COVID-19 has forced many people to adjust how they live and work—and reflect on how they may want to change those activities when the pandemic passes. Values have shifted amid rolling lockdowns, as people reassess their priorities around family and friends, health and wellness, career aspirations and physical locations.
While nearly everyone has been affected by the pandemic, experts believe younger generations will experience deeper and longer-lasting impacts across different parts of their lives. Many Millennials (born between 1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (born between 1997 and the early 2010s) have seen their career and personal ambitions derailed by the COVID-19 closures, just as they were gaining momentum. Some are using the pandemic's reality shift as an opportunity to make major life changes.
“For Millennials, this is a real turning point where they may actually start to make different choices in terms of where they live, how they work and how they parent their children,” says Dr. Eliza Filby, an intergenerational expert who researches how people's values and behaviours are changing. She also looks at the implications for politics, work, consumption, society and economics.
Changing priorities for Gen Z
For many in Gen Z, who are still in school or just starting their careers, the experience has been harsher, Filby says. Despite growing up with technology and being best-suited for the rapid transition to digital life during the pandemic, Gen Z has been starved of much-needed social connection over the past year.
“They've effectively had 12 months of their youth taken from them,” Filby says. “They've had their education disrupted. They've had their entry into the workplace disrupted and they've had their social formations disrupted.”
The result, she believes, could be a generation more accustomed to accelerated societal change and unlikely to follow their Millennial peers when it comes to career and finances.
For instance, Filby expects Gen Z, the children of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), to be more economically independent when compared to Millennials and their Baby Boomer (born between 1942-1965) parents.
Homeownership may not be a priority for Gen Z either, considering the price appreciation over the past several years. Instead, Filby expects them to invest more in their careers, including the increasingly popular goal of running their own business.
“They've been conditioned to see themselves as entrepreneurs,” she says. “The capacity to build a business is much easier and to have multiple streams of income is inherent to them. That idea of building something, rather than investing in something, is also more attractive.”
As part of her research, Filby recently interviewed a 21-year-old entrepreneur who lives at home with her parents, who are encouraging her to save money for a house of her own someday.
“She said to me, 'I just don't understand why buying a house is a thing? Why would I want to buy bricks-and-mortar property that doesn't move with me? I would much rather put money in a business,'” Filby recounts of the conversation.
“I thought that was very telling of a generation that might not have the same opportunities in terms of property,” she says.
What does a post-pandemic workplace look like?
Organisations are also being forced to adapt to the shifting values brought on by the pandemic, including how they attract and retain different generations of workers.
“I think there's an implicit understanding among business leaders and the business community that society matters—and how people are changing matters—and they need to understand that they're also kind of experiencing those shifts within their businesses because their employee base is changing,” Filby says.
Her research to date suggests Millennials and Gen X are more interested in a hybrid home-office work environment post-pandemic to balance family obligations, while Boomers and Gen Z want to be spending more time in the office to benefit from in-person connections and collaboration. The result could create an imbalance in the corporate culture and productivity, Filby says.
“There's a real danger, as we move into this new era of hybrid working, that the office becomes a sort of youth club on Monday and Fridays until the grownups show up on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” she says, especially as more Baby Boomers retire from the workforce in the years ahead.
The results could be a dramatic curtailment of learning and mentorship opportunities for younger generations and Filby believes the onus is on employers to make work more of a learning environment.
“The office that's a cross between a private member's club and university campus that has space for collaboration, but also personal concentration, is the one that's going to attract the best talent,” she says.
Lucy Kellaway, a former journalist turned teacher, shudders at the idea of a work-from-home culture coming out of the pandemic.
“My heart sinks deeper and deeper when I hear people saying we'll never go back to offices in the way that we used to—and talking about that as a positive. I think that's really a shame. How will the young people learn?” says Kellaway, who became a secondary school teacher in 2017, at age 58, after 30 years working full-time at the Financial Times.
“I didn't learn how to be a journalist by going on some training programmes. I learned by being there and watching my colleagues, seeing how they worked. I learned how to operate in the corporate structure not by reading books on office politics, but by watching the operators in my office actually do it; that's how you grow up as a corporate being, by following that. I really do fear for, especially the people who've joined the workforce during this time, that they're not only missing out socially but that their learning will be stunted as a result.”
Kellaway agrees employers need to fill the learning gaps but also encourage workers to build their own networks to gain that critical in-person collaboration that's often lost over video calls.
“Once we're able to get together again, get a network of young people and meet them regularly. You need that regular contact,” she says.
And while the pandemic has been a setback for many younger people, Kellaway recommends they try not to worry about the long-term impact on their careers. With people living and working longer, she says there's lots of time to find a job, build a career and even change it if you wish.
“I say to [younger people], 'this is such a long game; you're working lives will be over 50 years, it really doesn't matter if you spent the first 15 years switching from one thing to another,'” says Kellaway, who has four Millennial-age children.
“I think, from my great age looking back, everyone should relax,” she adds. “My experience should be uplifting for them... if I can start all over again, in my very late 50s training to do something new, why can't we all do that at any time?”