8 Min. Read

Space Invaders

The COVID-19 pandemic is sparking physical, digital and ideological migrations, as urban-dwellers head for the hills, Boomers invade TikTok and Gen Zs reexamine American values.

Homeward Bound

One of the lasting marks of COVID-19 on Generation Z will be their physical displacement. When millions of college students were abruptly kicked out of their college dorms, it sparked a mass migration back to childhood bedrooms across the nation.

The adjustment is hard,” said Christina, 22, who’s pursuing her master’s degree in Chicago, but now finds herself quarantined at her family home in Minnesota. Many Gen Zs told us they’re grappling with what feels like a step backward in their journey towards adulthood, as they return to a life of chores, curfew, family dinners and sibling rivalries. The most difficult thing for me is being in the environment where it would usually be my time to relax and enjoy everyone around me, but now I can’t,” said Hannah, 20, who’s back to sharing a room with her teenage sister. Teens and twentysomethings are finding themselves relying on parents again, rather than earning more independence as is typical for their life stage. My relationship with my parents has changed because we’re all kind of in survival mode. My mother is always reminding me to be ready for anything,” said Christian, 16.

Experts say Gen Z’s forced migration home could have a long-lasting impact on their education and earning potential. One higher education trade group predicts a 15% drop in college enrollment nationwide, due to students who never return to school as well as those who never start. Many graduating high school seniors now say they’re considering taking a gap year before starting college. Some colleges, including Hampshire College in Massachusetts, are planning for a 2021 academic calendar that will allow students to cycle in and out of remote learning if coronavirus comes and goes.

Many Gen Zs may find themselves moving in and out of their parents’ homes several more times over the coming years. The lucky ones will be those who leave at all: the financial impacts of the 2008 recession lingered so long that 20% of Millennials were still living with relatives a full decade later. For the Gen Zs that do return to college, many will likely choose schools that are closer to their hometowns so they can live rent-free and, in some cases, support family members whose finances were upended by the pandemic.

Urban Exodus

Of course, Gen Zs aren’t the only folks who are physically relocating due to COVID-19. Gen Xers and Millennials in their 30s and 40s are returning to their family homes, many with kids in tow, to hunker down with older parents. Hundreds of thousands of urban-dwellers have fled to more rural areas for the perceived safety of wide-open spaces (putting rural hospitals, grocery stores and broadband at risk of total collapse). People who own rental and vacation properties have flocked to these second homes amid bans on short-term rentals. Hell, animals are even reverse-migrating back to their natural habitats now that the tourists are gone (coyotes, bobcats and bears are reclaiming Yosemite National Park, for example).

Young people who want to break into creative fields have typically moved to large urban centers, but there’s some indication that this could change. Older Gen Zs had already been joining Millennials in more affordable mid-tier cities, such as Tucson, AZ; Raleigh, NC; and Columbus, OH — and the pandemic will likely accelerate the pull of smaller metro areas. Many Gen Zs have already fled dense urban coronavirus hot spots, and now wonder if cities are viable long-term — at least without rent stabilization or major downsizing. I’ve been thinking a lot about finances, what spending is necessary, where I can be saving, and what I should cut back on,” said Savanna, 23, who recently fled New York City for her hometown of Minneapolis. I moved to the city to grow, learn and just be independent. I feel like I was forced to take this ginormous step back.”

We could see cities become cultural vacuums after the pandemic, as young people flee to places where life has more ease — and fresh air for social distancing. Already, Gen Zs say suburban sprawl has its appeal compared to a shared micro-apartment with roommates. (Realtors in Boston have already seen an uptick in first-time homebuyers looking to purchase just outside the city.) And who’s to say what will be left of cities after this anyway? New York City is expected to face a revenue shortfall of up to $10 billion, Los Angeles county will lose $1 billion in sales tax revenue this year, and no one knows how many of the small businesses that keep urban life vibrant will shutter. City life may not have the same draw after all of this.

Cultural Nomads

There’s another kind of migration happening right now too: cultural. A whole new cultural landscape has opened up as our usual paths and patterns are rewritten. Consider how Zoom alone has pushed us all into new spaces: we meet with colleagues in their messy dining room offices,” hear them wrangle toddlers, and see their underdressed roommates making their way to shared kitchens (all remotely, of course).

Gen Zs, who are used to constant stimulation, are pushing their digital explorations to the limits in search of creative inputs. Zs are checking out world-class art through virtual museum tours, tuning into experimental art films and videos after exhausting Netflix options, attending secret Amsterdam houseboat shows and exploring National Parks around the country. They’re also seeking out new niche hobbies, from crochet to origami to competitive marble racing (yes, you read that right). My Instagram feels like a Q&A on almost everything I post. It’s cool; people are aligning themselves with things that they didn’t know they liked,” said Alex, 24, whose Omaha car racing community has taken its shop talk to Instagram, unintentionally reaching a wider audience.

Many Gen Zs tell us the digital interface has emboldened them to peek into fringe and risqué cultural spaces they wouldn’t normally set foot in. For example, a recent warehouse rave hosted by the DJ collective Discwoman opened up Brooklyn’s electronic music subculture to those who wouldn’t otherwise get in — or be able to stay awake — and drew 5,000 attendees. With this year’s Burning Man happening virtually, many Gen Zs will likely experience Black Rock City culture for the first time. Normally I wouldn’t be interested in trying out a lot of these spaces, but now it’s just too easy not to,” said Zoe, 16.

Z’s cultural explorations are dipping into more illicit realms too: many admit they’ve at least peeked in on an Instagram strip club, adult content provider on Patreon, or cam site” where people pose for donations. Other Gen Zs say they’re checking out cam sites such as Chaturbate, ManyVids and CamSoda as potential new income streams, and a solid WFH option. The subscription app OnlyFans, which hosts photos not permitted by Instagram, reported a 75% increase in overall signups in March60,000 of which were new creators.

Bridging The (Generational) Gap

In many of these online spaces, Gen Zs are finding themselves mixing with older generations. After all, Zs aren’t the only folks exploring new areas of culture during this lockdown. In search of lighthearted (PG-rated) fun, Baby Boomers, Xers and Millennials are checking out cultural spaces that were dominated by teens mere weeks ago.

TikTok — the app synonymous with teens — has become overrun with older folks amidst the pandemic. Part of this surge is that so many Gen Zs are isolated with their families and, whether out of necessity or boredom, they’re now inviting their parents into their worlds. Some of the app’s more viral dance challenges require three people, and hundreds of videos show Zs who have recruited their parents as backup dancers. Parent’s mistakes only make the videos funnier, and potentially more viral.

Now, the very platform where Zs typically run rampant to Renegade has been overrun by older generations, who are transforming its content landscape. Since the coronavirus hit, TikTok has become home to parents sharing cute baby videos and homeschooling advice, elaborate family meals-meet-performance art, and octogenarian cooking shows (see Cooking with Steve”). The platform’s newest breakout stars include the DalCeredos, a Westchester family of four, who lip syncs Nicki Minaj songs; 87-year-old Granddad Joe,” who’s amassed over 1.6 million followers with his self-deprecating skits (produced by his granddaughter); and a self-described viral Granny Gone Wild.” Even 82-year-old, Jane Fonda, has rebooted her iconic workout routine on TikTok.

If this all sounds a little cringey, we agree. After all, generational cross-contamination is exactly what made Facebook go sour. Surprisingly, however, Gen Zs don’t seem to mind all the newcomers in their digital spaces yet. As one Gen Z put it, older generations are welcome as long as they make good content.” Some Zs are even hoping that their parents’ foray into social media could help them appreciate its benefits. This will show older generations that social media isn’t ruining’ us. They’ll see that social media is the future and it’s what keeps this world going round,” said M’Kaila, 18. We expect this welcoming attitude to continue, as long as older folks don’t kill the vibe — though there are indications that could be coming. A lot of older people are now using TikTok for their jobs, like doctors and teachers, to get information out there. It seems like the atmosphere is more serious and informative than funny now,” said Laynee, 18.

New Ideological Horizons

While the coronavirus pandemic is bringing generations together in physical and cultural spaces, it’s also planting seeds for new ideological horizons. 

Gen Zs, along with many of the rest of us, are reexamining America’s foundations right now. Why do I get to have job security while so many others don’t?” asked Courtney, 22. This pandemic is exposing the shortcomings of capitalism. Why are we only discussing adequate healthcare now?” wondered Casper, 19. I’ve been thinking a lot about how everything around us is a construct, as it can clearly easily be put on pause,” said Dana, 22. Many Gen Zs told us they’re seeing America in a whole new light, and it’s not entirely appealing. I definitely don’t view our country the same anymore, and I never will,” said Grace, 20. The pandemic has been humbling. I have definitely come to realize how fragile our social fabric is,” said Andrew, 22.

While Gen Zs were already more socially progressive than older generations — showing up for progressive Democratic primary candidates like Bernie Sanders over centrist Joe Biden — the pandemic seems to be further widening the ideological divide between older and younger Americans. Already-progressive Zs are validated by seeing their hypothetical ideas in action, such as universal basic income (or at least a $1,200 check), especially as GOP lawmakers embrace necessary social safety nets. This pandemic will be formative for all Americans, but especially Gen Zs.

Expect COVID-19 to radicalize Gen Z, similarly to how the Vietnam War accelerated the hippie counterculture. I believe my generation is the generation of a revolution,” said Grace, 20, adding, I don’t know how much longer society will stand the way it is.” Many Gen Zs say they’re rethinking their personal responsibility in galvanizing social change, and they’re asking themselves very real questions about what it looks like to mobilize (since taking to the streets will have to wait). What is our next step in trying to solve this?” asked Sally, 16. How can I make a difference?” asked William, 19. Meanwhile, Ashlee, 17, wondered, How can I positively impact other people’s lives?”

Some Gen Zs are already reorganizing their futures based on what they’ve learned about society over the last several weeks. The pandemic has changed my point of view in so many ways. Now, I just want to help people in need and I hope to do that as soon as possible,” said Tessa, 18. Maddie, 17, said the pandemic has reshaped her career ambitions entirely. I’ve realized I need to do my part to help others, whether that means becoming a lawyer or joining the Peace Corps,” she told us.

If there’s any silver lining at all that comes out of this pandemic, it’s that Gen Zs are starting to reframe their ideologies around what will make the world a better place, for everyone. Gen Zs could play a major role in pushing through sweeping policy change, from universal basic income to Medicare for All — hell, Zs might even put an end to anti-vaxxers. Lilian, 16, is already bracing herself for the ideological and political battles to come: I hope that I can step up and fight to make things better not only for our lives, but for future generations.”

What It Means

  • Gen Zs will be physically relocating their lives more than is typical in the coming months and years. Look beyond your typical market approach to connect, engage and even support Zs in a time of transition.
  • Urban centers may not be as accessible, or have the same draw, for young people. Provide Zs with ways to break into creative fields, even while living in rural and suburban areas.
  • Gen Zs are craving creative stimuli now more than ever. Invite them into inspiring communities, lively virtual gatherings and fringe hobbyist groups that they wouldn’t normally visit.
  • If your industry is being infiltrated by newcomers (looking at you, gaming and TikTok!), consider how to make it welcoming and accessible for all.
  • Zs are open to other generations entering their digital spaces — as long as these older folks are contributing something of value. Find ways to spur and showcase collaboration between unlikely intergenerational cohorts.