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How COVID-19 dimmed Generation Z’s plans and confidence

Older Gen Z members were heading into a world of opportunity, with low unemployment and big opportunity.

Austin Rustand poses for a portrait outside of his apartment in Provo on Monday, June 29, 2020. Rustand is trying to get ahead of school work for his junior year at BYU as well as trying to find a job after losing his last one due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Austin Rustand poses for a portrait outside of his apartment in Provo on Monday, June 29, 2020. Rustand is trying to get ahead of school work for his junior year at BYU as well as trying to find a job after losing his last one due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Generation Z’s oldest members are launching into an adulthood quite different from what was predicted for them. Their vast world of opportunity was downsized by the pandemic.

“They were coming into a strong economy,” said Ruth Igielnik, a Pew Research Center senior researcher who co-wrote a report on Generation Z’s shifting trajectory. “I think everybody sort of consistently saw steady growth in the economy. It differentiated them from the generation before them, the millennials, who had come of age in the Great Recession. A lot of millennials got and then lost jobs; we saw a lot of stagnation during that period.”

Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, was supposed to have a different, more positive experience, she said. “Obviously, that has not been the case.”

Older Gen Zers are entering a largely disrupted work world. Even younger ones are finding it hard to get traditional summer jobs or plan for the coming year, when some will “return” to school, but might have to attend at the kitchen table yet again.

Even early in the pandemic, Igielnik said, 69% of Gen Z said they or someone in their household lost a job or took a pay cut because of the pandemic. That was far more than said the same among millennials (52%), Generation X (49%) or baby boomers (32%). The difference is not because many older workers are retired, she added. The question was asked of those working at the start of the pandemic.

Austin Rustand poses for a portrait at his kitchen table, where he studies and works on job prospects, in Provo on Monday, June 29, 2020. Rustand is trying to get ahead of school work for his junior year at BYU as well as trying to find a job after losing his last one due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Austin Rustand poses for a portrait at his kitchen table, where he studies and works on job prospects, in Provo on Monday, June 29, 2020. Rustand is trying to get ahead of school work for his junior year at BYU as well as trying to find a job after losing his last one due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Austin Rustand, 22, lost his job when the pandemic hit. He’d been an assistant equipment manager for Brigham Young University’s men’s and women’s basketball teams. When games were canceled, he wasn’t needed. He went home to Tucson, Arizona, to finish classes online and stay with his family.

His story has been common in the pandemic. Nearly a third of older Gen Z (ages 16 and up) lost a job, compared with 19% of millennials, 18% of Gen X and 13% of boomers, Pew said, based on data collected April 29-May 5.

For the working-age members of Generation Z, the pandemic has been “heartbreaking,” said Yixia Cai, a graduate research fellow with the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who recently joined the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “Everyone was saying the economy was strong right before this.”

Rustand’s move was the opposite of what he’d planned. He was going to go home for the summer and work for an uncle, during basketball’s offseason. Instead, with jobs more scarce, he’s now back in Provo hoping to find work ahead of the school-year crowd.

Uncertainty ahead

Miguel Cornejo, 17, of Lacey, Washington, was hoping to work after graduating from high school. Instead, “we’re in a very awkward state right now. I don’t feel motivated to go out there in the pandemic.”

Miguel Cornejo, 17, part of Generation Z, plans to go to community college then earn a bachelor’s degree. But first, he’s hoping the pandemic recession straightens out. He recently graduated in Lacey, Washington.
Jared Araujo

He’s living at home and plans to attend the community college for two years, then transfer to a university, but worries that too much of his college experience will be online. And he’s not sure what work will look like for a while.

“COVID has definitely delayed my plans,” he said, noting it stole treasured bits of his senior year of high school — and important ones like gathering transcripts and talking through applying for college. “It’s made everything hard. Hopefully everything turns out fine.”

While the last recession brought gaps in unemployment between age groups, again highest among young adults, the economy had been strengthening for several years. Now, unemployment for the young work force is even higher and the gap is even greater, Cai said. “Everything was getting better for them, then the pandemic recession hit.”

Cai said younger job candidates lack experience or are in entry-level positions that make them vulnerable when it comes to employment. “I would say it’s really hard for them to enter a depressed economy,” she said. “Even before the pandemic hit, their unemployment rate was higher than other groups.”

It doesn’t help that younger workers are typically in what Igielnik calls “high-risk industries,” where employment involves more contact with the public, like restaurant and hospitality work, transportation and other jobs that were more likely they’d shutter or reduce services to avoid COVID-19 spread.

“Young people were disproportionately in these industries and therefore sort of open to losing their jobs,” she said. “While they make up 12% of workers overall, they make up 24% of those in high-risk industries, so they were disproportionately affected by the closures.”

Will those jobs come back? No one’s sure.

“When you think about the trajectory they thought they were on and what they’re seeing, it’s really tough,” Igielnik said.

A new Pew Research Center Fact Tank post says unemployment has even been underestimated. In May, the unemployment rate for young adult workers — those 16 to 24 — was actually about 28.5%. That’s well above unemployment for other age groups. Unemployment in general is greater for women, Asian Americans, immigrants and workers with no bachelor’s degree, according to Pew.

Unemployment rates were underestimated because some workers were erroneously classified as “employed but absent from work,” instead of “unemployed on temporary layoff.”

Policymakers and others have to figure out how best to support Generation Z during tricky times, Cai said. “This group needs more attention.”

Those not yet in the labor market can’t access benefits like unemployment, Cai pointed out.

Other challenges

Cai said a share of Gen Zers are reeling with accompanying issues like depression. “People are suffering multiple life shocks and having trouble coping. Teenagers and early young adults are just one of the groups experiencing tremendous difficulty right now.”

While Pew hasn’t tracked the impact of food and housing costs on Gen Z — generally on the rise for all generations — that may have made things harder, too.

Other changes could come as well. Pew found that before the pandemic, Gen Z was more likely to be enrolled in college and to have college-educated parents than previous generations. “We don’t know how or if this will change,” Igielnik said. “A lot of this comes from government data that is being collected that will sort of percolate a while.”

Generation Z is different in other ways. They are more likely to be children of immigrants and are more diverse ethnically and racially. Their story is not just generational, but is about cultural changes, too, Igielnik said. “When millennials were the same age as Gen Z members are now, 6 of 10 were white; now half are white.”

Still cheerful

Sophie Bustetter, 20, has two part-time jobs, one at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and the other part-time as a bilingual facilitator for a local elementary school. The recent college graduate knows she’s lucky to be so well employed.

Sophie Bustetter is a well-employed member of Generation Z. She works at her alma mater, The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
Kameron Bustetter

She and other young adults interviewed for this story remain optimistic. In a faltering economy, “I also think it’s an opportunity for us to change things systemically that maybe were a problem,” from environmental to social justice issues, Bustetter said.

She didn’t expected to launch into a perfect world with everything going well. But she’s appreciated the opportunity for reflection provided by the pandemic to think about how things could change “so we don’t keep going in circles.”

Her classmate and recent fellow grad Selena Walsh Smith, 22, laments something unexpected, though. “I want to be a software developer but there have been so many lay-offs in that industry that I’m now competing with professionals who have been in the industry for years for jobs that are supposed to be entry level.”

Cornejo figures his generation will be get back on track for work. And he’s happy he’s not taking as much for granted. “I never thought, what if this was taken away from me,” like end-of-year school activities. “I have learned how to get through some obstacles. ... That will make me stronger.”

“This has definitely put me in a different direction than I thought I was going to go, but it has opened other doors in Utah that wouldn’t have been opened,” said Rustand, a communications major.

Those include online interviews with people who might have been too tied up with work if it weren’t for the pandemic, he said.

With so many things out of his generation’s control, he thinks it’s not a bad idea to slow down a bit. “We are so worried about getting things done so quickly — a badge of honor on being ‘busy,’” Rustand said. “My friends and I are talking about how to change that going forward. It’s been an eye-opening time.”