Scarred by 2020, Gen Z looks to a COVID-free future
As they look towards 2021, members of Generation Z share concerns that their lives may have taken a worse hit from COVID-19 than their predecessors, the Millennials, suffered after the 2008/09 financial crisis.
Lives that had been focussed on school, university, sports or even going to K-pop concerts vanished overnight for members of Gen Z as the global pandemic struck. While a lot was heard about older people at risk from COVID-19, this younger generation - born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s - also saw their worlds turned upside down in 2020.
Reuters profiled some young people around the world to learn how their lives had been affected by the coronavirus.
Shut up in bedrooms - many forced to live with their parents - some went from being students, athletes and workers to caring for sick relatives and doing whatever they could to earn money to support families.
As they look towards 2021, members of Generation Z share concerns that their lives may have taken a worse hit from COVID-19 than their predecessors, the Millennials, suffered after the 2008/09 financial crisis. Beyond the immediate damage to education and job prospects is the risk of what economists call “scarring”, or long-term harm to earnings, training, career prospects and even mental wellbeing.
Here are their stories:
At the start of 2020, Elisa Dossena had turned 23 and was looking forward to getting an undergraduate degree and pursuing a masters from one of Italy’s most prestigious universities. Then Italy became the first European country to be hit by the pandemic. It turned her world upside down, putting her plans on hold and forcing her to become the de facto head of a stricken household.
While Dossena was studying in Milan, COVID-19 began ravaging her family and relatives in the town of Crema about 50 km away in Italy’s first “red zone” in the northern Lombardy region. She returned home to help.
Both her 59-year-old aunt and her 90-year-old grandmother succumbed to other illnesses and died after the virus weakened them. Her father had severe breathing difficulties, although it was never determined if COVID-19 was the cause.
“I had to take care of the house, I had to manage everything for everyone because my mother was busy looking after my father, busy with my grandma, helping my cousin when her parents were ill. So I felt a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility,” said Dossena, sitting in the living room of her family home in Crema. “It was a very negative period for me. But it also made me grow a lot,” she added.
After a three-month lockdown in June, restrictions were lifted and Dossena could see her friends again. But a constant fear of catching the coronavirus loomed like a dark cloud over them all, eliminating the tactile culture of hugs and kisses for which Italians are famous.
A new spike of the virus in late autumn meant her graduation ceremony was held via webcam, denying her the extended family celebration that usually accompanies the personal milestone. She is now studying remotely for a masters degree in management and hoping for just a bit of normality in 2021.
Kenyan teenager Jackline Bosibori wore baggy sweatshirts to hide her pregnancy from her mother as long as she could, reluctant to add to her family’s troubles. “If I was in school, I could have not been pregnant,” the 17-year-old said.
For Bosibori, who gave birth in November, school closures defined 2020. Many Kenyan advocacy groups fear adolescent pregnancies increased as girls were forced to stay home while parents still went to work. The father of her little girl – an adult – has avoided Bosibori’s family since learning of the pregnancy. Kenya’s President in July ordered an investigation into rising reports of sexual abuse, including statutory rape, amidst the lockdown.
For Bosibori, school closures have made her dream of becoming a lawyer seem far away. “I feel I have not progressed in any way this year,” laments Bosibori. “If I was in school, I could have improved in my goals.”
The situation makes her anxious, she said from the one-room home where she lives with six other family members.
“There are people who lost jobs. There are students who will not go back to school; they have stayed out for a long time and have adapted to being at home,” Bosibori explained as she took a break from studying while her baby slept. Kenyan schools have been shut since March. Bosibori wants to return when they reopen in January, but she worries about the fees.
“2020 was a bad year to me and it was a good year to me,” Bosibori said. “It was a bad year to me because I got pregnant unexpectedly.” “But it was a good year to me because I delivered my baby and she is OK.”
Valeria Murguia was finishing her junior year at California State University, Fresno, studying communications and working part time at the campus health centre when the pandemic hit.
All of a sudden, classes went online and her modest income from crafting social media messages to help students stay healthy evaporated. Living in Fresno, a fast-growing city where housing costs were rising, became too expensive, so within a few weeks Murguia found herself back home with her parents in the small farming town of McFarland.
Like many college-age adults in the United States, Murguia’s young life took a sombre turn as the pandemic raged on. She and her friends started taking their health more seriously, working harder at part-time jobs or on homework, and being more open to serious personal relationships.
At home, Murguia concentrated on schoolwork, and on skills she would need after graduation: she learned how to build websites, improved her graphic design proficiency and studied event planning. She also worked with her parents, both immigrants from Mexico, picking grapes in California’s Central Valley vineyards.
“It made people more serious,” she said of the pandemic, “not so loosey-goosey ... It’s going to for sure leave a mark on our generation.” Murguia, now 21, will graduate in May into a tight job market. While the advertising business lost relatively fewer jobs than most other sectors, it has shown effectively no job growth since wider employment began recovering in May.
The job market that awaits Murguia and others like her is nothing like it was before the pandemic, when the lowest unemployment rate in half a century meant many graduates had their pick of jobs. Even so, Murguia is optimistic about her post-pandemic future.
Xiong Feng, a 22-year-old graduate, teaches Wuhan’s only class in Voguing, a highly stylized dance form popularised in US gay and transgender communities in the late 1980s.
Wuhan’s surprise 76-day lockdown, which cut the city off from the rest of China overnight on Jan. 23, began long before other countries began to feel the pain of the pandemic. Xiong, like many other Gen Z people in Wuhan, saw his life, education and business thrown into turmoil. The pandemic meant he was unable to graduate alongside his classmates, and lockdown meant he lost the opportunity to form tight friendships at a formative time in his life.
The city has now largely returned to normal though, after strict controls meant it has not reported a case since May. For Wuhan’s Gen Z, the economic outlook is perhaps better than for some of their peers abroad, as businesses and offices have reopened and China is set to become the only major economy to grow in 2021.
For those like Xiong embarking on a first solo business, the post-pandemic flurry has helped attract new customers. For others, including Chinese who study abroad, the pandemic has proved difficult despite China’s comparatively strong control over the disease.
Looking forward, Xiong hopes he can still be a trailblazer in the city’s growing LGBT dance scene in 2021. His Voguing class has attracted more students since the lockdown was lifted, as people emphasise lifestyle and leisure.
DIEPKLOOF TOWNSHIP, SOUTH AFRICA
When South African fencer Nomvula Mbatha finished top in a national women’s sabre competition in 2019, she seemed set for the Olympics via the African Championships in Egypt, scheduled for April 2020. Then COVID-19 hit. All competition was suspended and a strict lockdown at the end of March seriously curbed training for the 23-year-old and her team.
“The pandemic has been disastrous for us,” said Mbatha at her home in the Diepkloof township, southwest of Johannesburg. “We basically didn’t get to accomplish anything. This year was cancelled in our lives.”
Even when competition resumed, Mbatha, ranked number one with 17 gold medals, faced enormous difficulties raising funding to attend the international events that would secure her a berth at the Tokyo Olympics, postponed to 2021.
A member of the Soweto Fencing Club, she is just one of the country’s next generation of star athletes struggling to raise cash to compete in an economy hit by low growth and high unemployment, especially for young people.
As officials look to programmes that can stimulate employment, Mbatha’s focus is on the next African Championships. Once again, though, the pandemic looms. A recent spike in infections has prompted new restrictions.
“What if we go back to lockdown?” she said. “I don’t have a resolution for 2021 ... I don’t have anything because I am scared.”
Alone in a tiny studio apartment in Paris, unable to leave the country to see her boyfriend, cut off from friends, and uncertain about her future, Solene Tissot felt the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic building up inside her.
“You quickly find yourself overwhelmed by all this. You quickly feel suffocated,” said the 19-year-old. Tissot, who moved to Paris two years ago to study at the Sciences-Po university, is now seeing a psychologist.
She has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder, conditions she says were triggered by the loneliness brought on by COVID-19 lockdowns.
Such restrictions have taken a toll on the mental health of French youth. Between September and November this year, when a fresh lockdown was imposed in France, the proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds with depression went up to 21% from 11%, according to the French public health authority.
Tissot no longer attends lectures in person because her university has cancelled them. Movement restrictions often make it unlawful for her to visit friends at home. She has not seen her grandparents in a year. Her course requires her to do an internship. But with many firms operating remotely, she is struggling to find somewhere to take her.
Next year, she was due to do a study year in Lebanon - where her boyfriend lives - but it’s unclear if travel restrictions will allow it. Once she graduates, finding work will be harder because of COVID-19.
Tissot though, is looking to the future. She is learning Arabic, in preparation for the trip to Lebanon she hopes will go ahead. “It’s true that 2020 didn’t leave much room for good cheer, and I would like to have that again.”
In early 2020, Galina Akselrod-Golikova, 23, was preparing to travel from Moscow to Italy for a marketing and PR job at the Venice biennale’s Russian pavilion. She couldn’t wait to start.
The dream never happened: the whole event was postponed, the job disappeared and, instead of travelling abroad, she ended up isolated from her friends and family in an apartment in Moscow as a tough lockdown suddenly began in April.
The shock upset her deeply. She fretted so much that she developed stress-induced health issues. In time though, she said she was relieved to have a chance to refocus her life and have time to think. She said she slowed down for the first time and put her energy into decorating the apartment where she lives with her boyfriend with stylish ornaments, antique furniture and flower arrangements.
“This year was the first time I started to devote so much time to my home, to buying some little things, and to stay there and to think about my space and to express myself through it,” she said.
She has not rushed to get a new job, and with time to reflect she has realised that she wants to enrol for a masters degree in food studies in Rome next year. Russia has resisted a second lockdown in order to soften the economic blow of the pandemic. Unemployment during the health crisis peaked at 6.4% in August, with young people making up 22% of that total.
Despite the upheaval, Akselrod-Golikova believes that the pandemic has brought many positive things into her life, though she acknowledges it was easier for younger people to adjust quickly.
“I’ve started to appreciate my time as a resource and to devote it to my family, to my friends and to spend more time with them, including getting to know my parents and friends in new ways,” she said.
(COVER PHOTO: Solene Tissot -- Paris, France)