Last week, CivicScience studied how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Gen Z’s online shopping habits and entertainment preferences. Part 2 of this study continues this week with a deep dive into the pandemic’s impact on Gen Z ‘s trending attitudes and behaviors in areas related to health, stress, and politics.
If the pandemic immediately pushed Gen Z toward on-screen activities, it also highlighted the importance of physical health. In February, when many Americans didn’t even think COVID-19 was in the U.S. (and gyms were still places people sort of wanted to be), about 39% of Gen Z exercised several times a week. By May this number had climbed to 48%, despite many only being able to work out at home or outside. What’s more, that number has remained fairly high—about as high as last summer, in fact, when 47% of Gen Z reported exercising several times a week in July and 49% said so August.
Despite more obstacles, Gen Z is trying to remain healthy. It even reported its lowest annual percentage of non-exercisers in May, at 31%. This is a far cry from Americans over 25, 41% of whom weren’t exercising regularly in January and 38% of whom aren’t doing it now.
A similar trend in health-consciousness might be glimpsed in the reduction of fast-food consumption. Everyone knows fast food is “bad”, but often it’s simpler than the alternative. Yet, despite the desire for simplicity during a pandemic, Gen Z is consuming fast food less often than it used to. Twenty-seven percent of Gen Z ate fast food once a week or more in March. But in two months that dropped to 21%. A similar decline occurred for those who ate fast food a few times a month. This number has rebounded starting in May, but Gen Zers eating fast food once a week or more hasn’t budged, either signaling a change of attitude or economics. Again, Gen Zers living with their parents, who tend to consume fast food less often, could account for this.
One health trend that bridges the gap between generations, however, is anxiety. In a country that’s ailing physically, economically, and socially, it makes sense that stress levels have risen. During the pandemic’s initial spread, Gen Zers feeling very or somewhat worried ballooned from 37% to 59%.
Americans over 25 also reported more worry, though they had experienced higher levels going into the pandemic to begin with. Reported worry for both groups gradually came down, but remain higher than they were at the start of 2020, with July showing them creeping back up.
The stress of the pandemic may itself be having a widespread effect, even helping to explain some of the rise in online shopping and other behaviors. Americans are no strangers to retail therapy, and the majority of those who say they are shopping online much or somewhat more also report feeling very or somewhat strongly stressed recently.
This effect seems even more pronounced for Gen Z, as those who have been shopping online much or somewhat more than usual strongly correlate to those who have felt higher levels of stress. This might decrease for Gen Z if the economy worsens, but for now, many are turning to the internet for their purchases. And even if this rise is momentary, the pandemic has further reinforced the habit and resource of shopping online.
Just like other crises, the pandemic has exposed major structural flaws in the U.S., and Gen Z noticed. Gen Z moved further to the left since the beginning of the quarantine. By June and July, 34% of Gen Zers considered themselves liberals, compared to 22% in February and March. Things shifted from moderate to more liberal views.
Nothing happens in a vacuum, of course. Throughout history, pandemics have more severely affected the poor and ethnic minorities, and COVID-19 was the same, revealing massive deficiencies in public health and social inequalities. During the height of nationwide protests, it’s no surprise that Gen Zers who defined themselves as liberals grew even more.
February and March 2020
Beliefs often influence behavior. It would be natural to assume Gen Z’s political pivot would lead to more appreciation of brands that promote social consciousness. But so far this isn’t the case. From March to June, the importance of a company’s social consciousness dropped four percentage points for Gen Z, while it rose slightly for Americans over 25. In fact, at no point during the first half of 2020 did Gen Z’s partiality for these companies reach as high as the 82% of Americans over 25 who said a company’s social consciousness was important to them in April. This could, however, have more to do with economic uncertainties than preference.
So how much of our new normal is here to stay? The economic fallout from the pandemic is not completely certain, but even if it’s not as long and pernicious as the Great Recession, these last few months will reverberate for some time. Mark Twain remarked that “history rarely repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” Like the Lost Generation almost exactly a century ago, Gen Z faces a defining coming-of-age crisis. It will emerge differently from before, and some of the early data may indicate how Gen Z could relate to the world for years after the pandemic ends—whenever that may be.