Mary Noel is the director of business development at DoSomething Strategic, the social impact consultancy arm of DoSomething.org.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended the lives of young people around the country, canceling classes, graduation, and internships. But if you only read the headlines, you'd think they don't care at all. Reports at the start of the crisis, which was officially declared a pandemic on March 11, portrayed Gen Z as careless beachgoers dismissing social distancing guidelines and exacerbating the outbreak. But as part of the team at DoSomething.org, the largest organization for young people and social change, I know differently. I’ve heard from thousands of teens and 20-somethings week after week, and the truth is, Gen Z is stepping up during the coronavirus crisis to make a difference.
Young people see this moment as one ripe for catalyzing needed systemic change.
In a series of weekly ongoing surveys about Gen Z’s thoughts on COVID-19 that have received more than 20,000 responses as of May 5, young people in every state across the U.S. have told DoSomething that they’re facing a complete disruption of their lives. While college students and teens took blame for supposedly partying through a pandemic, the reality is that 94% of Gen Z is concerned about COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, with 45% feeling very concerned about the outbreak. Gen Z is anxious about the immediate threat that they or their loved ones might get sick, and deeply worried about the mental health impacts of social distancing and isolation — on top of struggling through the challenges of online learning, job loss, and worrying about their ability to pay for college. When DoSomething initially asked Gen Z on March 18 how they were feeling about the outbreak, the top answers were frustrated (55%), nervous (49%), and disconnected (41%). Their worries haven’t eased as the pandemic has gone on, either — survey results indicate these emotions exist at the same rates to this day. Nevertheless, 88% believe Americans should keep social distancing.
But in the midst of these fears and concerns, Gen Z is taking action to address the crisis. Young people see this moment as one ripe for catalyzing needed systemic change on issues like paid sick leave, access to health care, reduced human impact on the environment, and the need to support people experiencing homelessness, and are doing what they can to take action both big and small. “My classmates and I have made these self-care baskets and food bags for those that might not have enough resources to help themselves and their family out," one 18-year-old woman in Florida shared in DoSomething’s survey. Gen Z is building platforms to deliver groceries to those in need across the country, tracking acts of kindness, flying medical supplies to rural hospitals, and 3D-printing ear guards to protect frontline workers. One 15-year-old girl in Michigan has been using her sewing skills to make masks for doctors and senior citizens. “So far I have made around 70 masks that have been donated,” she shared in the survey. She intends to keep at it until masks are no longer needed. “I see the number of lives I can save just by spending my time making masks. I am proud to be able to help in any way I can, and make a difference in even one person’s life.” As of May 6, 64% of Gen Zers in our survey say they've changed their consumption habits, including reducing food waste, to make a difference, and 39% have made something, like a mask or a sign of gratitude, for frontline workers.
We can’t afford to hold on to the norm anymore.
It might surprise some government officials and baby boomers, but young people are more worried about keeping their grandparents alive than about America getting back to work. One 18-year-old woman in Minnesota shared with DoSomething’s survey that her biggest concern is “people not staying at home” because it puts at-risk communities (including her grandmother) at heightened risk. The health and safety of family members has consistently been the core driver of Gen Z’s concern since the surveys began, with many saying they were worried about spreading the virus unknowingly. A 17-year-old boy in Utah shared, “I am young and relatively healthy. I am not immunocompromised, so I am not at high risk of dying. I am, however, afraid that I could infect my family members.” But working in fast food, he’s exposed to dozens of people every day. “I expect that if anybody in my family is going to catch COVID-19 first, it will be me.”
As of May 6, 64,392 of DoSomething members have signed up to take COVID-related actions including sharing tips on social distancing, making masks (with nearly 10,000 made in only a week), and reducing isolation among seniors. An 18-year-old woman in Minnesota shared, "Young people online are offering to help elders and at-risk people get the resources they need to get by. The younger generation is stepping up when it is needed. I've seen more humanity from my peers than I have from the government lately." We made the call to DoSomething members: “Don’t let COVID-19 stop you from changing the world,” and Gen Zers are proving they will use this crisis as a catalyst for change. Incredibly, 31% share that they are more likely to vote in November as a result of COVID-19 than they were before the outbreak.
All of the cancellations and social distancing can be extremely hard for a generation already struggling with loneliness and mental health. A 17-year-old in California confided, “I'm stuck in a household with unsupportive parents (I'm transgender and gay) and I am disconnected from my support system; my friends. I also struggle with changing routines and being home from school is really difficult for me.” But Gen Z is using that concern about mental health as a reminder to check in with each other and those they care about. A 17-year-old girl in California is using the NextDoor app to check in on how she can help her elderly neighbors, while a 19-year-old woman in Colorado shared that communication and care from her friends has “helped [her] feel hope.” Of the teens and 20-somethings who responded to DoSomething’s survey, 68% have reached out to someone who might be lonely or struggling, and 48% have created a virtual event to bring friends and/or family together. Another 17-year-old girl in California said, “I text my friends every day and we check up on each other because we all know how bad all of this could be on our mental health. We try being there for each other as much as possible and just try staying hopeful.”
Because there is room for optimism — 31% of respondents share that they are still hopeful, and 57% believe this crisis will make the country better in the future. Riley, 15, from Texas, may have put it best: “My biggest concern about COVID-19 is what we learn from it. I don’t want this to end and have everything go back to the status quo,” they said. They added that they think that the outbreak has only served to illuminate that collective action is needed to create a better society. “I don’t want people to be hurt like they have been,” they said. “We can’t afford to hold on to the norm anymore.”