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The coronavirus pandemic is a 'defining moment' for Gen Z — here's how it's impacting their future


Generation Z's future looked bright just a few months ago.

The economy was strong and unemployment was at record lows. It was just February when the unemployment rate was 3.5%, matching the lowest level in more than 50 years.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the economy and sending unemployment skyrocketing to 14.7% in April, the future looks a lot more uncertain.

For Gen Z, which is defined as comprising those born after 1996 by the Pew Research Center, this is the first time they've experienced something of historic proportions.

They were young when 9/11 occurred and most don't remember it, said Gen Z expert Jason Dorsey, president and lead researcher at The Center for Generational Kinetics, a global Gen Z and millennial research and strategy firm in Austin, Texas.

"The pandemic is a generation-defining moment," said Dorsey, who's upcoming book is titled, "Zconomy: How Gen Z is Going to Change the Future of Business."

"This is their 'where were you then' moment," he added. "This is the first one that they are experiencing on their journey to, or while entering, adulthood."

The pandemic impacts decisions on everything, from where they live, to cars and the type of company they would go to work for.
Jason Dorsey
Gen Z expert

They are also feeling the economic hit. In a March survey by Pew, half of the oldest Gen Zers (ages 18 to 23) responded that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a pay cut due to the crisis.

"Three months ago, we had a bustling economy and now, if you're someone who just graduated, you thought you had a job market that had an employment rate between 2% and 5%," said Cedric Powell, who is based in Tampa, Florida, and is a wealth management advisor at Northwestern Mutual.

For example, Hawaii had an unemployment rate of 2.4% in March. In April, it soared to 22.3%.

"It changed overnight," Powell said. "It's a new normal we are dealing with."

A frugal generation

Even before the pandemic, Gen Z was known as being a practical and frugal generation.

The generation is predisposed to saving and comparison shopping, and drove double-digit sales at thrift stores before the pandemic, Dorsey said.

According to a 2019-20 report on Gen Z by The Center for Generational Kinetics, 91% plan to buy their own home someday, 69% think saving for retirement should be a priority and 66% are worried about accumulating or not being able to pay off debt. 

Finding a path forward from the coronavirus crisis

What's more, its 2017 report found that 12% of Gen Z are already saving for their retirement. Both reports surveyed 1,000 members of Gen Z (ages 13 to 23) in the U.S. and had a margin of error of +/- 3%. 

"This came about because of their parents, who are Gen X and more skeptical about money than boomers," Dorsey said.

The oldest were about 12 when the Great Recession occurred.

"They were old enough to see and hear their parents struggle, but young enough to impact their views and beliefs about money," he said.

Now, they are becoming even more frugal and are interested in tracking their money, which is all done digitally. Many also have emergency accounts they can access on their phones.

"With the pandemic, it has allowed people to think about their overall [financial] plan — to think about offense and defense," said Northwestern Mutual's Powell.

Becoming more 'risk-averse'

For older Gen Zers, their young adult life will probably look a bit different than they anticipated.

"The pandemic impacts decisions on everything, from where they live, to cars and the type of company they would go to work for," Dorsey said.

They'll likely want to step down to getting a more affordable apartment, getting roommates or moving — or staying — home with their parents.

"We are seeing them become more risk-averse," he said. "Choosing not to move across the country, choosing not to move far away from what they know right now."

Early career changes

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 15: Students wear protective face masks, graduation caps and graduation gowns outside The New School during the coronavirus pandemic on May 15, 2020 in New York City.
Noam Galai

Whether they just graduated from college or are early in their career, members of Gen Z may have to rethink their path.

Many recent graduates have seen their job offers rescinded or put on hold, or may have not received any. Young workers may have lost their jobs.

A recent report by Gusto, an online pay service provider for U.S. small businesses, found that workers under the age of 25 experienced a 93% higher rate of layoffs during the pandemic than those over 35 years old.

That means older Gen Zers should be open to opportunities that may not be the exact one they were looking for.

It may not be their dream job, but it could be one that helps them build skills that they can eventually use in the future, said Blair Heitmann, a career expert at LinkedIn.

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In college, students learn hard skills like marketing and accounting, but employers are also interested in soft skills such as communication, teamwork and presentation skills.

"You are playing the long game," Heitmann said. "Build the skills you will need over the course of your career.

"I would encourage recent graduates to not put so much pressure on themselves."

And while the job market is changing right now, there are still opportunities available.

In fact, there are 1.5 million entry-level jobs available in the U.S., Heitmann said. Many are those in areas that are helping Americans combat the crisis, like in health care and transportation. There has also been a big spike in remote employment, like customer service jobs.

"Think about where your skills can be transferable," Heitmann said. "To really set yourself up for a career, your first job is to build skills."

High school and college students

Those in college are now looking toward a fall that may or may not have in-person classes. Some colleges have already announced their fall semester will be completely online.

That has led a number of students, either currently enrolled or part of the incoming freshman class, to think about whether or not to take a gap year or a gap semester. They may also choose to skip their expensive, private school and opt for a less-expensive state or community college.

Universities and colleges are trying to counter that by aggressively courting candidates.

The best way to pay for college

Post-crisis, Gen Z expert Dorsey predicts, there will be a better use of technology by professors and more distance learning and online collaboration.

But this generation wants the "college experience," which means living in dorm rooms and attending classes in person.

Those still in high school and middle school have it better, since they have more time for the economy to recover and the crisis to pass before they have to enter either college or the workforce.

Younger Gen Z

For those even younger — in elementary school — the pandemic could become a "positive," Dorsey said.

That's because, right now, companies and schools are rapidly trying to change the way they operate. 

"By the time they enter the workforce, they are going to have seen employers adapt, the education adapt, the credit system adapt," he said, of younger Gen Zers.

"They are going to be the beneficiary of what that change is."

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