8 Min. Read

Together, Alone

During the pandemic, Gen Z digital natives remained hyper-connected digitally — Zoom raves, #clubquarantine, Netflix parties — but it’s not enough. With restrictions lifting, they’re desperate to get back to real life social interaction. 

Social Supplement, Not Source

According to our pre-coronavirus wisdom, technology was Gen Z’s life force. According to headlines, this generation was happily anti-social, having less sex and doing fewer drugs because they were glued to their smartphones, and living on and for TikTok. The reality we never would have learned if not for the great social experiment called coronavirus’ is that Gen Zs can’t live on a diet of digital alone. Teens and twentysomethings are coming to the stark realization that digital is best served as a supplement for social connection, not the sole source. I’ve learned that being physically without friends is hard when that’s all you’ve done,” said Heidë, 16, in Monroe, WA

Sure, Zs are coming together over Twitch (“just knowing that there’s someone out there helps,” according to Ben, 20), circling up on Houseparty (which was downloaded by 2 million new users in one week) and dancing along to live-streamed DJ sets—but what we’ve learned through the last year is that digital connection is not fulfilling the biological need for human interaction. I usually am the type of person to be alone for long periods of time, but this pandemic has been stretching my limits. I need to connect with people,” said Christian, 16, in New Jersey. Alena, 19, in Lincoln, NE agreed, I won’t take interactions for granted after this. Every minute you get to spend with the people you love is special now,” she told us. This is helping me to realize how much I need social interaction. Social media helps, but it can’t replace going out with friends and hugging people,” said Marta, 23, who was quarantined in Spain.

Workarounds Abound

Some young people are finding the physical distance so challenging that they’re coming up with innovative solutions to come together while maintaining healthy social distance. My friends and I went to a McDonald’s parking lot to meet up and we each stayed in our individual cars,” said Reagan, 20, in Lincoln, NE. In upstate New York, teens at Hilton High School celebrated one student’s 16th birthday by driving by her house and honking. Elementary school teachers in Houston did a car caravan through students’ neighborhoods to give drive-by waves.

Meanwhile, indoor skate park, The Bay, broke out their mobile mini-skate ramp and took it on a tour of neighborhoods where kids had been cooped up all day. Don’t worry: the ramp was disinfected after each use and only kids quarantining together could skate the ramp at the same time (footage of the antics were shared on Instagram along with the hashtag, #cantcancelcommunity). Whether that effort is in line with C.D.C. guidelines or not is arguable, but you have to appreciate the sentiment that community gatherings can and will persist in some form or another.

Intimacy In The ‘After’

Part of our cognitive dissonance in this moment is that, in most times of crisis, we come together with our communities. Now, we must do the exact opposite. Gen Zs say that when all of this is over, they’ll be more appreciative of small daily IRL social interactions. I didn’t realize how much I actually like going to class on campus. I even have a greater appreciation for teachers,” said Camryn, 20, in San Diego, CA. (Time will tell if this sentiment actually holds true.)

Beyond simple gratitude, Zs are starting to think about how this pandemic will change human interaction and intimacy en masse. Will we still take for granted a hug with a friend, large social gatherings like a birthday party or baby shower?,” wondered Mathias, 20, in Lancaster, CA.

We could see this famously non-religious generation turning to faith to make sense of this new world. After all, what could make people question the purpose and existence of a greater power than a global pandemic of almost Biblical proportions? Will, 20, in La Mirada, CA told us that’s what he and his friends are theorizing. This pandemic will lead to more reliance on God during circumstances which are out of our control,” he told us. Already, young folks tell us religion and spirituality is serving as a grounding force right now. I have grown my relationship with my faith. It’s helped me through my emotions,” said Travianna, 16, in Kearney, NE. In a year, we will look back at this time and finally be able to see how God was leading us through it all along,” said Hannah, 20, in Hawaii. It will take time, but eventually the purpose of all these events will be revealed.”

Some Zs believe — or at least hope — this experience will inspire greater human connection. While they’re mostly too young to be part of the coronavirus baby boom (creating a new demographic, jokingly dubbed coronials” by some epidemiologists), Zs may well lead a post-quarantine intimacy revolution. I usually try to avoid being hurt by people emotionally,” said Christian, 16, in New Jersey. But right now I wouldn’t mind taking that risk. After this whole pandemic is over, I’m never holding back from getting closer to people or allowing myself to be vulnerable. I need to connect ASAP.” He’s not the only one sounding a little desperate to connect right now.

William, 19, in Dallas, TX predicts that he’ll be taking more risks with matters of the heart. I’ll ask the girl out that I like. Tell my family I love them more. Love every day in the moment,” he told us. I hope we learn how to love others better. We’re all so scared to be ourselves around others, and now that that option has been taken away, we crave to be known,” said Michaela, 22, in Colombia, MO. Jada, 19, in Miami, FL worries that she’s already lost important friendships because of self-isolation: I’m afraid that the relationships I built last semester won’t be as strong. When I go back to school, I won’t put things off until next time.’”

What It Means

  • Human connection and intimacy may forever be changed by this event. Consider how you can facilitate a brave, empathetic world and deeper connections when this is over.
  • Social-distancing doesn’t always mean absolutely no social interaction at all. Consider if there are safe and healthy ways to come together in real life.
  • Be ready to launch right back into the real world. Zs are craving physical connection more than ever, and you don’t want to miss the moment when people are able to come back together again.
  • When all of this is over, don’t rush to continue remote work. Gen Z employees will be craving reconnection and physical proximity.
  • Spirituality, faith and religion are grounding and reassuring right now. While Gen Z has been famously non-religious, they’re looking for deeper meaning and answers in this moment.
  • Provide moments of escape from Z’s collective stress and anxiety. Tell good, human stories and create a sense of normalcy when appropriate.