More than a year since the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Wuhan, China, the world still faces the pandemic in the form of second waves and stringent lockdowns. Despite the cautious optimism of what the year 2021 will provide, the year offers little promise of being different from its notorious predecessor, 2020. The age group impacted the most by the pandemic is 17-28, comprising of matriculants, university students, and early-career professionals, and researchers.

This demographic, collectively known as “Generation Z”, is entering the pandemic and post-pandemic world in a state of heightened gloom and pessimism. However, there is greater motivation to believe that the unique combination of stressors that the pandemic has exerted on Generation Z has actually accelerated many positive social trends, which have set them up for success in the post-pandemic world. This so-called “pandemic generation” may therefore be the ones who hold the best chance of conquering a post-pandemic world.

The term “Generation Z”, also colloquially known as “zoomers”, refers to individuals born between the early 1990s to the early 2010s. A distinguishing characteristic of this group is that they are the first generation not to have experienced a life devoid of the internet and digital technology, earning them the name of “digital natives”. Due to the stressors that the pandemic has exerted, most institutions and activities were forced to move online and onto digital platforms. This overnight shift to technology has provided an ideal environment for the “digital natives” to exploit and showcase their skills to develop creative solutions to problems.

Heightened awareness and critical thinking

Generation Z has developed a collective mind-set that the order of things in their daily life can change overnight. The uncertainty about what the next day or next few months hold has promoted a hyper aware mind-set that allows them to think on their feet. With the onset of the pandemic and its associated lockdowns, individuals had to place their trust in media and government organisations for information regarding lockdown regulations and case counts. As per the Edelman Trust Barometer, only 49% of the world’s population trusts the media. A 2019 study published by Science Advances found that the “baby boomer” generation (individuals older than 65) are seven times more likely to share fake news articles than Generation Z. The study also found that 83% of Generation Z obtain their news from links that lead them to reputed online news sites. Despite the fact that almost 97% of Generation Z owns a smartphone and reside on at least one of the major 6 social media sites, only 7% stated social media as a source of trusted news.

Generation Z consumes news content that is catchy, real-time, digestible, and that appeals to a certain emotional chord. Instagram has become an ideal platform to obtain information, with meme pages becoming the go-to choice. Meme pages post memes in real time with events such as national addresses, incorporating humour with information, regarding, for example, lockdown regulations. This boasts greater resonance with their consumers, as these meme pages bring in an element of relatability. Additionally, UP-themed pages like Life_at_Tuks, Tuks_FacultyOfMemes, and Cry_at_UP, also provided students with the “campus experience” during online learning. Through meme pages, Generation Z are learning many things, such as key political figures and the content of a presidential speech, and are staying up to date with lockdown regulations. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a general absence of real-time information. However, as the pandemic progressed, individuals relied heavily on the announcement of real-time information. Generation Z used this situation to set themselves up to become hyper aware and critically assess news sources.

Accelerator of positive social trends

Reports suggest that the pandemic has served as a hyper drive event that has accelerated trends that researchers had previously predicted about Generation Z. An inevitable result of the pandemic was needing to make personal sacrifices (for example, staying home and not socialising) for the greater good (in this case, protecting the more vulnerable generations of our society). Thwarting Generation Z from socialising, albeit not easy, was possible, which in turn has conditioned them to consider the effects of their actions on others.

This also promoted a sense of compassion, as Generation Z have come to value the broader community they live in, as opposed to possessing more individualistic mind-sets. The pandemic has also led to the development of smaller social circles, comprising of only immediate family members. Tertiary students and young career professionals found themselves losing their personal freedom and independence after being forced to stay home for a much longer period of time. Contrary to popular belief, a recent Washington Post article, written by a sociologist at the University of Virginia, indicated that unions within families grew stronger through the stresses imposed by the pandemic. Youngsters found themselves having to juggle domestic chores, while simultaneously attending online classes and conferences. This allowed many to learn domestic skills that they never got around to learning in the pre-pandemic world.

This hyper drive event also meant that family members spent time togethers, as with the imposition of lockdown and alcohol bans, youngsters were forced to seek out simple pleasures, such as puzzles, walks, or simple conversations with friends and family. A study published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences affirms that, when a human witnesses distress in another human, they are able to empathise with the individual. The pandemic has been a collectively distressing experience , and, for Generation Z in particular, this distress often manifested as a result of being isolated from friends and peers for prolonged periods of time. This collective distress has the potential to lead to empathy, which “motivates cooperation and effective communication”.

When home environments were made to combine with their work lives, members of Generation Z had to devise creative strategies to juggle multiple responsibilities. This gives rise to a generation of creative problem solvers, conceived from early training that fine-tuned them to apply knowledge to real-world setups. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology argues that any stress exerted on a young generation has the capacity to build qualities of resilience and continued learning. As a result of the pandemic, many people have had to persevere through difficult times. Additionally, a resultant pessimistic attitude is merely a short-term impact, as the continued effects of the pandemic instil new levels of determination and grit amongst a generation who are still shaping their perspectives of the world.

Diminishing Hustle Culture

With the closure of campus, the idealised “fast-paced” lifestyle experienced by students diminished to a much slower pace. The buzz of the Student Piazza, coupled with the incessant busyness on campus, often led to many aspects of everyday life being forgotten or ignored. With a halt in most social activities, and the lack of physical access to campus, there has been a reduction in pace. This has arguably forced Generation Z to take a slower approach towards life, and create an existence marked by quality of relationships, rather than quantity of social connections. A recent Forbes article cited this phenomenon as “mental distancing”, echoing the sentiment that it “provides for time when you’re not thinking about the virus and […] gives you the opportunity to take a timeout from worry or anxiety about current conditions”. This could ingrain long lasting behavioural changes in Generation Z.

Enabled by Apps

In addition to “digital natives”, Generation Z has also donned the label, “the app generation”. A study undertaken by The Seattle Times found that this group can further be subdivided into those who are “app dependent” (people who are helpless without an app that directs them) and those who are “app enabled” (people who go beyond an app to obtain solutions to problems).

The unique cauldron of stressors caused by the pandemic, such as schooling in limbo, limits on social gatherings, and ceased extracurricular activities, meant that there was a rise in unstructured time. In this unstructured time, the “app enabled” youth’s characteristics enabled them to exploit the dire pandemic situation positively.

For example, The Seattle Times’s study found a trend where the “app enabled youth” garnered a greater satisfaction in their technology use during the pandemic, because they approached their technology use with the purpose of gaining new knowledge, connections, and skills that correlated with their interests. For example, the shift to an online platform led to more conferences and programs moving online, and students were able to make use of these opportunities to garner knowledge and attend programs from across the globe, from the comfort of their homes. However, the mind set to exploit this gold mine of knowledge was almost absent in the “app dependent” generation group. This group is often characterised by barely attending online classes and lectures, or doing so only for academic credit. Most students in this group experienced a sensation that their lives were put on hold, felt they did not learn anything substantial from online learning, and simply allowed themselves to be swept up in the current of whatever news or topic was trending for that day or time period.

However, the pandemic has driven a surge of Generation Z to become “app enabled” youth. The circumstances imposed by a pandemic meant that a large group of youngsters were driven to seek out technology with a purpose, such as finding out latest case counts, keeping up with COVID-19 regulations, or looking up when to expect school or university re-openings. Platforms such as Zoom and Google Meets were also used as alternatives to social gatherings.

A take-home point from the effects of the pandemic is that the youth can emerge and thrive amidst future pandemics or crises, as long as they channel a sense of purpose to whatever action they pursue. For example, one can attend online classes with the purpose of garnering knowledge, or be prepared with questions, or learn new skills with the unstructured time available during the pandemic. Furthermore, members of Generation Z should not feel guilty for not exploiting all the avenues available to them amidst the pandemic, but should rather focus on continually practicing key behavioural trends that will help them navigate pandemic stressors. Although the current state of affairs might have pessimistic undertones to them, in the long term, the behavioural benefits acquired during this time will aid in creating a unique “pandemic generation”, equipped to conquer a post-pandemic world.

Images: Sanele Zulu

view posts

Susanna is currently stu(dying) genetics and joined the PDBY team in 2019. She divides her time between writing and playing with plant disease samples. Her contributions span across Science, politics and all things spicy. If you are or were in the SRC, she’s probably spammed you with messages for a story. She’s got a memory like an elephant – so she probably keeps track of student promises. Picture not to scale.