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An Unexpected Spring: How the pandemic is influencing students and why it matters

In previous years, the arrival of spring would feel like a welcome reward to students. It’s the time when months of work come to fruition and papers are presented, plays and concerts performed, and championships played. It’s the time when the intense academic pressure is lifted, the gloomy winter is forgotten, and students spend more time with friends, preparing themselves for the time they will inevitably spend apart – for a summer, a year in college, or even longer. But this spring is unlike the others. This is a defining, historic moment. It’s moments like this one that influence the behaviors, values, and attitudes of younger generations and shape our collective futures. As a generational researcher and futurist, I am less interested in the details of the coronavirus and considerably more interested in how this shared global experience will influence the next generation of leaders, consumers, members, and volunteers. While I don’t disagree with the decision to close schools, I’m also concerned about how high school and college students are navigating this new norm – many of whom have been thrown into a state of anxiety, uncertainty, and loss. High school students are feeling robbed of their sporting events, plays and band concerts, senior trips, proms, and graduation ceremonies. College students are wondering what will happen to their jobs and whether they will get refunds for campus accoutrements they’ll no longer use. Their new virtual reality has some students worried they’ll fall behind academically or won’t have the same experience learning chemistry or the performing arts in an online setting. Students are grappling with a student experience which is now confined to their laptops; their campus life now confined to their bedrooms. They are missing the comradery, the feelings of achievement and celebration, and the opportunity to transition and say good-bye. They are struggling to plan or prepare for whatever usually comes next – summer camp, jobs, internships, travel. The days, weeks, and months ahead are just one huge question mark; a reality that is difficult for us all, but most difficult for teens and 20-somethings.

Standing on the brink of adulthood, they are seeking independence, opportunity, and certainty – ideals now considered luxuries in the midst of a global pandemic.

The outcomes of this experience won’t be fully known for months or even years, but it will have a significant impact. For my book, Knowing Y, I researched the value shifts that resulted from the Great Recession. Millennials took the brunt of this economic crash, coming of age during a time of significant financial and job loss. A decade later, they are still recovering from the loss, now holding the lead as the most debt-ridden generation in history. But even in the midst of loss, this generation led our society to the discovery of new assets and opportunities. For example, the Sharing Economy emerged, firmly rooted in the Millennial generation’s desire to access products and services without having to purchase or own them. As a result, Uber, Netflix, and Airbnb were born. And the Gig Economy arrived, allowing Millennials to work multiple ‘gigs’ while pursuing college degrees, paying off debt, earning certifications, or simply pursuing new interests. As a result, our 9-to-5 world shifted to one that allowed remote work, flexible work environments, contract work, and consulting opportunities. In fact, in the post-Recession era, six new economies emerged, and an entirely new value system was introduced. Suddenly, time became our greatest commodity, happiness became our definition of success, and our society began to invest more in travel and experiences and spend more time with family. As difficult as the Recession was and as much as it took away, our society evolved. It can easily be argued our society ended up in a better place afterwards, redefining work-life balance and reprioritizing what’s important. I’ve been watching the young grade-school children on our block gathering together to play in their yards or ride bicycles, likely blissfully unaware the world has come to a standstill. Perhaps in this time of mandatory reflection, we too can rediscover the joy in play, relaxation, hobbies, creativity, and simplicity. Perhaps we’ll learn to not take our communities and connectivity for granted, appreciating and respecting both even more as soon as the threat of togetherness subsides.

The virus may be consuming our time and resources and robbing us of life as we knew it, but perhaps there’s a silver lining to all of this. Perhaps, when all of this is over, we’ll evolve into something more intentional, balanced, and joyful.

No matter what happens, change is inevitable, and that change will be motivated by Generation Z. Throughout history, the youth have always been the ones responsible for inspiring widespread change, and this generation in particular is destined to rise to the challenge. After all, this is the generation who marched out of their classes after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. This generation isn’t afraid to speak their minds. They are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in history, and they create and consume more content than any other generation. They courageously put themselves out there, push boundaries, and challenge norms. But until they run our world, let’s first let them lament what they’ve lost this year. A little piece of their youth was taken from them. They are going to look to us as leaders, mentors, coaches, and parents, for support and understanding. Listen. Be a shoulder for them to lean on. Remind them we’re all in this together and they aren’t powerless. Remind them there has never been a crisis – not war, terrorism, recession, or pandemic – that has ever been strong enough to silence the youth in this country. This spring is unlike any other, but so is this generation. Undoubtedly, the best is yet to come.

Want to learn more about your organization can respond to these demographic and economic shifts? Let’s connect.


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