College-Level generation Z COVID-19 Impact Study

A breakdown of the effects of COVID-19 on GEN-Z college students

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College-Level Generation Z COVID-19 Impact Study

 

Conducted by:

Shannen Pavao, MBA (spavao2@umassd.edu)

 

Introduction

Methodology

The following research utilized a survey approach within a mid-sized public university in Northeastern United States, and is based on a random sample of Generation Z students. As defined by Pew Research Center, those born from 1997 onward are considered part of Generation Z (Dimock, 2019). In 2020, this would make those part of Generation Z ages 23 and younger. Because “generational cutoff points aren’t an exact science,” this study collected data from students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three to capture the entire undergraduate population of the university. The university has 6,841 undergraduate students, who represent 47 states and 53 countries (UMass Dartmouth, 2020). Only undergraduates were studied as the majority of graduate students are Millennials and not the subject of this investigation. This approach provides the opportunity to understand the problem being investigated among the target demographic. The use of a survey enabled quantitative results and an accurate depiction of how COVID-19 has impacted Generation Z. A brief description of the variable measurement, sampling, data collection, and data analysis procedures are as follows.

Four hundred and ninety-eight surveys were collected within a two-week period in July of 2020. Of the 498 respondents in the sample, 62% are female, 36% are male and 2% identify as “other”. Three percent are eighteen years of age, 27% are nineteen, 24% are twenty, 26% are twenty-one, 15% are twenty-two and 6% are twenty-three. The survey was implemented via mass email to undergraduate students. The email contained a brief background on the study and a direct link to the survey. The survey consisted of thirty-seven questions and was approved by the IRB.

 

Key Highlights

  • 50% of returning students (graduating classes 2021-2024) indicated they are very concerned about a second COVID-19 wave impacting the fall semester.
  • 41% of respondents stated that the pandemic will/has definitely or probably affected their ability to graduate on time
  • 71% of respondents stated that the technological learning curve was somewhat or very difficult in transitioning from in-person to online-only classes this past semester.
  • Having seen the economic impact of COVID-19, one-third of respondents believe it is very important to pursue a career in a field that is considered “essential.”
  • 84% of respondents’ summer/part-time jobs, internships, and/or full-time jobs were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Respondents’ overall mental health in the “excellent-good” range prior to the pandemic dropped percentage points during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Detailed Findings

 

COVID-19

The Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) stopped the world in its tracks when it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020 (CDC, 2020). As one of the hardest hit countries on the planet, there is no doubt the United States will feel its lasting effects for years to come. With nearly 6M cases nationwide, the country is not only dealing with a widespread health crisis, but also one of the largest economic collapses in history. While there is no generation left unaffected by this pandemic, Generation Z will arguably be the hardest hit of them all. For starters, Generation Z is estimated to comprise the largest segment of the US population (Business Insider, 2019). Loosely aged between 13-23 years old, Gen Z’s oldest members are just entering the adult world where they are developing habits that will shape the trajectory of the rest of their lives. “Those still in high school and middle school have it better, since they have more time for the economy to recover and the crisis to pass before they have to enter either college or the workforce” (CNBC, 2020). A pandemic striking at such an impressionable moment in time will undoubtedly have lasting implications on Generation Z’s academic performance, professional development, and overall well-being.

Academic Impacts

College-aged members of Generation Z are facing a new world of obstacles amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the usual school-selection job-hunting milestones a young adult might experience, they are also trying to navigate a “new-norm” of remote work, virtual learning, and social distancing. Despite being five short months into the pandemic, its effects have been colossal. Forty-one percent of respondents indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic will/has affected their ability to graduate on time, while an additional 71% stated COVID-19 would impact their ability to achieve expected academic performance.

Figure 1, n=498

The impact on academic performance caused by COVID-19 is largely due to the switch to remote learning during the spring semester, 2020, where 22% of respondents reported a “very difficult transition,” followed by 49% reporting a “difficult” transition. Adding to prior expressed obstacles are apprehensions of a second wave impacting the incoming fall semester, where half of returning students (classes 2021-2024) indicated being “very concerned” about the possibility of such an occurrence.

Figure 2, n=441

In the long-term, however, the evolution of e-learning might result in positive effects as well, promoting “a better use of technology by professors, more distance learning and online collaboration” (CNBC, 2020).

Meanwhile, tensions ensue as stress levels skyrocket among students during the pandemic. While more than half (55%) of respondents reported mild to no stress pre-pandemic, only 14% reported the same stress levels during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Figure 3, n=498

Adding to pandemic-induced stress is the reconsideration of majors chosen by Generation Z college students. While 42% of respondents strongly disagreed that the pandemic has caused them to rethink their major, 15% indicated that they strongly agree or agree to changing directions in their academic careers. The leading factors for that segment include job flexibility (57%), stronger job security/outlook (51%), and a change in values (39%). In fact, having seen the economic impact of COVID-19, one-third of all respondents believe it is “very important” to pursue a career in a field that is considered “essential.”

Figure 4, n=498

Professional/Financial Obstacles

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, college-aged Generation Zs were headed into a booming economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate immediately preceding the outbreak was at a historically low 3.5% in February of 2020. Fast-forward to August, and the numbers have nearly tripled to 10.2% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). As opposed to their Millennial predecessors (many of whom came of age during the Great Recession), Generation Z should have had a better head start on their professional endeavors (Collins, 2020). As it turns out, this was not the case. As a result of all the obstacles brought upon by the global pandemic, confidence levels have crashed in regard to securing post-graduation employment. Two-thirds of respondents strongly agree/agree that the pandemic will leave them in a difficult financial situation, likely influenced by 84% of respondents’ summer/part-time jobs, internships, and/or full-time jobs being negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 5, n=498

Prior to COVID-19, 38% of surveyed students stated being “very confident” in securing a job upon graduation, versus 11% post-pandemic. It is probable that these statistics impacted the confidence level in their ability to afford student loan debt.

Figure 6, n=498
Figure 7, n=498

In addition to concerns surrounding employment, the type of work sought by Generation Zs has shifted as well. In an ever-changing post-pandemic world, 48% of respondents indicated a preference to working remotely after their experience in the past months surrounding COVID-19. Lucky for Gen Zers, “one of the few certainties coming out of the COVID-19 shutdown is that it will have a lasting impact on how people work going forward,” resulting in a “large portion of workforces [discovering they] can function just fine outside of traditional offices” (He, 2020).

 

Overall Well-Being

Given the multitude of obstacles brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no surprise that the overall welfare of Generation Zs has been compromised. An already fragile cohort described by The Wall Street Journal as the “most anxious generation” (Shellenbarger, 2019), Generation Z grapples with its decline in mental, physical, social, and financial well-being. In an off-putting finding, respondents’ overall mental health in the “excellent-good” range prior to the pandemic dropped 30% during the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2018 American Psychological Association study of 3458 adults over eighteen years of age reported 54% of Gen Zers felt anxious or nervous at least once in the past month. Given the added stressors of the pandemic, this statistic would likely be inflated, further exemplifying the overall toll on well-being the outbreak has caused.

Figure 8, n=498
Figure 9, n=498

Conclusion

As Generation Z navigates through the challenges brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no denying that the road ahead will be one of many twists and turns. Yixia Cai, a graduate research fellow with the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison raises an important point, “A share of Gen Zers are reeling with accompanying issues like depression. People are suffering multiple life shocks and having trouble coping. Teenagers and early young adults are just one of the groups experiencing tremendous difficulty right now (Collins, 2020),” especially as they navigate new academic challenges and interrupted professional development. As the research presented in this article indicates, the COVID-19 pandemic will become another major influence on this fragile segment, but Gen Z’s openness in addressing emotional and mental health concerns will be a driving force in navigating the impediments of post-pandemic life.

 

References

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020, August 7). Retrieved from bls.gov

Business Insider. (2019). Generation Z: Latest Characteristics, Research, and Facts. Retrieved from Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/generation-z

CDC. (2020, April 1). New ICD-10-CM code for the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). Retrieved from cdc.gov: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/icd/Announcement-New-ICD-code-for-coronavirus-3-18-2020.pdf#:~:text=On%20March%2011%2C%202020,COVID%2D19%20Outbreak.

CNBC. (2020, June 1). The coronavirus pandemic is a ‘defining moment’ for Gen Z — here’s how it’s impacting their future. Retrieved from CNBC: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/01/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-shaping-the-future-for-gen-z.html

Collins, L. M. (2020, July 1). How COVID-19 dimmed Generation Z’s plans and confidence. Retrieved from deseret.com: https://www.deseret.com/indepth/2020/7/1/21307550/generation-z-facing-unemployment-covid-19-economy-college-pandemic

Dimock, M. (2019, January 17). Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins. Retrieved from Pew Research Center: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/

He, E. (2020, June 1). The New Future Of Work In A Post-Pandemic World. Retrieved from Forbes.com: https://www.forbes.com/sites/emilyhe/2020/06/01/the-new-future-of-work-in-a-post-pandemic-world/#69e454083382

Shellenbarger, S. (2019, May 9). The Most Anxious Generation Goes to Work. Retrieved from WSJ.com: https://rdweb.wvd.microsoft.com/arm/webclient/index.html

UMass Dartmouth. (2020). Facts for academic year 2019-2020. Retrieved from Umassd.edu: umassd.edu/about/



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