I recently administered a brief survey of how COVID-19 is changing the lives of Millennials and Gen Zers. About 150 Gen Zers and 50 Millennials responded to questions on their optimism in the future, their priorities, and their use of technology since the pandemic closed down their lives. Here is a report of my initial findings, with an additional report to follow. Hearing their voices can help us consider how to apply their insights at home or in the workplace.
How has Gen Z been navigating the move from a hybrid of online and in-person classes to an exclusively online learning experience? Some respondents said, “I cannot thrive using online learning.” However, many more answered like the respondent who said, “I thought it would be more difficult to take all of my classes online….I’ve already been taking half of them online…. Still …I’m losing some of that experience that you can only get in person. I’m really upset that I won’t be able to march down the aisle….lucky that I can graduate from college…I’m going to have to use my degree even more creatively (because of COVID-19).” Overall, they appear to be managing with online learning for now, are painfully aware that only taking online classes is an incomplete college experience, and they are concerned that there may be a mismatch between their college major and the job market.
Career counselors should help younger generations think more imaginatively about how to adapt their education to new jobs that are being created because of COVID-19. Industries as diverse as health and wellness, restaurants and food service, and entertainment have moved online. These industries, and almost all industries, will continue to have much stronger online footprints after our country fully reopens. This move to a robust digital presence will create new customer service and sales jobs, and add thousands of jobs in computer sciences. How can a newly minted B.A. in humanities use skills to fill these positions?
Many people think that younger generations don’t need much in-person time with friends and manage well with online life. But many of these Millennials and Gen Zers discovered that living life exclusively online and physically detached from friends, students, and co-workers is highly problematic. It heightens already high levels of anxiety and depression and undercuts productivity. As one respondent said, “I used to think I would never be the type of person to get depressed, that I could and would always be motivated to keep myself busy and productive. Turns out I’m not safe either. The structure is hard to maintain when no one is watching.” Or, as other survey participants came to understand, “Not seeing people destroys my motivation.”
As I wrote in my most recent book, Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial Divide, younger generations had epidemic rates of social isolation, anxiety, and depression before COVID-19. When these mental health issues appear in pre-teen years and are compounded over decades, individuals, families, and society will pay a massive social and economic toll. When we factor in the long-term emotional impact of COVID-19, without prevention and intervention, the costs are astronomical.
Many more employers will need to institute robust and effective mentoring programs, pairing older and resilient workers with younger, emotionally fragile employees. Employers will need to find better ways to help employees structure their workdays in virtual offices, for example, with more goal-oriented interactions instead of meaningless “check-ins.” Universities will also need to train more therapists who specialize in helping people become more resilient.
Unsurprisingly, about half of these Millennials and Gen Zers have a bleak outlook on their future. Their optimism in the future plunged faster than the stock market on a bad day. Compared with how they felt before COVID-19, over 55% of respondents were considerably less optimistic about their future and were nearly evenly divided on whether their generation will be more successful or less successful than their parents’ generation. Many Millennials will be repaying college debt for years to come, and the COVID-19 pandemic is making Millennials and Gen Zers feel financially insecure. As one respondent said, “(I realized) how unprepared I am to lose even a single paycheck.” Gen Zers also wonder if they will find work related to their college majors or, as one respondent pessimistically said, “…(will) probably wind up delivering packages or groceries for most of my life.”
Takeaways: Employers can help younger generations achieve greater financial security by providing workplace benefits that enable them to pay down college debt using pre-tax dollars. Also, employers, faith-based groups, other nonprofits, and family members can offer financial counseling for an extended period.
Outbreaks of HIV (1981-present), SARS (2002-3), H5N1 Bird Flu (2003-2007), H1N1 Swine Flu (2009-10), MERS (2012-present), Ebola (2013-16), Zika Virus (2015-16) are pandemic trend data. They enable us to predict with a high degree of confidence that new epidemics will happen. This realization can make us anxious and fearful, or it can motivate us to make investments in younger generations so that they can imagine an opportunity-filled future.