The other day, I was talking to my friend over the phone and inquired about her kids.
“How are they responding to the pandemic and quarantine?” I asked. “Do they understand what’s going on?”
The oldest one, who’s attending middle school, was doing fine, my friend said. She’s using technology to keep connected and hadn’t missed a beat. But her younger sister, who’s in elementary school, seemed very depressed and anxious. She was particularly worried about death.
Given this unprecedented spread of the coronavirus and the subsequent shutdown of society, we are no doubt witnessing a major event that historians will study for decades.
But we’re also witnessing perhaps something far more consequential: the shaping of a new generation of kids and younger adults coming of age in one of the worst global health crises in recent memory.
From a social perspective, this cross section of Americans belonging to the tail end of Generation Z and the beginnings of Generation Alpha have already missed or will miss key moments of life: graduation, sports tournaments, proms, bar mitzvahs, etc.
And Gen Zers will enter the workforce at the start of what will likely be a deep economic recession.
How will the pandemic influence their views on globalization? Politics? Marriage? Technology?
Applying broad generalizations to entire generations can be a tricky thing as it can lead to stereotypes that attract resentment and contempt. Witness the emergence of the phrase “OK Boomer” as a sort of a Gen Z rallying cry against supposedly smug Baby Boomers. Popular culture portrays Gen X as unmotivated slackers. People think of Millennials as pampered and entitled.
“Millennials will be extinct,” a friend recently wrote on Facebook about college students partying on spring break despite the coronavirus outbreak. “Why are they on Florida beaches?? Get the heck home!!! Stay in!!”
When I noted that the college students were Gen Z, she replied: “Lol ok will edit but I am sure there’s some millennials there.”
But major historical events can indeed shape how a particular generation sees the world.
“A historical moment can have an outsize effect on members of one generation,” according to the Pew Research Center. “This may be because it occurs during a key point in the life cycle, such as adolescence and young adulthood, when awareness of the wider world deepens and personal identities and value systems are being strongly shaped.”
For example, the Silent Generation, those born before 1928, grew up during the Great Depression and the New Deal. The exposure to big government programs created a group of Americans who were strong supporters of the Democratic Party for decades to come.
Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, came of age during the end of Vietnam War and Watergate scandal. Those events produced a group of Americans strongly disillusioned with government and politics.
Millennials, born between 1981 and 1997, will certainly remember the Great Recession. As a result of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Millennials have become financially conservative, delaying things like marriage, parenthood, and home purchases until they can regain their lost years of income and wealth generation.
So what can we expect from Gen Z/Gen Alpha after the pandemic ends? Here are three things that deserve particular attention:
Mental Health: Depression and anxiety has become a growing problem in the United States, especially among younger Americans.
In 2017, about 26 percent of people 18-25 years suffered from a mental illness, the highest percentage among all adult age groups, according the National Institute of Mental Health.
And last year, the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data that showed suicides for persons aged 10-24 jumped from 6.8 per 100,000 persons in 2007 to 10.6 per 100,000 persons in 2017. During this period, the suicide rate for persons aged 10–14 nearly tripled.
The question is how prolonged periods of self-isolation, social distancing, and quarantines will impact the mental welfare of younger people. The good news is that as the stigma from discussing mental health further fades, younger Americans have been more willing to openly discuss these issues than previous generations.
Government: The federal government’s massive response to the Great Depression during the 1930s shaped liberal and conservative attitudes toward big government for decades to come.
So it stands to reason that the Trump Administration’s management to the global pandemic will be influential, if not more. President Trump recently signed a record breaking $2 trillion stimulus package with more likely to come.
Younger Americans are already disposed to government intervention. According to data from Pew, 70 percent of Gen Zers and 64 percent of Millennials think the government should do more to solve problems.
But the real wild card is the unprecedented orders by state and local governments to shut down non-essential businesses and confine people to their homes. Depending on their length, these restrictions of commerce and movement might breed resentment even among younger Americans toward government power.
Technology: Gen Z are true digital natives, which means they have never known a time when the Internet did not exist.
Not surprisingly, they spend the most time on social media compared to other generations. According to data from GlobalWebIndex, Gen Z spends nearly 3 hours on social media each day, ahead of Millennials (2 hours, 38 minutes), Gen X (2 hours), and Baby Boomers (1 hour, 12 minutes).
Again, the real question is how prolong periods of social isolation will impact younger Americans. Will they become even more dependent on technology? Or will being stuck at home make them value physical contact, in person activities, and relationships with family and friends on a deeper level?
It will take a long time before we can answer these questions. But I suspect we’re likely to see two possibilities: a traumatized, anxious generation that turns inwards. Or a generation that more fully embraces community and meaningful social engagement.