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The Crippling Impact of COVID-19 on the Future of Gen Z

How those coming of age during the coronavirus pandemic are facing unique challenges that are setting them back.

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From this article you will gain:

  • Insights into the values, beliefs, and expectations of Generation Z, those born between 1997–2015 who are currently 5–24 years old.

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If what they say about challenges is true — that facing them builds character — than many of us have built a whole lot of character during the extreme challenge that is 2020. 258,000+ COVID deaths in the U.S., major economic recession, civil strife, social disconnection, and a bitterly divisive Presidential election — these are just a few of the chapters future generations will be reading about in history books.

Indeed, individuals of all generations have experienced loss and disruption as a result of the coronavirus, but it’s the youngest generation of blossoming professionals — Gen Z — that may have the heaviest and longest financial burdens to carry.

In fact, the impact of COVID-19 is so great that generational experts are citing the pandemic as a “defining moment” in understanding Gen Z. Until recently no one had put an end date on Gen Z’s date range, but due to the colossal impact of the pandemic, the Center for Generational Kinetics is now defining Gen Z as individuals born between 1996 and 2015 (the youngest members being about 5 years old at the start of coronavirus). Some generational experts have gone so far as to redefine Gen Z now as Gen C, for coronavirus.

These rising professionals were already concerned about their financial wellbeing as a result of growing up during the Great Recession in the late 2000s. They saw Millennials struggle to find jobs with liberal arts degrees all while carrying the heavy burden of excessive student loans. As a result, many Gen Zers seek more pragmatic choices when it comes to degrees and professions, valuing professional security over entrepreneurial freedom.

So what does the future look like for these well-educated, savvy digital natives?

Knoll Research recently conducted an insightful study on Gen Z and found five common themes shared by this young cohort in their data. And while these generational traits are not an absolute science, they do provide predictive clues on understanding the values and expectations of Gen Z.

Knoll calls these themes the “5 Gs of Gen Z” because each one begins with the letter ‘G’ — not to be confused with the 5G cellular network (or subsequent conspiracy theories). The 5 Gs are:

  • Gaming

Let’s look at these themes in detail and explore coronavirus’ impact on each.

(Photo Credit: Knoll Research 2020)

The 5 Gs of Gen Z

1. Gaming 🎮

Gen Xers and Millennials were already driving the rise of adult video game players with many individuals carrying over their love of games from childhood. Gen Z takes this trend even further with nearly 75% of individuals engaging in games on a regular basis. Gaming platforms and the influence of gaming brands have been growing steadily since Gen Z arrived on the planet with both men and women reporting playing as a typical — and sometimes essential — part of their weekly routine.

This rise in gaming may concern some older generations envisioning a bunch of out of shape, reclusive youths eating junk food in basements all day. But today’s gamers are often fit, energetic, and community-focused. Many popular games include multiplayer modes where collaboration is essential to success. Oftentimes the crew with quality leadership and seamless teamwork is the one who captures victory.

Beyond consoles, ESports is a growing industry awarding players millions of dollars in cash prizes every year. Universities are even adding ESport teams to their official sporting lineup with scholarships to attract top players to their schools. It’s never been a better time to convince parents that playing video games may be an asset for their children’s future.

During the first few weeks of the coronavirus lockdown, gaming console sales surged as people stuck indoors sought ways to pass the time. Parents desperate to keep children entertained lifted screen time regulations and families found fun and distraction gathered around their consoles (or secluded away in separate rooms on their screens).

With a “return to normalcy” still months away, it seems this is one aspect of the Gen Z lifestyle that will continue to grow and thrive. Folks of all generations are finding fun and connection through gaming and with so many options from phones, to consoles, to VR headsets, games are becoming more central to our entertainment.

2. Gigs 💻

According to Knoll, 28% of 19 to 21-year-olds are currently making money online. These entrepreneurial young people have a talent for turning hobbies into income streams and they know how to utilize social media and platforms such as YouTube and Etsy to create audiences and sell products.

Part of this success comes from Gen Z’s ability to understand and use technology not just as a tool, but as an extension of themselves. Unlike generations before them, they’ve never known a world without instant communication and access to all of humanity’s knowledge through a phone. Where Millennials are tech dependent, Gen Z is tech savvy.

Another difference between Millennials and Gen Z is their approach to the gig economy. While members of both generations have had success starting their own businesses, Gen Z values security and likes to keep their side gigs on the side while also earning income from a more standard, steady job.

Due to the economic shutdown, millions of people across generations have lost their jobs. And while it’s difficult to lose a job at any age, the youngest of these professionals, Gen Z, have fewer resources and smaller networks to help them bounce back.

According to the Pew Research Center, Gen Z is also more likely than older generations to work in industries shut down by social distancing restrictions. Sectors such as hospitality, travel, and retail — all which provide large numbers of entry level roles for younger workers — have been slammed especially hard by the effects of the pandemic.

The future for Gen Z isn’t looking too bright either. The Resolution Foundation’s analysis suggests that layoffs linked to the pandemic could affect young people’s pay and job prospects not just now but in the long-term. This means Gen Z could be struggling economically for years to come.

With so much turmoil in the job market, Gen Z may need to rely more on their entrepreneurial grit and technological knowhow to make ends meet. We’re likely to see this generation creating innovative businesses and operating them from the comfort of their parents’ homes — a trend started by Millennials after the Great Recession in 2008.

3. Gender 👭👬

With nearly half of Gen Zers identifying with a non-white ethnicity, this generation is the most diverse America has ever seen. Many Gen Zers support racial justice work and believe diversity is essential for a high-functioning society. These young people also welcome a diverse expression of gender and orientation.

Gen Z pushes back against traditional gender roles while embracing ideas of gender fluidity and new identities. Gen Z also has an expectation that society should accept and support people no matter their gender identity and this expectation extends to schools, businesses, and governments. For Gen Z, the status quo is NOT working and MUST be updated to meet modern demands.

While the impact of the pandemic is severe, COVID may ultimately promote more gender equality in the workplace. A need to work from home and the fact many fathers have had to take primary responsibility for child care are shifting the lopsided distribution of labor in home management. Social norms are being nudged in a progressive direction thanks to the necessities of the moment.

Another interesting gender shift is happening in office Zoom meetings. While there can be an erosion of communication in video calls, there is also an erosion of subconscious judgements and behaviors. Coworkers are reduced to talking heads in boxes with details such as a person’s height, dress, body language, and pheromones all removed. This flattening provides a more level playing field for professionals where each person can be evaluated more objectively.

The pandemic brings challenges, but also opportunities to advance how people think and feel about gender. Gen Z believes in diversity and wants all people to feel safe and empowered.

4. Giving 🎁

Knoll Research found that kindness is a top quality many Gen Zers value and want to see in their leaders and communities. They feel a personal responsibility to address the injustices of the world and are motivated to volunteer and rally for the environment, social justice, and animal rights.

Gen Z also expects employers to help facilitate giving back efforts, whether through officially supported company initiatives or by allowing employees time and flexibility to contribute to the causes they support. A new corporate term has emerged from this growing trend: VTO, or volunteer time off. Gen Z sees volunteerism as an essential part of giving back and creating an overall healthy society.

With so much human suffering resulting from the impact of the pandemic, racial injustice, and the economic shutdown, Gen Z has a myriad of opportunities to serve their communities. One example is legislation introduced by Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), that calls for recruiting AmeriCorp members as COVID-19 contact tracers. The bill named the “Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through Service Act,” has gained bi-partisan support and looks to add as many as 750,000 volunteers over three years.

This is a movement America saw during the Great Depression in the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the National Youth Administration focused on providing work and education to young people between the ages of 16 and 25. At a time when internships are scarce and companies are on a hiring freeze, national service could be a great outlet for Gen Zers eager to serve their communities. PLUS, their service could be an important part of rebuilding — and evolving — society during this turbulent time.

5. Green ♻️

Climate change is a major focus for Gen Z with 87% of young people fearing for the future they’ve been left with by previous generations. And while many feel personally motivated to take action, 90% also believe companies must drive action on social and environmental issues. Gen Z supports brands that take proactive steps to do good in the world.

Beyond brands, Gen Z also believes governments of the world should be taking dramatic and immediate action to slow climate change. This generation feels an understandably sense of urgency to act and has no reservations about reaching across national boundaries to address the climate crisis — a crisis they see as everyone’s problem and one we can only solve together.

The pandemic is an event so disruptive that it can be measured in the planetary metrics of climate change. According to estimates by the International Energy Agency, due to the global economic shutdown, an estimated 2.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions — about 8% of the total for the year — will never be emitted into the atmosphere.

Coronavirus’ impact on climate could ultimately depend on how governments want their economies to look after they recover, specifically how much they will continue to rely on fossil fuels. As officials work to contain the economic fallout, there is also an opportunity to push the shift to cleaner energy alternatives, such as solar and wind.

Gen Z is a strong advocate for cleaner energy and now could be the tipping point to push governments to update their priorities. Whatever the outcome, Gen Z has a long and hard road ahead working to preserve the environment that’s been left to them.

(Photo Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images; Illustration: Ian Hurley/Pacific Standard)

Looking Ahead

Before coronavirus, societies and organizations were already experiencing a disruption in social and workplace trends. Now this disruption is accelerating with the long-term impacts of the pandemic still unknown.

As we move forward, it’s important for governments and leaders to consider Gen Z — the youngest working generation — since they have been disproportionately affected by layoffs and closings. With the average age of a U.S House member just shy of 58 and nearly 63 in the Senate, it seems however as if we are positioned to give to Gen Z what older generations have traditionally passed down for years — the short end of the economic stick.

For those thinking about the future, this doesn’t sit well. We already have the largest generation in the U.S. struggling to keep up with debt, and Gen Zers have had even less time to acquire resources and experience.

This provides a quintessential moment for older generations to connect with younger ones who need support right now. From mentorship to job shadowing there are so many opportunities to build cross-generational relationships with symbiotic benefits.

Without a doubt, the current forecast for Gen Z looks pretty rough, but it’s up to all of us to make sure the story doesn’t end here. In this pivotal movement, now is the time to step up and support our future generations.

Justin Shaddix & Zach Handler, corporate trainers and workplace culture consultants. Providing perspectives on the multigenerational workforce.