How COVID-19 Could Change a Generation Forever

Corey Seemiller
Apr 22, 2020 · 5 min read

Each generation has at least one big event…a life-changing, read it in the history books, type of event. And, while all members of living generations at the time experience this event, they do so differently based on their stage of life.

For example, young people in the G.I. generation were growing up around the time of World War I, the Spanish Flu, and later, the Depression. The Silent Generation was faced with World War II and later, the Cold War. The Baby Boomers were confronted with Vietnam and the Space Race. Gen Xers dealt with the Challenger explosion, AIDS crisis, and Gulf War. Millennials grew up with 9/11 and entered the workforce during the 2008 global recession.

Until now, few critical events seemed to emerge as those most prominent during the adolescence and young adulthood of those in Generation Z (born 1995–2010). The first was the 2016 election and change of party in the White House. The second was the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Both resulted in social and political effects. But, it seems like perhaps COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic will have farther-reaching and longer-lasting impacts, given its magnitude.

But, aren’t we all experiencing this global pandemic? Yes, but we are experiencing it differently based on our stage of life. For example, those over 65 are likely focusing on their health, combatting loneliness, and trying to figure out how to get basic necessities; all while watching their retirement savings fluctuate in the stock market. Those in mid-life are likely concentrating on schooling their children and caregiving for their own parents while working from home, going to work, or contending with unemployment. These differentiators are what Pew refers to as the Cohort Effect.

However, there is another phenomenon at play here; the events that take place during one’s adolescence and young adulthood can impact how they perceive and interact with the world as they age. While many older individuals are realizing that this pandemic will likely lead to a “new normal,” young people may simply see this as “normal.”

Although there are critiques around analyzing the effects of societal events on generational cohorts (mostly due to focusing on only one variable: age), this argument can be said of studying other groups by a singular demographic like gender, race, religion, etc. Demographic studies are not only common practice but also highly informative for providing insight, services, and policies to specific groups of people. Thus, understanding experiences young people have during a crisis can be incredibly telling for how they might best be supported.

So, the question is, how might the COVID-19 pandemic era impact young people now and in the future?

To get a clearer idea of the impact, we can learn a lot by looking at how 9/11 affected young Millennials at the time. While 9/11 and the COVID-19 crisis are different, there are some stark similarities. They are both large-scale disasters, which researchers say can “heighten individuals’ feelings of threat, vulnerability, and suspicion of others.” With terrorist attacks, “it is difficult to identify when the worst is over and things can be expected to improve.” One could argue that a pandemic might mirror this same sentiment given there is no definitive end in sight.

During 9/11, many young people lost loved ones or witnessed challenging recoveries of survival. While we are only in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, some children have already lost parents, friends, and family members, and many more have witnessed their loved ones being ill, with no assurance that they would recover. In a recent study conducted by the brand agency, Archrival, Ben Harms, director of insights and strategy shared in an interview with Teen Vogue, “It’s almost as if this generation will have a sense of collective PTSD [from COVID-19].”

While researchers have found that the initial emotional and psychological distress experienced by kids after 9/11 faded as time went on, other studies have found the effects of 9/11 on kids were longer lasting. Older youth, in particular, were able to imagine the possibility of a similar future event occurring, eliciting psychological responses to that fear. Similarly, young people today may more readily fear a future pandemic despite older folks considering this experience as a once-in-a-lifetime event. Archrival’s Ben Harms pointed out that many young people, “wonder if they’ll ever get over the idea that everything could fall apart in a moment.”

The socio-political effects of the pandemic on young people may also be staggering.

For example, 9/11 elicited prejudice and acts of discrimination toward people from the Middle East, which didn’t sit well with young people at the time. As a result, Millennials developed a higher respect for diversity, varying religious viewpoints, and immigration along with a desire for strong global relations and cultural competence. Today, COVID-19 is drawing out bias toward Asians and Asian-Americans. How will this sit with social justice-minded Generation Z, the “most racially diverse generation to date?”

Also, 9/11 garnered a strong governmental response that scaled back civil liberties to combat terrorism. This created skepticism among many Millennials who were wary of some of these efforts, especially those that targeted specific groups of people. Will today’s social distancing to flatten the curve be seen by Generation Z like Millennials who became skeptical of curbing civil liberties in the name of collective safety? Or is this scenario different because we are all potential victims of the virus and are all being asked to follow the same guidelines?

In addition, after 9/11, Millennials experienced an increase in patriotism, which resulted in high levels of volunteerism. How will the service and philanthropic efforts of everyday people during the pandemic impact Generation Z’s civic participation, given their interest in social change?

While we won’t know the after-effects of the COVID-19 era on Generation Z likely until far into the future, we can look to recent history to better understand the impact of other traumatic events on young people while considering what we already know about Generation Z’s perspectives. There are five critical areas to consider: Political, Economic, Psychological, Sociological, and Social. Each subsequent article details these perspectives, with the aim to provide insight into how this pandemic may shape Generation Z now and in the future.

Continue reading the remainder of articles in this series:

1. How COVID-19 Could Change a Generation Forever-you are reading this article
2. The Political Effects of COVID-19 on Young People
3. The Economic Effects of COVID-19 on Young People
4. The Psychological Effects of COVID-19 on Young People
5. The Sociological Effects of COVID-19 on Young People
6. The Social Effects of COVID-19 on Young People

The Gen Z Hub

Stay up to date on the latest on Generation Z and politics…

The Gen Z Hub

Stay up to date on the latest on Generation Z and politics, the economy, jobs, education, technology, health, and relationships.

Corey Seemiller

Written by

Dr. Corey Seemiller is an award-winning professor and author of four books on Generation Z, including Generation Z: A Century in the Making.

The Gen Z Hub

Stay up to date on the latest on Generation Z and politics, the economy, jobs, education, technology, health, and relationships.

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