Tragedies and hardships indelibly shape every generation coming of age. Those born in the Roaring 20s faced the twin shocks of The Great Depression and World War II. Boomers, Vietnam. Gen X, the Challenger explosion. Millennials, 9/11. And now COVID-19 serves as the seminal event that will forever change Gen Z’s outlook on life, health, money and the world around them.
True, older generations are experiencing the highest fatality rates from COVID-19. And almost every generation is feeling a pinch in their pocketbook with lost jobs, reduced hours, lower pay and dwindling retirement accounts.
Still, older generations also benefit from years, if not decades, of normal life, a strong economy and all of society’s rites of passage. By contrast, COVID-19 suddenly threw Gen Z out of school, canceled their proms and graduations, suspended their internships, and took away their service-sector jobs. Overnight, those about to enter the workforce went from experiencing the lowest unemployment rate in modern history to the highest rate on record.
For many adults, quarantine is “life on pause.” For Gen Z, however, it’s “life cancelled.” And just as my grandparents were forever shaped by The Great Depression and carried a “Depression mentality” throughout their lives, Gen Z will forever be marked by caution about their health, finances, and the trust they place in politicians and institutions.
Conversely, living through a pandemic will also inspire Gen Z to “double down” on their boldness in dealing with existential issues like climate change, income inequality and social justice. Seeing national government hamstrung in its response to the pandemic might encourage Gen Z to work toward solutions on the state or local level, or through nonprofits and online communities. Just as The Greatest Generation rose up to fight and win World War II, Gen Z might coalesce to help lead the nation and world toward a healthier, more secure, more united future.
What are the implications for brands targeting Gen Z?
*They’ll be teens for a long time. For many, the coronavirus will delay their education, first job, and leaving their parents’ house. Until the pandemic ends and the economy recovers, potentially years from now, they’ll be stuck as perpetual teens, living at home, depending on parental and governmental support, and cobbling together work and education as they can. So brands should be mindful that a 20-year-old Gen Z consumer might be more like a 15-year-old from three decades ago, and still require parental buy-in on major decisions.
*They’re not leaving the house. Not only will Gen Z be living at home for a long time, they might be living there 24/7. If bars, restaurants, nightclubs, malls, concert halls, beaches and airplanes are all considered unsafe and/or unaffordable, Gen Z might never venture out. So out-of-home and experiential marketing will lose most of their potency, and brands will need to find clever ways to reach teens and young adults via digital channels, at home, and with services that can be consumed virtually (like streaming concerts).*Their stress levels have skyrocketed. They were already terrified about getting into (and paying for) college, finding a job, saving the world from climate change, and staying in the country if they were Dreamers, or their families were undocumented. Now, COVID-19 has given Gen Z one more existential worry. For many, it might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Once the pandemic recedes, many experts fear an ensuing mental health crisis, striking the young particularly hard. Brands will not only need to soothe wounded psyches, but also help provide mental health resources, forge connections and find solutions to this generation's educational and employment dilemmas.
Together, Gen Z and the brands that serve them can find a way forward from this pandemic.