The COVID-19 pandemic is sparking physical, digital and ideological migrations, as urban-dwellers head for the hills, Boomers invade TikTok and Gen Zs reexamine American values.
One of the lasting marks of COVID-19 on Generation Z will be their physical displacement. When millions of college students were abruptly kicked out of their college dorms, it sparked a mass migration back to childhood bedrooms across the nation.
“The adjustment is hard,” said Christina, 22, who’s pursuing her master’s degree in Chicago, but now finds herself quarantined at her family home in Minnesota. Many Gen Zs told us they’re grappling with what feels like a step backward in their journey towards adulthood, as they return to a life of chores, curfew, family dinners and sibling rivalries. “The most difficult thing for me is being in the environment where it would usually be my time to relax and enjoy everyone around me, but now I can’t,” said Hannah, 20, who’s back to sharing a room with her teenage sister. Teens and twentysomethings are finding themselves relying on parents again, rather than earning more independence as is typical for their life stage. “My relationship with my parents has changed because we’re all kind of in survival mode. My mother is always reminding me to be ready for anything,” said Christian, 16.
Experts say Gen Z’s forced migration home could have a long-lasting impact on their education and earning potential. One higher education trade group predicts a 15% drop in college enrollment nationwide, due to students who never return to school as well as those who never start.
Many graduating high school seniors now say they’re considering taking a gap year before starting college. Some colleges, including Hampshire College in Massachusetts, are planning for a 2021 academic calendar that will allow students to cycle in and out of remote learning if coronavirus comes and goes.
Many Gen Zs may find themselves moving in and out of their parents’ homes several more times over the coming years. The lucky ones will be those who leave at all: the financial impacts of the 2008 recession lingered so long that 20% of Millennials were still living with relatives a full decade later. For the Gen Zs that do return to college, many will likely choose schools that are closer to their hometowns so they can live rent-free and, in some cases, support family members whose finances were upended by the pandemic.
Of course, Gen Zs aren’t the only folks who are physically relocating due to COVID-19. Gen Xers and Millennials in their 30s and 40s are returning to their family homes, many with kids in tow, to hunker down with older parents. Hundreds of thousands of urban-dwellers have fled to more rural areas for the perceived safety of wide-open spaces (putting rural hospitals, grocery stores and broadband at risk of total collapse). People who own rental and vacation properties have flocked to these second homes amid bans on short-term rentals. Hell, animals are even reverse-migrating back to their natural habitats now that the tourists are gone (coyotes, bobcats and bears are reclaiming Yosemite National Park, for example).
Young people who want to break into creative fields have typically moved to large urban centers, but there’s some indication that this could change. Older Gen Zs had already been joining Millennials in more affordable mid-tier cities, such as Tucson, AZ; Raleigh, NC; and Columbus, OH—and the pandemic will likely accelerate the pull of smaller metro areas. Many Gen Zs have already fled dense urban coronavirus hot spots, and now wonder if cities are viable long-term—at least without rent stabilization or major downsizing. “I’ve been thinking a lot about finances, what spending is necessary, where I can be saving, and what I should cut back on,” said Savanna, 23, who recently fled New York City for her hometown of Minneapolis. “I moved to the city to grow, learn and just be independent. I feel like I was forced to take this ginormous step back.”
We could see cities become cultural vacuums after the pandemic, as young people flee to places where life has more ease—and fresh air for social distancing. Already, Gen Zs say suburban sprawl has its appeal compared to a shared micro-apartment with roommates. (Realtors in Boston have already seen an uptick in first-time homebuyers looking to purchase just outside the city.) And who’s to say what will be left of cities after this anyway? New York City is expected to face a revenue shortfall of up to $10 billion, Los Angeles county will lose $1 billion in sales tax revenue this year, and no one knows how many of the small businesses that keep urban life vibrant will shutter. City life may not have the same draw after all of this.
I moved to the city to grow, learn and just be independent. I feel like I was forced to take this ginormous step back.