman’s confidence doesn’t extend beyond a few months when it comes to her own business. She says the Missouri Department of Transportation’s recent decision to cut employee hours and pay amid a COVID-19-related funding shortfall will impact future projects for her company to bid on.

“I’m very concerned with what the six- to 12-month picture looks like if there’s not a federal infrastructure bill that can be passed,” she says.

For the younger generation, the 63-year-old business consultant Holmes says another recession in 2020 is likely life as normal.

“It’s not going to be normal for me,” says Holmes, who’s president of Sales Revenue Coach and Consultant Board Inc. “I don’t know how many of these I’ve got to go through. This is one in a litany of major challenges across my career that my parents didn’t go through. That’s created some pessimism from my generation and just general tiredness.”

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