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What to know about Gen Z in 2021

by Stephanie H.
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    How the 2020-21 academic year started is not how it’s going. What brands should know about where Gen Z’s head is at.

    While Gen Z probably wants to leave 2020 behind (we all do), and never look back, this past year will absolutely go down as one they will ever forget.

    In homage to the “How it started vs. how it’s going” meme that became the shorthand, illustrative workhorse of 2020, here’s how Gen Z is feeling about some key topics in 2021. In 11 or so months, we’ll return to see how it all shook out. In the meantime:

    Gen Z started the 2020-21 school year in a classroom; now it’s classes in their bedroom.

    For most Gen Z students in mid-January 2020, the spring semester started per usual. Holiday break was over and it was time to return to either dorms or apartments. But come April, many students were asked to make the move not only to virtual learning but also out of the residence hall and back home, too. Kind of a cold bucket of water for underclassmen experiencing their first taste of freedom. 

    As reported by the U.N., the closure of schools and universities affected more than 1.5 billion children and youth worldwide, significantly changing not only how they are living during the pandemic but also how they learn. 

    One researcher found that 80 percent of students preferred in-person learning to Zoom classes, and another found that students were anxious about how well they would perform in an online learning environment. 

    This adds up. According to Haley, a college freshman among UNiDAYS’ student app users, for her, moving all classes online wasn’t ideal. “Virtual learning was essential due to Covid, but online learning made communication and motivation difficult,” she says. “For the most part, professors were accommodating, but learning on a computer was challenging—especially because I learn by example.”

    Classes weren’t the only things that became virtual. Lillian, a college sophomore, saw her on-campus, work-study job move fully online. “After I had to move home, my job shifted to holding online classes where I’d explain to other students how to handle the pandemic safely.” Lillian says this particular shift to online has been great—it kept her employed during the school semester—but admitted that not all things have been so online friendly, like her internship. 

    “I’m kind of adrift right now,” says Lillian. “My summer internship at a law firm was cancelled. Now I’m working at a bakery while I take my sophomore year classes from my childhood bedroom. I worry that this past year will impact my professional goals drastically.”

    She’s not alone. Although the majority of Gen Zs have chosen to go to university in recent years, the global pandemic derailed plans for countless students matriculating in 2020 and beyond. A recent Cirkled In report shows that American students' perspectives on higher education are changing with the times:

    • 22% are rethinking their university plans
    • 69% expect their education financial situation to be impacted
    • 26% are reconsidering their ideal university location

    For many Gen Z students, this means they're exploring schools closer to home, considering community and state universities, or even delaying enrollment altogether given how unemployment is skyrocketing

    So what does this mean? While university is still a viable and exciting option for Gen Zs, schools will have to take steps to keep students engaged remotely and alleviate concerns about health and the quality of education they're receiving. 

    Whether it’s uncertainty about the academic year, their summer plans or what happens post-graduation, the bottom line is, universities must adapt to current events and recognize the need to change the ways they engage with students. Brands in other verticals trying to reach Gen Z must do the same—which leads us to mental health.

    Gen Z started 2020 feeling good; in 2021, it’s anxiety and depression.

    Take your pick: COVID-19, education, the economy, social injustice, the U.S. presidential election, it’s all threatening the health and wellbeing of Gen Z. A 2020 study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that during the coronavirus, students rated mental health as their key concern. 

    In the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey conducted in August, the findings were the same. Among Gen Z adults (18-23 years old), on a scale with 1 representing “little to no stress” and 10 representing “a great deal of stress,” Zers reported their average stress level in July was 6.1. (The reported average stress level among all other adults was 5.)

    Among all respondents (Generation Z teens and adults, Generation X, millennials, baby boomers and older adults), the survey found that Gen Z adults were the most likely to report experiencing common depression symptoms, with 75% saying that in the prior 2 weeks they felt so tired that they sat around and did nothing; 74% felt very restless; 73% had trouble thinking properly or concentrating; 73% felt lonely; 71% felt miserable or unhappy.

    How brands can help Gen Z remain hopeful.

    At 23 years old, the oldest among Gen Z, it can be challenging to identify with a more wisened, ‘this too shall pass,’ mentality. These Zers are at pivotal moments in their lives, and like their younger peers, are experiencing rites of passage and adulthood during uncertain and unprecedented times. 

    According to the APA psychologists, one of the key ways to maintaining strong mental health in times of adversity is by remaining hopeful. While scoring lowest among all the generations surveyed, the APA survey found that 64% of the Gen Z adults they surveyed felt hopeful about their future.  

    As Gen Z works to find their place in the world, brands can help by offering outlets for social, mental health, educational and work opportunities for this generation whose lives are being completely upended. Providing comfort and hope—in ways that are authentic and natural to your brand—will be critical for the health and wellbeing of your Gen Z customer. 

    The APA report offered insights for supporting Gen Z which brands can also benefit from and apply to your marketing and outreach efforts. Consider the following:

    • Promote awareness of and access to mental health services.
    • Offer new and meaningful (also safe) ideas and opportunities for Zers to connect with family, their culture and community.
    • Share ideas for celebrating milestones in new ways. Help Gen Z become the generation that reinvents society by creating new celebrations and traditions.
    • Help Gen Z see a path forward. Where possible, offer educational, work, training and employment opportunities tailored for them. 
    • Acknowledge Gen Z’s sacrifices–there have been many. 

    To learn more about how to reach this important generation, check out our Gen Z Marketing Playbook

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