All photos by Chloe Xiang for BOBBLEHAUS
Every generation is told to “be the change.” Oh, we will.
When COVID-19 first edged its way into national attention in the United States, we found ourselves quickly packing, adjusting, and moving into our respective quarantines. People moved from cities back to their suburban hometowns, college students deserted their campuses, and working professionals turned their homes into make-shift offices. At that point in time, the question we were still asking was: When will things turn back to normal? Now, this question has evolved into: What is our new normal?
The pandemic has uniquely affected Gen-Z, a population that currently resides at the transition point between adolescence and adulthood, education and employment. As this group of young adults is just coming into remarkable spending power, forging lives away from their parents, and launching their careers, COVID-19 has irrevocably altered the futures they have spent years preparing for. While younger children still have years to adjust and seasoned employees have years of experience behind them, Gen-Z are left with the reins of this baffling unknown.
As current college students, we have begun to rethink higher education. The race to attend elite colleges has increased greatly among my generation, with the acceptance rate of universities decreasing and the amount of applicants increasing each year. However, as these universities transferred their classes online, we the students became increasingly disillusioned by the lofty promises of these elite institutions.
Vanderbilt student Natali Lanfir expresses that while most universities were able to continue teaching their students online, “we had to pay the same amount of tuition as if we were on campus--which is definitely not worth it. I also found that there were thousands of quality online courses available for much less in comparison to a full college tuition.” When stripping college down its bare minimum of simply attending classes, it becomes evident that we are not so much investing in the classes themselves than we are in the in-person experiences. For both Natali and Jana Warshawsky, a student at New York University, they agree that the price of higher education is largely inflated by our social values. Jana says: “In reality, most of what students are paying for is the brand name of the university,” and Natali agrees that paying for this brand name is “for the purpose of adhering to a societal norm.”
Even the classroom experiences themselves are hard to replicate via video conferences. While the emergence of Zoom classes has caused many schools to consider holding virtual classes even post-COVID, this is looked down upon by many college students. Nicole Gontaryk, a student at NYU, expressed that during her experience online “I felt I wasn’t getting the same kind of education I would’ve [gotten] had we been in-person.” Julia Santiago, another student at NYU, agrees that “learning through a screen was more distracting and detached than it should be.”
Many Gen-Z students are thus considering taking gap semesters and years off of college, until it is once again safe to resume in-person classes. The pandemic has taught us what they truly value, such as the “in-person connections and hands-on experiences you have” for Julia and the “connections made in the industry you want to work in” for Natali. COVID-19 has reminded us of the facade of the “elite college,” because while prestigious colleges do offer great resources and tools--they are not enough to justify their staggering price tags, especially in a pandemic during which everyone is learning in the same way.
Quarantine during COVID-19 has also sparked an increase in media consumption. Because beyond the classroom video calls, Gen-Z--which has grown up alongside the inception of social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and most recently Tiktok--make up a large percentage of their users. With nowhere to go, we have taken to such digital platforms as a means of entertainment and community. As Nicole puts it, “I don’t have much else to do besides watch movies and go on social media, so my time spent looking at screens has definitely increased.”
While Gen-Z was always very involved in such digital spaces for entertainment, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped digitize the academic and professional spheres. While the collegiate experience is difficult to replicate online, we have noted the potential of technology to take over workspaces. Because unlike the typical college day which contains many discussions and interactive activities, a workday can be more productive when doing projects and tasks at home. Julia says she’s well aware of “how this pandemic is changing how we work in the future, such as that remote work will become part of a ‘new normal.’” Natali jumps in, saying, “I think that the pandemic will truly change the norm of the workforce. People will have gotten accustomed to living with much less human contact, and businesses and major companies will realize that it’s easier and more cost-efficient for most of their employees to work from home.” As they begin their journeys into the workforce through remote internships and jobs, it is clear that whether or not they enjoy this shift, physical workplaces are being quickly replaced online.
Above all, however, we have been reminded of our social values and our individual societal responsibilities during this pandemic. This healthcare crisis has allowed many of us to see our responsibility and privilege as young people--because while we may not necessarily be the population most affected by health consequences, we are increasingly wary of our role to look out for others and to prevent others from getting sick by obeying social distancing rules. NYU student Marilia Bertollo says, “I am now much more aware of my impact on my community.”
Even beyond our responsibility in preserving public health, Gen-Zers are more compelled than ever to use any power they have in the right ways. For example, Gen-Z is well aware of our purchasing power. While we have spent less overall due to quarantine, any money we do spend has to be in the right place. Meaning, as Marilia says: “I will pay more attention to where I shop in order to support smaller businesses that may have been affected by COVID.”
Likewise, we have been increasingly aware of social disparities--cracked open through the COVID-19 pandemic-- and have been using our voices on social media to help bring change and awareness. Jana expresses that this pandemic has stark racial disparities in the casualties of COVID-19, motivating her to rally for “more equal healthcare opportunities across the country.”
Jana says, “I saw a quote once arguing that only in times of true crisis do we see the weaknesses and inequalities in our society. Now that we have been through a time of such crisis, I hope that my generation is the one to begin to fix these faults.” While many things are changing--in education, the economy, healthcare, the workforce, one thing is for sure: Gen-Z has the voice and the drive not to let us come out of this pandemic “for better or for worse,” but instead, for better.