High school senior Emma Rehac can’t help but feel resentful as leaders across the country scramble to keep families afloat through mounting unemployment and an unprecedented public health crisis.
“There’s so much anger and frustration that these are things that have been impacting us for so long, and it took a pandemic?” Rehac said. “Here’s all of this attention and, all of a sudden, all of these resources that everyone said didn’t exist.”
Generation Z was already politically liberal, increasingly activist and fed up with the status quo. The oldest members of the generation — which includes those born from 1997 to 2012, according to the Pew Research Center — grew up amid soaring inequality and overwhelmingly backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic primaries. Sanders withdrew from the presidential race Wednesday.
Now the coronavirus crisis may solidify their political identity, experts say. As the pandemic and its economic havoc exacerbate disparities, some Gen Zers see grim validation of their support for the government-run programs and social-welfare policies less popular with their parents and grandparents. Seventy percent of them believe the government should be doing more to solve problems, compared with 53 percent of Gen Xers and 49 percent of baby boomers, according to Pew.
Gen Z cares “really deeply about inequalities and addressing that directly,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, who directs the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “And that’s part of the reason big government appeals to them … universal health care, universal income and all that. And I think this pandemic, if anything, would really kind of affirm their position.”
Images of carefree spring breakers, who traveled to beach towns last month as concerns mounted about the virus’s spread, have dominated popular views of the generation. The nation erupted with fury at Miami Beach revelers who griped about bar shutdowns. They fed the worst stereotypes of young people as self-absorbed and thoughtless about the elderly — those most likely to die if they didn’t help “flatten the curve” to slow the spread of infection so that the health-care system isn’t overwhelmed.
But for another segment of the generation — which turned the trauma of school shootings and grim forecasts about the climate into millions-strong movements — the virus has energized their political activism. They see this crisis as inextricably linked to other problems that plague them and wonder whether the coronavirus pandemic could bring more people around to their calls for radical change.
As the seriousness of the crisis settled in for 17-year-old Xiye Bastida, she canceled a trip to Mexico and drew up a strict “quarantine schedule” for her weekdays holed up indoors, limiting herself to one hour of Netflix.
Sacrifice is a driving philosophy of Bastida’s politics. The climate activist, whom news outlets have dubbed “America’s Greta Thunberg,” has begged others to make big, uncomfortable changes to avert disaster.
“It’s for the greater good,” she says of the societal shutdown that put her senior year of high school in limbo.
She and other young activists have been using some of their time in self-quarantine to organize protests and grow the movements behind their own causes. They have incorporated the pandemic into their messaging about health care, climate change and income inequality.
Written into Bastida’s Friday schedule: “Strike for Climate and an appropriate government response to COVID-19. ”
“They will see this as a life-changing moment in many ways,” Kawashima-Ginsberg predicted, “whereas older adults may see this as a really major disruption in our lives, hopefully going back. ”
The crisis generation
Bastida doesn’t want the world to go back to normal, even as her life in New York City is upended. Yes, prom was canceled; her parents’ jobs and work visas are newly uncertain; her family has fled their apartment for a friend’s home in Massachusetts, worried about staying in the building where young and old share the same elevator.
But for Bastida, back to normal would mean returning to a society in which individual interest reigns and each generation fends for its own well-being.
“Emotionally, a lot of people are very unsettled … feeling like this is a crisis,” Bastida said of the pandemic. “And this is how we feel every day.”
In a Pew poll conducted in late March, the majority of adult Gen Zers said the virus is a “major threat” to the country’s economy and the health of the population. While only 22 percent saw it as a threat to their own health, a majority believe the pandemic put their personal financial situation at risk.
Recent data from the center found workers ages 16 to 24 — half of whom work in the hard-hit service sector — will be disproportionately affected by layoffs due to the virus, although most high school and college students won’t get checks from the government’s massive stimulus plan. Researchers are wondering whether the coronavirus pandemic will become to Gen Z what the Great Recession was to millennials.
Millennials “came into adulthood in a really difficult economic time, and they really struggled to get their footing,” said Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center. “We thought it was going to be different for Gen Z. But now this sort of turns that all upside down.”
Rather than be sidelined by that turmoil, many young activists are finding ways to push their political efforts forward.
Normally, Bastida would march out after AP calculus and set up at city hall for a climate change protest. But in these strange new times, it was a digital strike, with video chats and tweeted pictures of cardboard signs. Savvy with social media and already serving as tech support for work-from-home parents, Gen Z was perfectly fine moving online.
Joe Hobbs, a 17-year-old volunteer for Fridays for Future, the youth climate movement that Thunberg founded, said the pandemic has only intensified many young people’s commitments to their causes.
“We’re finding that across the globe, Fridays for Future activists and organizers are doing even more because they have nothing else to do,” Hobbs said from Columbia, Md., where he’s under a stay-at-home order. “They don’t have school to distract them.”
March for Our Lives, the student-led group that mobilized for gun control after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in 2018, has been tweeting about two public health emergencies: “Denial isn’t a policy: not for #COVID19, and not for the gun violence epidemic.”
“We need our leaders to ACT to save lives,” the group wrote. “We need REAL policy solutions. ”
In Harlem last week, Rehac was talking about rent cancellation at a pro-Sanders town hall held by video. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has halted evictions for 90 days, but Housing Justice for All, a coalition Rehac belongs to, is pushing him to completely wipe out those months of rent. Rehac argues it’s necessary as people stare down weeks and maybe months of unemployment.
She thinks the cancel-rent campaign is gaining steam. And maybe, she added, the pain of shutting down New York City could get more people to listen about the bigger ideas: more stringent rent control, more money for affordable housing.
“If we had a #HomesGuarantee millions of people wouldn’t be worried about paying rent tomorrow,” Housing Justice for All tweeted as the April 1 rent due date loomed. “Or on May 1. Or on June 1. Imagine that.”
Other young devotees of Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, also say the virus has underscored vast gaps in wealth and a broken health-care system. Voters age 24 and younger favored Sanders by huge margins in this year’s Democratic primaries, with three-quarters choosing him in California and Michigan exit polling.
While their turnout lags behind their elders, Gen Z will comprise 1 in 10 eligible voters at the time of the November presidential election, according to Pew.
The coronavirus crisis “really does expose all the inequities that people knew existed but maybe couldn’t see as clearly until this point,” said Roxie Richner. Her high school in Michigan has turned to non-graded “enrichment” activities, she said, unsure how to handle the fact that not everyone has laptops and Internet access.
For years, Richner has been a fervent Sanders supporter — holding a campaign kickoff party in her living room, volunteering ahead of the March 10 Michigan primary and feeling crushed when her candidate lost every county. But maybe, she thought, this moment of upheaval could shift politics in the United States for good. The senator from Vermont has been tweeting about the millions of Americans laid off with “nothing in the bank,” the big companies that said they couldn’t afford paid sick leave, and the people who would die because they waited too long to go to the hospital, anxious about the bill.
A day after celebrating her 18th birthday on March 26 with friends over FaceTime — someone tried to light a toothpick because no one had candles — she was feeling stir-crazy and scared, but also wondering if the country might emerge from all this a bit more open to her generation’s demands.
“I think it does give people some insight into what it’s like experiencing a time of crisis,” Richner said, “and that realization that a lot of America lives in crisis mode 24-7, whether there’s a pandemic or not.”
The greater good
Bastida is wondering whether the needle could move on climate change, the issue she says became personal for her when her Mexican hometown flooded. She spent the last Friday night in March tuning in from her family friends’ kitchen to a “Zoom party,” which was really a planning meeting for the Earth Day demonstration that would now have to take place fully online.
“Every crisis needs to be treated like a crisis,” her fellow activist Thunberg had said on a public Zoom call last month, not long before announcing she was recovering after exhibiting symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Bastida ran down to-dos with 11 high school and college students calling in from various time zones, some of them wearing pajamas. They wondered who they could get to appear in an Earth Day video. Willow and Jaden Smith? What about Miley Cyrus? TikTok star Charli D’Amelio?
Someone had reached out to about 50 social media influencers and gotten encouraging responses, although one had asked whether the video would be a “paid gig.”
Bastida and her friends laughed: No.
Back in the city she left, her 22-year-old friend Daphne Frias is fighting the coronavirus and pneumonia, isolated in a hotel room that ambulances wail past a dozen times a day.
Immunocompromised with cerebral palsy, Frias spent so much time in hospitals growing up that she calls herself a “professional patient.” She has gotten pneumonia in almost each of the last seven years. She didn’t wait for a stay-at-home order, retreating indoors before a single case of the coronavirus was confirmed in New York.
But March 9 was a beautiful, warm day, she said, and she allowed herself a trip outside. Four days later, she was coughing and tired, then dizzy and feverish. She tested positive for the coronavirus.
Her mother and sister quarantined with her at home, donning masks and gloves to throw out the garbage. Friends dropped off groceries outside their apartment. But after making a slow recovery, Frias’s fever came roaring back last week, and she decided she needed to separate from her family.
Some of Frias’s health-care costs were covered, she said, but other bills — the hotel room, the medications, the four-times-a-day inhalation treatments that clear her already-weak lungs — are adding up to the point that her bank sends fraud alerts. She needs savings to move to Baltimore in a few months for graduate school, where she’ll work toward a medical degree and master’s in public health. While she found financial relief in a friend’s GoFundMe campaign, she knows others are less fortunate.
Like Bastida, her friend and fellow activist, Frias sees an opening. The usual election-year politics seem distant to her as the ups and downs of campaigns gave way to headlines about the struggles of average Americans amid the pandemic.
“We’re able to listen in a way that we haven’t been able to before,” Frias said. “And I hope that when things go back to normal and it gets noisy again, we can remember to still listen and help people the way that we have now.”
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.
The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.
Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.
Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.