The Asterisk Generation 2020*

Gen Zs have an underlying fear that this disruption will cause them to be left behind.

A Permanent Scar

I would not describe my house as the ideal learning environment, especially with everyone at home. With the dogs, step-siblings, and parents all fending for attention, I have had alot of trouble staying motivated and focused. - Sari

Zs are terrified that they’ll become known as “the asterisk* generation,” a group who lost a year of their lives and will be left with a permanent negative mark on their life resumes. After working for so many years to get ahead—getting extra tutoring and training, turning in extra credit work—they’re mortified at the prospect of not keeping up with competitive standards. With ACT and SAT tests canceled nationwide, high school juniors worry they won’t qualify for their choice colleges. International students, or students who’d wanted to study abroad, no longer have that option. “My ‘Accepted Students Days’ for colleges have been canceled and it’s a crucial time for me to make my decision,” worried Megan, 18, in New Jersey.

Those already in university fear the current turmoil will impair their ability to perform to a high standard. After all, instead of sticking to their carefully curated routines and finishing up their school years as planned, Zs are having to make do with messy, thrown-together circumstances. “I would not describe my house as the ideal learning environment, especially with everyone home. With the dogs, step-siblings and parents all fending for attention, I have had a lot of trouble staying motivated and focused,” said Sari, 19, from New Jersey, who was sent home early from her Boston college.

Many Zs complain that the online education they’re receiving isn’t particularly high-quality—especially since the quick shift to online courses left their Boomer professors scrambling to figure out new tech. “The professors are really slow at replying, so if you need help you’re on your own,” said Theo, 19, in Anaheim, CA. Joe, 21, in St. Louis, who will be finishing up his college career online, told us he’s wondering how this will impact his next steps: “Will this pandemic affect me starting a career?”

Will this pandemic affect me starting a career? - Joe

Keeping Up Against All Odds

This is especially true for student-athletes, for whom losing even a couple months of training (or the competitive season when scouts see you play) could mean missing out on a multimillion-dollar career they’ve been preparing for their entire lives. Heidë, 16, a competitive athlete in several disciplines told us, “It's stressful because this was my year to make all-state cheer and qualify for state in track, but both have been canceled.”

Some elite athletic training schools made the controversial decision to stay open even while non-essential businesses, restaurants and bars were closing. EM Academy, an exclusive student-athlete training program with facilities all over California, fought closing as long as it possibly could. (It did embrace C.D.C. recommendations, including social distancing and disinfecting surfaces.) When EM was finally forced to close, they shifted athletes to training via app and urged athletes not to let their training standards fall. Recent motivational messages on EM’s Instagram include: “continue to progress and improve no matter what life throws at you” and “no obstacle is too big.”

IMG Academy, a private high school for elite football players near Tampa (tuition and boarding costs over $70,000 per year), has remained open and kept some students living on campus. While the school shifted to distance learning, these students are still able to do in-person athletic training and physical training. As cities across the country go into lockdown, it begs the question: what is actually essential? Clearly for student-athletes at a certain level, training is not something they want to give up, global pandemic be damned.

Closing The Gap

We've spent all these years of our lives aiming for college & feels like it was pointless. - Heide

According to educators, the Gen Zs with the most to lose from a shortened school year will be low-income students. These are the kids who typically return to school each fall lagging behind in what’s called a “summer gap,” and tend to improve academically during the school year. Many of these young folks also rely on schools for free and subsidized meal programs, and lack Wi-Fi access at home to facilitate remote learning. (That’s why public schools in cities including New York, Los Angeles and San Diego fought closure for as long as possible.) These are also the kids that won’t have access to test prep tutors and indie education consultants to help them catch up. The mass school closures could have a ripple effect through primary, middle and high school classes that will be felt for years, even generations, to come. That said, a gap in resources for some students affects entire student bodies. “My school doesn’t get to do online school because not everyone in our school can afford the equipment for it,” said Jessica, 17, in Snohomish, WA.

Brands should think about how they can support and empower Zs in their academic recovery. Students will need rides to SAT and ACT testing locations, many of which had to be rescheduled in March. Students may have racked up fees associated with rescheduling major tests due to coronavirus. Brands should consider supporting or partnering with organizations that tutor and mentor young scholars, especially low-income students and those aiming to be first-generation college students (consider the Posse Foundation). Brands could also consider how to support school systems that have taken a devastating financial, spiritual and logistical hit, and must now figure out how best to get their student community back up to speed. Many small private colleges will likely fold, while others cut departments—is that necessary? The American education system, already difficult and confusing on a good day, just got a lot more challenging to navigate and succeed in. Gen Zs feel more than anyone that educational institutions and spaces are a critical part of our social fabric. “For a lot of people, school is their only escape,” said Lilian, 16, in Los Angeles, CA.

What It Means

  • Be a force of stability, constancy and balance. Zs’ lives have been flipped upside down, so calm and competence will go a long way.
  • Zs need solid, reliable support systems right now. Help Boomer parents, teachers, coaches and trainers get on board technologically to support the Zs in their lives.
  • Encourage grace at a time when all sense of normalcy has been shaken up. Assure Zs that it’s okay to do the best you can at times like these, and have that be enough.
  • Hire your Gen Z employees, interns, talent and fans to create and distribute content. And keep your influencer network rolling, but with a new sense of purpose and sensitivity for the moment.
  • Lean into the American education system, which is going to need all the support it can get to bring students back up to speed.

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