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3 September 2020

How the scars of the pandemic will shape Gen Z 

Jonny Hawton, group strategy director at VIRTUE, on how the effects of the coronavirus pandemic will play out for a generation

It’s safe to say the year 2020 will be etched in our memories for the rest of our lives. A cascade of crises – the Covid-19 pandemic, consequential recession, and an overdue global reckoning with systemic racism – have fundamentally changed our world. While these crises present extremely challenging times for all of us, businesses big and small included, history shows moments like these can also provoke great innovation and invention.

With that in mind, we explored what the long-term effects of this year might be, so as brands and products are born or redesigned for our new reality, we can equip brands with the knowledge to build something that will be relevant for the long term, not just the next 12 months to survive the crisis.

So what might those long term effects be? While a crisis like a downturn can stall life plans or disrupt our normal consumer behavior, most of us will return to our previous habits once the economy improves. Critically, however, research from Severen & van Benthem shows that if we’re unlucky enough to go through the hardships of a recession during our formative years of 16-22 years old, it can leave lasting “scars" that influence our behavior throughout life.

The chaos and density of cities have been credited with forging innovation pretty much since the industrial revolution, so with more people working remotely, we’ll need to find new ways to cultivate that creativity.

Virtue

Examples of this can be seen in the oil shock crisis of the early ‘80s, where those who learned to drive during this time have continued to drive less and take public transport more throughout their life. More recently, the 2007-2009 Great Recession has left the scars of job and income insecurity on millennials. This enduring anxiety of instability can be seen in their decision to push back the major life moments like having children and buying a house.

Today, it’s Gen Z who face the crises of 2020 during these key formative years. The scars for this generation will be deep, impacting society, culture, and business for the rest of Gen Z’s life, and potentially setting in motion profound cultural shifts that their younger peers will continue to follow. 

Our Scar Tissue report makes five predictions for long term shifts in Gen Z’s behavior triggered by five major shocks experienced by this generation: the overnight global shutdown of many businesses in March; a massive ongoing WFH experiment (for those of us fortunate enough to take part); the devastating health crisis due to Covid; widespread unemployment and the consequential fierce job market; and the global protests and reckoning with systemic racism. We see signals already emerging that point to how this generation will move forward and adapt to these shocks to change society for the better. Let’s look at one of our predictions.

Rurmote: 

Even before the Covid crisis, an urban exodus had begun among young adults with more people leaving major cities than joining. This trend is only going to accelerate with places of mass-congregation (offices, public transport) feeling uncomfortable for a while to come. We’re also seeing a majority of people express a positive experience of working from home and a desire to do it more or even aspire to be completely remote. While it’s come with its challenges – particularly for parents juggling the difficulties of providing home-education and work professionalism – the forced mass-WFH-experiment has helped erode many of the myths of lower productivity or creativity that had always held back the movement from going mainstream. It has enabled flexibility and time with loved ones that is going to be very hard to take back. Lastly, our research shows Gen Z are very adept at being alone but not lonely because they’re connected to friends and culture through the internet. Whether it’s Animal Crossing, Snapchat, or Youtube, they have grown up with their whole universe at their fingertips.

Looking at these signals, we predict that instead of rushing to major cities post-graduation as Millennials did, many Gen Z may choose to be never-urban, instead recognising the benefits offered by living outside of major cities such as lower cost of living, more space, and less stress. If the theory goes that it takes on average 66 days to form a habit, by the time we return to the office it could be five times beyond that. Imagine starting your first job with the freedoms of remote work and then 12 months later being asked to return to the confines of office life. It’ll be a tough habit to break.

This freedom doesn’t come without its hurdles. The chaos and density of cities have been credited with forging innovation pretty much since the industrial revolution, so with more people working remotely, we’ll need to find new ways to cultivate that creativity. We’re already getting a taste of what that virtual ‘Metaverse’ future might look like with things like the Fortnite X Travis Scott experiment; the explosion of Animal Crossing; and Snapchat’s latest AR lens updates allowing you to virtually try on Gucci sneakers from the comfort of your sofa. 

The consequences of this shift could be groundbreaking, influencing things as wide-ranging as architecture (as people design and buy homes with dedicated home-office space over a garage for example) to society with the redistribution of wealth and political ideologies away from cities to more bucolic areas. It will also enable companies to hire more diverse talent who previously couldn’t or didn’t want to live near their office. This last point is particularly exciting for creative agencies to enable us to get out of our hip city bubble. 

While we focused on five behavior changes that we believe are highly probable and will have a major impact on society, culture, and companies, this is by no means all-encompassing. There will be major shifts in other categories too, such as travel and higher education, where 98% of Gen Z were already feeling short-changed even before they had to give up campus experience to sit through virtual lectures. 

To dive deeper into Rurmote and the four other predictions, check out the full Scar Tissue report here.