How Gen Z will be shaped by the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic will be a watershed moment in the lives of Gen Z.
The coronavirus pandemic will be a watershed moment in the lives of Gen Z.
Image: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko
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America’s Baby Boomers had the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. For Gen X, it was the AIDS epidemic. More recently, the 2008 global financial crisis altered the outlooks and career trajectories of millennials around the world. Historical shifts ranging from the end of apartheid in South Africa to China’s one-child policy and economic boom have created a marked gap in the experiences of youths compared to older adults.

Each generation is shaped by the national and international events that take place during their formative years, when their identities and world views are still in flux. It now seems clear that the coronavirus pandemic will be a watershed moment in the lives of Gen Z.

But what kind of effect will the pandemic, and the accompanying slew of school closings, quarantines, and sky-high unemployment rates, have on today’s teenagers and young adults? The truth is that we don’t know yet. For much of the world, the Covid-19 pandemic is in its early stages, its ultimate impact on public health and the global economy still uncertain.

“This feels very unprecedented,” says Lisa Damour, a psychologist who specializes in the development of teenage girls and young women, and the author of the books Untangled and Under Pressure. “I don’t know that we have an easy analogy to another historical event that we can draw on about what this might mean for young people.”

That said, historical evidence and psychological and economic research hint at a few possibilities as to how this crisis could impact young people in the years to come.

A financial turning point?

Gen Z is a thrifty bunch. In Japan and Europe in particular, which were hard-hit by the 2008 recession, young people have “seen so much uncertainty that it’s their normal, and [it] has made them much more realistic and practical about spending and saving,” Jason Dorsey, president of the consulting firm Center for Generational Kinetics, told Bloomberg. Surveys suggest that this generation strongly values financial security and is less likely to take out student loans than millennials, too.

It’s possible that the economic consequences of the pandemic will only further ingrain those prudent tendencies. But that reaction is hardly guaranteed.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Great Depression created a generation of permanently frugal savers. However, David Brooks argued back in 2000 for The New York Times Magazine that as this group aged, they proved to be big spenders after all. Between 1987 and 1997, for example, they increased their consumer spending levels more than any other generation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In fact, the tumultuous period that Gen Z is now living through could make them more prone to a carpe diem attitude. After a devastating earthquake that killed an estimated 90,000 people in China’s Sichuan province, spending actually went up, while saving went down, according to Zak Dychtwalt, the author of the book Young China and founder and CEO of the Young China Group think tank.

People realized that “no one can promise tomorrow, so enjoying today became a prerogative of everyone with Sichuan,” Dychtwald says. “There’s a saying in China, a toast: ‘Today we have booze, so today we’ll get drunk.’” It’s an ancient way of saying YOLO—you only live once. He predicts: “I think coronavirus is really going to hammer this point home.”

The radicalization of a generation

Gen Z’s political attitudes and their trust in institutions will also be shaped by this moment, according to Damour—and how those attitudes change will depend on how governments and society respond.

As the world learns more about how leaders at the local and national levels made decisions in the handling of the crisis, she says, “I assume young people will be thoughtful consumers of that information and it will shape how they think about who they want to trust and whom they want to empower, should another crisis like this emerge.”

Already, a shift seems to be afoot among young people in China, where the outbreak of the novel coronavirus began back in late December 2019. The secrecy and censorship that characterized the Chinese government’s handling of the disease during its crucial early stages—including efforts to silence the Wuhan doctor who sought to alert authorities to the new disease—is sparking pushback from young people who had previously largely approved of the Communist Party.

Online, internet users are using emoji and coded languages to share censored stories, while citizen journalists are covering the outbreak on YouTube—at great risk to their personal safety. Firsthand accounts like the public diary kept by 64-year-old author Fang Fang in Wuhan have made the toll of the lockdown impossible to ignore.

“For much of their lives, many young Chinese have been content to relinquish political freedoms as long as the party upheld its end of an unspoken authoritarian bargain by providing jobs, stability and upward mobility,” the New York Times reports. “Now, the virus has exposed the limits of that trade-off.”

Similarly, Gen Z Americans who were too young to feel much personal impact from the 2008 financial crisis have grown up during a steady, if uneven, period of economic recovery. The pandemic and the accompanying recession will make some young people who are lucky enough to have grown up with privilege feel unsafe for the first time.

In the US, young people may also be spurred to make new demands of the government, which has come under fire for failing to prepare for the pandemic with adequate equipment for health-care workers and preemptive screening for infections, at a potential cost of millions of lives. Even before this crisis, 70% of Americans between the ages of 13 and 21 said they want the government to be more involved in helping people, according to a 2019 survey published by the Pew Research Center. A majority (52%) of Republicans in that age group also said they wanted a more active government, a notable departure for a party that historically supports less involvement.

“For young people who feel that what we’re doing isn’t working, they’re certainly going to have more reasons to feel that that is true,” says Damour. “My suspicion is that the outcome of this pandemic will add a lot of fuel to that fire.”

And as the US government scrambles to put together relief packages for a shattered economy, young people may have a new understanding of the importance of social safety nets—much as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression, for example, ushered in a new kind of relationship between US citizens and the government via longstanding programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance.

“One thing that you hear a lot of young people say is that they do not buy this story that the economy has to be this way,” says Dana Garfin, an assistant adjunct professor at University of California, Irvine’s school of nursing, who researches the psychological impact of collective trauma.  Now, she says, “we’re going to have to come together as a society and figure out how to take care of each other with all these closed businesses, all this unemployment, we’re going to have to shift the way that people are making a contribution, at least in the short term. I have a feeling young people are going to look at that and be maybe a little more inspired to say, ‘Hey, when we’re up against a wall, we are more than capable of making changes.’”

Prejudice and xenophobia

For Gen-Z, the coronavirus pandemic “will be like how 9/11 was for my generation,” says Garfin. She researches the psychological impact of collective trauma. The terrorist attacks “did fundamentally change society and make us realize we were vulnerable to those outside threats,” she says.

As Garfin notes, it’s difficult to research the long-term impact of Sept. 11 on American youth, since there’s no control group of young Americans who weren’t exposed to the event in any way. That said, in an article for The Conversation, she writes that coming of age in its wake may have “led to fears of perceived threats, political intolerance, prejudice, and xenophobia in some American children.”

Xenophobia and prejudice are certainly potential byproducts of the coronavirus epidemic, as is evident from the current wave of harassment and assaults on Asian-Americans by racists who blame China for the outbreak. But Gen Z, which is nearly half non-white in the US, tends to be progressive on issues of racial and ethnic equality, according to the Pew Research Center. Should racism increase more broadly as a result of the outbreak, young people could become even more active in working to combat it.

A make-or-break moment for social trust

One useful historical parallel to the current pandemic is the Spanish Flu, which swept across the globe a little over 100 years ago, killing somewhere between 50-100 million people—even more than the famously deadly World War I. Then, as now, schools and churches closed, and people came to regard contact with one another as dangerous.

That feeling didn’t go away even after the outbreak faded, according to a recent study (pdf) by researchers at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, which looked at the long-term social costs of the 1918 pandemic. The researchers found that “measures of public health, and the general encouragement from the authorities and the media to avoid interpersonal contacts, created a profound climate of suspicion and mistrust,” with long-lasting repercussions for the economy as well as human relationships.

Drawing on data from the annual General Social Study in the US, which includes a question asking respondents whether most people can be trusted, the researchers grouped respondents by their country of ethnic origin in order to estimate how trust changed in 18 different countries before and after the year the Spanish Flu first struck. They found that countries that had experienced the worst of the pandemic experienced greater decreases in interpersonal trust—and that survivors passed that sense of distrust onto their children via their cultural attitudes and habits.

“Those who experienced the Spanish Flu also experienced the institutional and societal failure in managing the pandemic,” Guido Alfani, one of the study’s authors, writes via email. “This, as well as the climate of suspicion, led to a decline in interpersonal trust, which is a key component of social capital.”

In other words, it wasn’t simply the fear of contagion that made people trust one another less—it was the experience of witnessing officials’ ineptitude and lack of sufficient planning in the face of the disease, as well as the sense that people weren’t treating one another well. (One difference between then and now: most of the victims of the Spanish Flu were young, between 15 and 34.)

And then there’s the impact of the coming recession. Trust is linked to economic prosperity: Bankers need to trust that small-business owners will pay them back, coworkers need to trust one another to do their jobs, and consumers need to trust vendors to give them quality goods at a fair price.

Does this mean that coronavirus will lead Gen Z to experience a similar dip in trust—with the accompanying ramifications for the economies that young people create?

Not necessarily. Alfani says that countries that do well in cooperating to fight the pandemic may well see an upswing in trust.

“The possible lesson here is that mismanaged pandemics lead to a reduction in trust,” he writes, “but when the institutional and societal reaction is unitary and effective, we might get the opposite outcome, with positive permanent effects on social capital.”

On an individual level, Alfani says he suspects that we won’t always be scared to get within six feet of one another.

“Some Italian sociologists argue that in south Europe, individual behavior will change and interpersonal relations will become less physical: less hugging and fewer kisses on the cheek,” he says. “Personally, I have some doubts that this will be a permanent effect.”

Indeed, perhaps young people will be even more appreciative of the power of touch and togetherness once they’re allowed to be close to one another again, having been deprived of one another’s physical company for so long.

Trauma and resilience

The collective trauma of a societal upheaval like the coronavirus pandemic will inevitably leave a mark on this generation. Psychological research (pdf) shows that experiencing stress during adolescence is linked with particularly strong long-term effects on physical and mental health, as well as increased risk-taking behavior.

But it’s also true that humans can be remarkably resilient, even under difficult circumstances. One 2010 study (pdf), for example, found that people who had gone through some adverse experiences in their lifetimes, like serious illness or the death of a family member, had better mental health and a greater sense of well-being than both people who had no history of adversity and those who had faced many hardships. What’s more, people who had faced some difficulties were the best able to cope when more tough times came their way.

“As horrible as these events are, they stand to adjust our yardstick for what feels like a crisis,” says Damour. “My experience of young people at the individual level is when they weather a crisis, say something as horrible as the death of a parent,” they tend to be less reactive to everyday difficulties and challenges compared to their peers.

For young people who are now coming of age during the coronavirus epidemic, their response to future struggles with final exams or college applications could well be, “well, I’ve seen worse.”

To some extent, each person’s level of resilience is formed by intrinsic factors like personality and genetics. But resilience is something that can also be learned. And while much of what happens during the pandemic is out of Gen Z’s immediate control—from whether companies lay off workers to how quickly scientists are able to develop vaccines—young people can do a lot to cope with what are inarguably stressful circumstances, thus setting themselves up for greater well-being in the long run.

“I would love to encourage young people to get creative,” Garfin says. She recommends not only exercise, sleep, and virtual social time—the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle in the age of the virus—but also that young people find ways to empower themselves.

That could mean starting an online business, organizing a social-media fundraising effort, or creating a new Instagram art project. The goal, she says, ought to be to capitalize on the digital resources with which this generation is so familiar: “To stay engaged and connected and entrepreneurial.”