Gen Z and COVID-19 Update: A Generation Defining Moment

Gen Z woman wearing face mask to protect health from COVID-19

At CGK, we study the Generation Defining Moments that shape each generation, including Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers.

The key to a Generation Defining Moment is that it must do two things:

#1 – Take place at the right time in a generation’s coming of age experience.

The event or external influence needs to occur at a formative time in a generation’s life stage, which is usually an age range from childhood through early adulthood. The key is the generation needs to be old enough to deeply experience the event while at the same be in a young enough life stage where it can significantly impact their views, beliefs, and attitude toward their world and their future.

#2  – Create a powerful, unforgettable emotional impact, usually tied to fear and uncertainty caused by the event and its aftermath.

These moments tend to make a generation feel vulnerable and look at the world differently than they did before, such as the way 9/11 impacted Millennials or how the JFK assassination affected Baby Boomers.

In our generational keynotes and virtual presentations, we talk about Generation Defining Moments as our “Where were you when…?” moments. During these generation-defining events, we remember exactly where we were, who we were with, and what we felt at that moment.

COVID-19: Gen Z’s Generation Defining Moment

Based on our research at CGK, we believe the COVID-19 pandemic is the most formative Generation Defining Moment that has shaped Gen Z at this critical time in their transition into adulthood. Gen Z is already sharing the impact of COVID-19 in our research interviews with them about their schooling, work, money, health, family, and attitudes toward the future.

For Gen Z, COVID-19 has upended almost every aspect of their life.

For younger members of Gen Z, they no longer go to school with classmates, see their friends in-person, or work part-time jobs. Instead, they are confined to their home, with a parent or other family members, and trying to continue their education at a time when many schools do not have an effective distance learning program. These same Gen Zers are seeing their parents struggle financially, including job losses, inability to pay rent, and tension between adults within their household as everyone deals with this new reality and the close quarters of being quarantined.

Gen Zers nearing the end of high school are seeing standardized testing canceled, no graduation ceremony, uncertainty about college options, financial pressure, and no ability to play competitive sports or drive academic achievements or progress that could change their future. These Gen Zers are telling us they worry if college will even take place in the fall. Will they move out of their family’s home this year? If college is all online, how will they have a traditional college experience? While the COVID-19 experience can vary widely based on our interviews with Gen Zers from different socioeconomic, geographic, and other factors, the result continues to be a real question mark about what will happen after their senior year of high school.

At the same time, Gen Zers who are in the workforce are disproportionately in the service industry, hourly workers, in entry-level jobs, or are young professionals as they are typically on the very front end of their careers. These same Gen Zers are often the first to get laid off or furloughed as many industries contract. Gen Z can also suffer from the “last hired, first fired” mantra of years past. Put all this together, and Gen Zers already in the workforce are feeling a massive reset at exactly the time they should be starting to build their independence and self-reliance.

Gen Zers we interview who are in college are often experiencing a hybrid of the newly upended work and education reality. Some colleges and trade schools have moved quickly to cancel all on-campus classes and move to online learning while others are struggling under the weight and scale of the change—as well as the practical limitations of specific learning activities, such as scientific lab access. Add to this mix the unknown about whether or not colleges will refund room and board, whether international students who had to go home will be able to return, and the overnight change of having tremendous freedom taken away as they move back in with their family. There is a lot for Gen Z college students to worry about besides just finishing their classes.

On top of Gen Z’s work and school impacts from COVID-19, add all of these significant stressors: the heavy external influence of daily death counts and mortality rates, fear of losing their parents, grandparents, or friends, and the endless social media echoing how bad the world is around them. It’s easy to see why COVID-19 is a Generation Defining Moment for Gen Z—and the impact gets deeper the longer the event is extended and the more uncertainty, fear, and difficulty it creates.

CGK is focused on researching and understanding how COVID-19 is affecting Gen Z and every generation.

We have quantitative studies in the field and will be launching more to uncover and document the change this pandemic has brought to how Gen Z thinks about learning, work, brands, spending, relationships, family, politics, technology, and much more. It’s in tough times like these that getting accurate data can help every generation understand what is going on, make key decisions, come together, and navigate this challenging time and the future to follow.

We wish you, your family, and your colleagues the best in health during these challenging times. We will post our latest COVID-19 and Gen Z research on, along with the research we are leading to see how every generation is responding during this time.

If you believe Gen Z is important to the future of your organization, we can help you navigate this challenging time. Contact us and we’ll be happy to set up an introductory phone call.

Jason Dorsey, President
The Center for Generational Kinetics


© 2020 The Center for Generational Kinetics, LLC. All rights reserved.

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