COVID: Gen Z Takes a Hit and Rises Up

Lots of people are wondering what’s up with Generation Z.

Are they carefree and irresponsible “corona partiers” who show up in viral videos on CNN?

Or are they the passionate activists marching in the streets in support of racial justice?

The coronavirus pandemic is having different effects on different generations, and how different generations respond to the crisis will reverberate for decades to come—in the case of Gen Z, literally, as they will be the generation who has to build whatever becomes our new normal. Understanding where they’re coming from, and why, is key for our leaders, our businesses, and organizations of all stripes right now.

In 2018, Willow conducted a nationally representative survey to measure people’s faith in our major political and governmental institutions.

We noticed something at the time. Gen Z is different from everyone else. While they resemble Millennials in some sense, they appear to be forging their own distinct identity.

Gen Z is more liberal than older generations, but are less likely to label themselves Democrats as their self-identified liberal elders. Their notions of civic responsibility are also fundamentally different. As of yet, they haven’t shown to be reliable voters (even the oldest haven’t been of voting age for more than one or two elections). However, going back a few years to 2018, they demonstrated that they were more likely to have participated in a march or rally than older generations.

The recent Black Lives Matter protests put these differences in stark relief. Gen Z is drawn together by their shared beliefs and values, not institutional affiliation, and they are showing a willingness to challenge institutional authority while advocating for causes they believe in.

In truth, they’ve had a lot to worry about in their relatively short lives, with no end of the worries in sight. The American promise of working hard in school, getting an education, and experiencing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness appears illusory to many younger citizens. They expect to have lives of limited opportunities, constrained by debt, with existential threats such as climate change hovering over them.

And now, COVID.

Recent news reports depict Gen Z as ignorant and irresponsible young people gathering in maskless throngs in bars and on beaches, with little concern for catching or spreading the virus.  And in fact, the greatest increase in coronavirus rates is currently among young people.

However, Gen Z has been deeply impacted by the pandemic. As the “last ones in,” members of Gen Z have often been the “first ones out” when it comes to jobs.

  • In a recent Pew Survey, half of older Gen Z respondents (those of working age) report that they, or a member of their household, had lost a job or taken a pay cut because of the pandemic, higher than any other generation.
  • A survey of 38,000 students by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that two-thirds of those who were employed before the pandemic experienced job insecurity, “with one-third losing a job due to the pandemic.” And, 15% of students were experiencing homelessness.
  • In the same Pew Survey, Gen Z is more likely than any other generation to have experienced anxiety, depression, loneliness, and sleeplessness in the past seven days. Given that our 2018 Willow Poll found that eight in ten members of Gen Z describe themselves as “worriers,” this finding did not surprise us.

Yet, while COVID-19 has had a significant economic and emotional impact on Gen Z, they do appear to feel less vulnerable to its potential health impacts.

  • Only 27% of Gen Z respondents in the latest Pew Survey say that COVID-19 is a “major threat” to their personal health, lower than for any other age group.

And perhaps because of their youth, they are less likely to see how their actions can impact others:

  • Compared to older generations, Gen Z is less likely to believe that the actions of ordinary citizens can affect the spread of coronavirus.
  • And, members of Gen Z are less likely than older Americans to have worn a mask in the past month.

Despite these attitudes, the data clearly show that Gen Z has not been untouched by the coronavirus pandemic. Rather, they have been disproportionately impacted both economically and emotionally. And, the killing of George Floyd has ignited their thirst for social justice.

How do we square an ethic of care, replete with on-site medics and widespread mask-wearing witnessed during the protests, with what appears to be the carelessness exhibited at those parties?

For one, we should be careful to recognize that generations are not monoliths, that there is no universal behavior or belief confined to any single generation.

Perhaps also, young people always have, and always will do the things that young people do, believing in their own invulnerability. The existential threats of climate change and the deep problems of systemic racism may simply feel greater and more urgent to them. This may evolve as the virus spreads and impacts more and more Americans, including young people.

But for now, Gen Z appears ready to rise up and be counted as we navigate these seismic shifts in our culture, activated by a combination of their deeply held values and their own economic insecurity.

The impact of COVID-19 on a generation that is just reaching adulthood is likely to be far-reaching and long term—for the economy, parenthood, home ownership, and all of the things that make up a stable society. It behooves us to listen to them.

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