By Liana Tang
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, safe management restrictions, such as social distancing, created surreal learning and social environments for everyone. As many businesses tightened their financials, cut back on staff, or folded altogether, many found jobs hard to come by. COVID-19 has created a new class of vulnerable , spanning life stages, geography, and socioeconomic status.
One group that feels unique impact is young people, especially those experiencing socially distanced learning environments, and going through the transition from formal education into employment. Some commentators have warned that youth undergoing life phase changes during COVID-19 may be the “lost generation” of our lifetimes.
A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, youth unemployment is at a high. Although experts say that youth unemployment is typically transitional and short term, the question is whether this crisis is different, and such unemployment could thus be more prolonged than before. There are worries that COVID youth have been denied the traditional opportunities and starting points that generations before enjoyed, starting out formal employment later on in life and subsequently delaying other life phase events, such as marriage, parenthood, home ownership, due to financial knock on effects of these COVID delays. Retirement adequacy would also be a concern, since they had lost some years of productive life. Not to mention the many limitations to social activities during their years of self-discovery in teenage years and in higher education — surely their social capital and interpersonal skills would be affected.
I think calling them the next lost generation is unhelpful, and I will explain why.
The phrase was used to described those in early adulthood in World War I. The term “lost” here refers to aimlessness and disorientation, and they are “lost” today because the world we once knew is unrecognisable, and navigating it to achieve the outcomes they had previously set out to is now difficult because these outcomes are further from reach, or rendered redundant, or upon reflection, are now unimportant.
Commentators using this term to describe youth today presumably refer to the cohorts born around the 90s and onwards. Popular shorthand for the younger ones in this group is Generation Z, or more affectionately, Zoomers. Early research seems to paint Zoomers with distinct characteristics and aspirations, largely due to their being raised in a highly digital environment, and in a period of relative economic stability. I offer some reasons why broadly condemning this group the next lost generation is unproductive, and could make us lose sight of other groups in need of help.
The best laid plans are subjective.
Boomers, having come of age during a time of relative affluence and economic growth post-World War II, have long been known to project predictable life trajectory expectations of their children: get a good education, seek stable employment, or start a business that does well, buy a house, start a family, and make sure your kids get the same opportunities or better. Their children — Gen Xers and Millenials — have largely sought similar trajectories, to varying degrees of success, and have perpetuated the same aspirations and expectations onto their children.
These expectations and aspirations have not adjusted despite how much our external environment has changed. In these same decades, we have seen tremendous economic growth, unprecedented connectivity, innovations in technology that have profound impact on lifestyles, interpersonal relationships and identity.
It is remarkable how many children of boomers have failed to reach the signposts laid out in these traditional trajectories, many creating serious debt problems, mental health issues, existential crises. Chasing traditional markers of success has also caused negative social impact in some cases — the environmental impact of high consumerism, the tremendous debt from higher education and mortgage servicing, the shame from having fewer or no children — the psychological impact and social stigmas created are not insignificant.
It is little wonder then that Millenials, having realised that the drudgery of work will only reward you with time and retirement very late in life, aspire less towards retirement and more towards long-term financial freedom, such as working longer but giving themselves more flexibility. Chasing traditional life markers such as family and home ownership also makes it harder to enjoy life experiences without sacrificing physical and mental health. It would be interesting to see if the Gen Zs also feel the same way.
How have these traditional best laid plans been planned? What was it about the environment that told us that these were the markers of a good life, and that these markers ought to be followed in sequence? Did these plans evolve as lifespans extended dramatically in the last few decades? As jobs and skills were disrupted time and time again due to technology? What about interconnectedness, and ease of travel, which has produced a generation more connected and knowledgeable than ever?
The truth is that trajectories to success — and there are many — should be adjusted with the times, and with generational experiences and aspirations. Worrying that the new generation is not hitting the same life goals as their elders had at their age, and whether they are on track to achieve subsequent ones, might be missing the point.
Life cycles are being re-written all the time.
We are living longer, healthier lives. Technology and innovation have created social and economic dynamism that the adaptable have been able to tap for jobs or business opportunities.
People are still coming to terms with the fact that they might have to go through at least a couple of job transitions in their lifetimes, and retire very late in life. Corporations, governments, are similarly adjusting policies and practices to accommodate these changes, such as introducing incentives and programmes to reskill, increasing retirement age, and reviewing workplace policies to cater to older workers.
There is a real plight that young people in some situations are facing, which should not be underplayed. For many, COVID-19 has created conditions of real suffering — youth who were already at risk pre-COVID, those from disadvantaged households, youth in rural developing countries.
There are signs that their struggles will only be temporary. With state and community interventions, some youth are navigating this crisis. Others have used this opportunity to organise community COVID responses, or start small businesses, to overcome challenges presented by COVID-19. They often find smart ways to use technology to do so.
Many in middle-income economies, previously heavily reliant on single sectors such as tourism, could see youthful energy pivoting to new areas of growth, or channelling their energies to meaningful social causes.
Calm Collective Asia, founded by three young people, was set up in the throes of lockdown in Singapore when mental health services had been disrupted, and the isolation and anxiety from COVID-19 had come down harder on many already suffering from mental health issues. The initiative brings together mental health professionals, advocates, and people who may need help or simply seek a supportive community. While the physical interactions that come with traditional professional treatment are important, many nevertheless found their online conversations meaningful. Some even thought they were more accessible since they could seek help even without leaving the house. It is also hoped that discussing mental health issues more openly would destigmatise mental health and create a more supportive society.
Elsewhere, young business leaders have been quick to adapt. 87% of youth-led enterprises in the Asia-Pacific changed or adapted their business strategies to suit the pandemic. Many young people, including those still in school, spent COVID-19 starting small businesses. Using e-commerce tools like Shopify, social media platforms like TikTok, many have learnt to do business from reviewing and promoting products, creating media such as advertisements, illustrations, videos, as well as creating new products such as crafts for sale on Etsy. A study in the UK has shown a surge in young people setting up online businesses during COVID-19. It is anticipated that the average age of a UK entrepreneur will decrease; an interesting COVID-19 legacy.
These are forms of alternative learning that could more than make up for the temporary loss of a formal learning environment. Life cycles need not involve “front loading” formal education in a chunk of time spent in a school. Learning should happen during the course of one’s life, and not just in an early part of it. Learning should also take on many different forms.
It is exciting to consider what future life cycles will look like. Emerging from COVID-19, many of us have become more introspective, taken the time to switch jobs, pick up new skills. Combined with youthful energy and innovation, we could re-write life cycle milestones today, ahead of the demographic and technological forces that will befall us.
Gen Z could save us all.
Early research into Gen Z has revealed surprising characteristics. According to fledgling research, this group allegedly prefers to socialise online, rather than head out to a party or club, and drink less alcohol. They are the most educated among generations. Many are also part of a growing “hyper woke” culture, and are themselves the most ethnically diverse of generations. Many care about being politically savvy and actively participate in civic discourse. They are more sensitive and thoughtful about mental wellness. They value family, and they view progressive societal changes positively. They are fiercely passionate about sustainability and climate change.
If these characteristics are true, Gen Z, who prefer to spend their Friday evenings on their phones with friends over virtual drinks, may well best endure prolonged periods of social distancing. Their “wokeness” could help them navigate the new divides created by COVID-19. Emerging from the pandemic, their passion for the environment could see a birth of new businesses and community initiatives that could take us on a greener road towards recovery.
Gen Z has experienced significant turbulence in their developmental years. These include world events such as the Asian Financial Crisis, 9/11 and its far-reaching effects, and SARS. Climate Change has manifested with increasing frequency during their lifetimes — extreme weather events and the spread of zoonotic disease like COVID-19, are just some examples. Having grown up with a digital mirror world, Gen Z may have the best mastery of it, and the greatest chance of safely navigating its treacherous waters. They have probably experienced tragedies of their own in the digital realm. They may have been bullied, know of someone close who has struggled with mental health impacts of bullying or digital isolation. Many cope with these experiences alone, or with online communities. Yet as the melding of physical and digital world confounds the rest of us, Gen Z could help us navigate this “digireal” with their unique wisdom.
If there was any generation that could survive COVID-19, it would be Gen Z. They could be the most resilient of us all, and they, together with other pandemic survivors, could reimagine life cycles, and help us “lost” generations find our way.
Liana Tang is Deputy Director (Special Projects) at the Centre for Strategic Futures.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.
1. “The pandemic has damaged youth employment: Here’s how we can help” S. Fleming, World Economic Forum, 15 Jul 2021
2. “Covid: What do we know about global youth unemployment?” N. Barrett and D. Palumbo, BBC News, 9 Jun 2021
3. “On the cusp of adulthood and facing an uncertain future: what we know about Gen Z so far” K. Parker and R. Igielnik, Pew Research Center, 14 May 2020
4. “COVID-19 creates boom in ‘early entrepreneurs’ aged under 25” L. Easterbrook, Business Leader, 22 Jan 2021
5. “Young entrepreneurs pivot towards recovery” H. Yusof, The Business Times, 7 Jun 2021
6. “Calm Collective Asia: Normalising mental health in Asia, one click at a time” M. Levy, Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, 11 Aug 2020