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Interrupted, disrupted and changed forever: the impact of COVID on Gen Z

Why COVID crisis is putting young lives on hold

Much of the focus during the pandemic has naturally and correctly been on the most vulnerable groups in our society in terms of health. The group known as Gen Z (those born between 1996 and 2010 and, therefore, aged between 10 and 24) are having to put their lives on hold for the duration of lockdown and the immediate aftermath.

Of course, every generation experiences lockdown from its own unique viewpoint but, arguably, it has been very hard on Gen Z, particularly at the older end of this group. Their lives have effectively been put on hold, just as they were starting up, just as they were starting to flex their wings and just as they were entering exciting new worlds of further education or gap years or taking their first steps on the career or property ladders.

“For Gen Z who are now in their teens, an event like this at such a sensitive age will shape their identity and worldview for the rest of their lives.”

Dr Tuomo Kuosa, Content Director, Futures Platform

We at UNLIMITED and our colleagues at TMW UNLIMITED (our integrated creative agency) have spent a lot of time thinking about this key target group. For now, we’ll share with you, in brief, ten key observations about Gen Z, but we recognise that this is just the beginning of a journey, for this is a group that, by definition, is still forming its worldview.

Has COVID transformed Gen Z forever?

Young people are being shaped by COVID, possibly for good.Just as baby boomers are named after a social phenomenon that shaped their formatives years, so too some are making a case that what we’ve been calling Gen Z should start to be called Gen C or Gen-COVID to reflect the power of the current pandemic on shaping the development, opportunities and shared experience of this group.

One way that this is manifesting itself is at best a postponement and at worst a full re-evaluation of major life goals and decisions being driven by the deep uncertainty about the future that COVID (+ Brexit + Recession + Climate Change) is causing. It is one thing to consider the effects of uncertainty on relatively short-term and perhaps trivial considerations over what to buy. But it is over life’s big issues that COVID (and the other disruptors mentioned earlier) place the largest and trickiest question marks.

5 ways Gen Z’s lives are being changed right now

  • Feeling very anxious: For all their bravado and seeming dismissal of pandemic rules and regulations, young people are just as concerned about the situation.
  • Suffering massive FOMO: Gen Z is missing out on milestone events that are impacting their social lives, experiences, and the future of their education and careers. From end of year proms and graduation ceremonies to celebrating milestone sixteenth, eighteenth or twenty-first birthdays many of the marker posts of growing up are being cancelled
  • Struggling to fill long days: Devices and media services are filling the void. Even set against a high pre-COVID background level of use, we are seeing vastly inflated consumption of all kinds of media types, both paid and free, both video and audio, both solo and group: 
  • Turning to content creation: Lockdown has inspired many Gen Zers to devote time to content creation, turning to digital tools at to develop skills and express themselves. PowerPoint parties  are not new to COVID but are another trend growing off the back of the pandemic,
  • Driving social change: Digital activism among Gen Z has been energised by the pandemic, by its disproportionate impact on minority communities or the way it has been politicised by leaders for personal gain.

Gen Z marketing thought-starters

  • Gen Z will be looking to their favourite brands for support, both emotional and practical at this time.
  • Marketers may need to adjust business models, pricing strategies and communication approaches to take account of the gloomier, more introspective character that may come to typify this generation.
  • There is an opportunity to step in to provide branded virtual replacements for celebratory milestone events and then later for brands to throw IRL catchup events for young people.
  • “Quaranteenagers” are desperate for content and challenges to address their lockdown boredom and brands can also leverage this creativity energy to produce UGC on their behalf.
  • The growing number of socially engaged young consumers demanding accountability, transparency and a commitment to diversity is forcing brands to react.
  • Brands who have become used to a “pick me” style of advertising may find themselves having to first sell the category and the idea of a purchase itself before they can even think about advocating themselves as the winning choice.
  • Employers may have to prove their credentials on Issues and causes such as inclusivity, diversity and sustainability before candidates consider them as a suitable place to invest their emotional energy and their creativity.
  • Brands should gear up not just to lead and serve Gen Z but to be led by them by giving them a voice at the tables, if not in decision-making forums, then at least when innovation cycles start up.

 This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED.