The Sociological Effects of COVID-19 on Young People

Corey Seemiller
Apr 22, 2020 · 5 min read

Although we might be feeling a sense of isolation now as we stay home and tend to ourselves, the reality is that we are still far more interdependent than we may realize. Whether we are keeping certain businesses afloat with our purchases or inspiring others with our social media posts, we are impacting each other. As there may be many cases of interdependence to draw from, this era seems to be marked by two distinct examples, each with very different motives and outcomes. These include panic buying and volunteerism, and for both, their effects are far-reaching. How will these behaviors affect the perceptions of Generation Z (born 1995–2010) today and in years to come?

Panic Buying

Consider that while most supply chains have not stopped, many people have entered into this time period with a scarcity mentality, buying an excessive amount of products while leaving the shelves empty for others. People are hoarding toilet paper, hair dye, pasta, and hand sanitizer. Perhaps hair dye is in short supply because salons are closed and people are dying their own hair. And, the same may apply to hand sanitizer as use increases. But, how do you explain toilet paper or pasta? This panic buying is based on the notion that people are creating today’s version of a bomb shelter. And, when individuals believe something is in short supply, they are bound to want to buy it.

This behavior is similar to that which occurred during World War I where people were asked to volunteer to ration foods, doing so through efforts like Meatless Tuesdays and Wheatless Wednesdays. By the time World War II came along and rationing was again instituted, the government stepped in with a voucher system using ration books to ensure that people were not getting more than their fair share.

But, unlike a threat from a known perpetrator in which communities band together, a virus may be seen more as a personal, rather than community, threat where people have to protect themselves as individuals. They then end up hoarding essential goods in the event a shortage were to occur (which ironically causes shortages). But, hoarding has also resulted in a black market effect today where some people are profiting from reselling crucial items well over market value. And, in this case, the government isn’t instituting any limitations on rationing; only some stores are. Thus, the hoarding continues.

So, where does Generation Z fit in? Some media outlets have pointed to Baby Boomers as the primary hoarders. This may be due to their oftentimes better overall financial footing, which would allow them to buy $200 worth of toilet paper at a time. And, since most in Generation Z were already living at home or temporarily moved back as young adults, it makes sense that they aren’t the primary shoppers and thus are less likely hoarding; however, their caregivers might be. And, those older Gen Zers in the workforce are likely not experiencing the peak earnings of their careers quite yet, leaving less discretionary income for many of them to hoard. But, just because they might not be hoarding as much doesn’t mean that they aren’t exposed to a hoarding mentality. This “subscription” generation, which has preferred renting instead of buying, may have a change of tone after this pandemic as they realize the dangers of not having critical items in times of need. Will this generation forego a big purchase in the future and instead fill the pantry with canned goods? Or will they temper the need for excess and help recalibrate purchasing practices for us all?

Volunteerism and Giving

While it is easy to think of just doom and gloom during this time, there is a remarkable resurgence of sacrifice and giving. Institutions and businesses are redirecting services, volunteering time and equipment, and donating items.

And, people are still giving money. For example, Arizona Gives Day, which has been around since 2013 raising money for nonprofit organizations, had record-breaking dollars donated, raising nearly twice as much in April 2020 than it did in April 2019.

Healthcare workers and first responders are risking their health and safety and putting in overtime hours, and everyday people are giving their time and skills. Although young people may not have access to the same resources or have developed extensive skillsets to volunteer, they are still stepping up. They are making masks on their 3-D printers, creating public service announcements for young people about COVID-19, and grocery shopping for elderly people.

Given the nature of community participation right now, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Generation Z, the “We” generation, continue to engage in their communities as they grow older. But, as this generation tends to favor social change over providing short-term service, being able to see gaps in the social structure during this crisis may be incredibly informative for them as they determine the causes they care about most. Might some be exposed to the issue of food insecurity for the first time, either through experiencing it or witnessing it? Could some feel compelled to fight for economic justice and a fair wage after seeing how many people were living on the financial brink and then plummeting into dire situations? Or might it be that some see the issue of affordable and accessible healthcare as a primary platform they want to take on? Exposure to these issues in a real tangible way may reinforce the need for volunteerism but also might pivot these young people into career paths and political engagement to take on major reform around issues they are passionate about.

This generation is witnessing individualistic behaviors in the form of hoarding at the same time as collectivistic behaviors in the form of giving. But, hopefully, young people see that while it is important to have necessities, ensuring everyone’s safety, wellbeing, and prosperity are key to addressing the social issues they care about so deeply.

Continue reading the remainder of articles in this series:

1. How COVID-19 Could Change a Generation Forever
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-you are reading this article
6. The Social Effects of COVID-19 on Young People

The Gen Z Hub

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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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