Generation Z has grown up in an age of comfort and prosperity. As children, we were awarded participation trophies for losing the soccer game. Today, we demand trigger warnings and safe spaces on our campuses, emotionally bubble wrapping ourselves lest we be triggered.
Positioned to be history’s most educated generation and set to inherit a strong economy in 2019, our futures looked safe and predictable. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened — and the rug was pulled out from under us.
Today, Gen Z — those of us born between roughly 1997 and 2012 — is the most unemployed generation. In fact, 52 percent of 18-to-29-year-old young adults moved back in with their parents during the pandemic, breaking a record set during the Great Depression.
But while the pandemic has been devastating, it could also present a silver lining for members of my age group.
Greg Lukianoff, co-author of “The Coddling of the American Mind” and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, thinks so.
“There is a real possibility for a generation that has been told that they’re more fragile than they actually are and that they are less resilient than they actually are, that facing genuine scary adversity and getting through it could actually be quite empowering,” he said.
Generational resilience, in fact, has always been fortified by hardship. “Think about people returning from World War One. That gave us Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce,” Lukianoff said. “Big global disruptions have downstream effects that can seem as if people were shocked out of their slumber.”
For a generation that can’t even recall 9/11, the pandemic promises to be our defining moment, and it’s set to change us in many ways.
For one, we are suddenly reexamining our chosen educational paths and questioning the very integrity of our schooling. College enrollment has sunk a staggering 25 percent during the pandemic, with many taking gap years or dropping out entirely. Forty percent of students are now reconsidering their educational goals, and that’s not a bad thing. With the average graduate racking up $30,000 in debt pre-pandemic, a degree had become a social necessity that cost an arm and a leg. Burying yourself in debt for a degree in gender studies suddenly seems less palatable in a pandemic.
“We created a very weird luxury product that had gotten drunk on its power and prestige,” says Lukianoff.
Forty percent of Gen Z are also rethinking their career paths. With at least 30 percent of jobs lost during the pandemic not expected to return, our futures lie in an unrecognizable economy. We have no choice but to break the achievement loop of getting the best grades to go to the best college to get the best job. Instead, we are being forced to think inventively as we forge our own paths.
Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence, sees the upside: “Getting spun off this linear path and sent out into the stratosphere is scary but liberating. There you are, without direction, without a pre-approved generically created path. Of course you’re going to be anxious at first. ‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I do?’ But it could be the darkness before the dawn.”
With the status quo put on pause by lockdowns, Gen Z entered on a journey of self-discovery. Eighty-eight percent report expressing themselves creatively, and 58 percent say they picked up a new hobby, with fitness, cooking and writing among the most popular. And, for a generation of digital natives glued to our devices, a majority say that they will go outside, spend time with friends, and generally slow down more post-pandemic.
“Your generation had all your time optimized by adults who want to go straight to the soccer game instead of letting you just kick a ball around the basement with friends,” Skenazy told me. “But now you’re having some free, unstructured time to discover your actual interests — not for a grade, not for the college counselor, not for a résumé.”
For a generation that was coasting by, a formative life chapter has suddenly been rewritten. “Gen Z experienced an unexpected bump in the road,” says Lukianoff, “but they learned new skills, new ways of coping, new ways of thinking, new ways of occupying their minds. There are going to be great thinkers who come out of this and point to that peculiar year when they were stuck inside all day.”
Eighty-four percent of Gen Z say we’ll be changed by the pandemic, and the majority believe we’ll be better off for it. This year has forced us to ditch convention and forge new paths as we search for our place in a changing world. We are embracing novelty, creativity and ambiguity.
In short, the pandemic could leave in its wake a more resilient and more inventive Gen Z. It could even be the making of us.
Rikki Schlott is a 20-year-old college junior, studying history and politics in NYC.