For young people, two defining events: COVID-19 and climate change

An unforeseen pairing of catastrophes will inform how Generation Z navigates the world as adults, and what sort of future they create.

Friday, May 1, 2020,
By Laura Parker
Photograph by Alessandra Sanguinetti, Magnum Photos

Jamie Margolin expected to speak at the Earth Day rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Instead, with the April 22 gathering cancelled, she watched a digital celebration on her laptop in Seattle, where she has been sheltering at home since mid-March with family.

Her high school classes have moved online. She graduates in the Class of 2020, but the usual rites of passage—the prom and the graduation ceremony itself—are cancelled. Her 96-year-old grandfather had been hospitalised with COVID-19. A week later, he died. At his hug-free funeral, Margolin, her parents, and her uncle stood six feet apart in face masks and gloves.

Margolin, 18, belongs to Generation Z, the age group of children born after 1996. She has been a climate activist since she was 14 and despairs of the Earth remaining liveable for the second half of her life. Now a highly contagious pandemic threatens to ravage the first.

Climate and COVID-19 is an unfathomable pairing of catastrophes. One will surely intersect with the other in ways not yet clear. This much is: For huge numbers of young people, the virus will become a defining moment in their formative years and the economic hardship unleashed will almost certainly shape their worldview in the same ways the 1930s Great Depression raised its children to become frugal adults.

Many will graduate into a recession, having grown up in the long shadow of the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009. 

Globally, the pandemic’s impact on Gen Z is dire: Schools have closed for 1.5 billion children, more than 90 percent of the world’s student population, at a time when online learning is unavailable for half the world because it lacks access to the internet or a computer. The virus will turn thousands of youths into orphans and is rapidly spreading through Africa, straining health systems on a continent still struggling to contain the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Then, a mere 30 years from now—Margolin will be 48 at mid-century—the rapidly warming world could be on the cusp of unstoppable changes that will remake ecosystems and displace millions. Scientists warned in 2018 that world leaders needed to take drastic action and reduce carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050 to avoid the worst effects.

“We don’t see too many moments in history like this,” says Alexandre White, who teaches the history of epidemics at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Generation Z is going to have to find and build communities in different ways than any generation has done before.”

Climate protests go digital

Margolin is one of a number of young climate activists who rose to prominence last fall when they led millions of youths into the streets from Delhi to San Francisco to demand world leaders get moving. As COVID-19 spread around the globe, I contacted some of them to get their take on how life might look in a year, and how the pandemic might alter the stalemate on climate change for better or worse.

As leaders in the climate movement, they have been thinking about the fate of the world most of their lives and are well practiced at considering disasters on an epic scale. Still, the speed with which life so abruptly changed was a lot to take in.

“People lost their jobs in the recession of 2008 and it was hard,” Margolin says. “But it wasn’t like life stopped. The world didn’t stop turning as it has now.”

Now, holed up at home like the rest of the world, they are sorting out the path ahead. In Nairobi, where residents are under both a curfew and a directive to stay in town to prevent the virus from spreading to rural areas, Lesein Mutunkei, 15, is trying to navigate a convoluted effort to move classes online while coping with power outages.

His tree-planting campaign is suspended and he’s deeply worried about his older sister, Tiassa, a student stranded at her school by cancelled flights in South Africa, the nation with the continent’s highest number of COVID-19 infections.

On top of all that, he says: “I heard the news about America and thought about our friends in America who can be sick.”

Mayumi Sato, a Japanese graduate student at the University of Cambridge in the UK, felt the chill of xenophobia after a series of anti-Asian incidents on UK college campuses by racists blaming China for COVID-19’s spread. She is sheltering in university housing with eight flatmates and is reconsidering her priorities in life. She found it helpful to follow the lead of friends in Nepal and Laos, where she worked on social and environmental programs, who have a better handle on dealing with uncertainty.

“They are particularly more adept … ,” she says. “Overcoming adversity is a state of normalcy for them at all times.”

Sato, 25, also expects a dramatically different new normal that she says “will fundamentally change the way that we socialise, work, purchase items, and take care of our health and the health of others.”

A future of less travel, more Zoom

Generation Z may be profoundly impacted by the pandemic, but it is also true that as the world’s first generation of digital natives, they are better equipped for the future. In Rwanda, for example, Ghislain Irakoze, the whizz-kid founder, now 20, of a business that uses technology to identify and reduce millions of tonnes of electronic waste in landfills, is at work retooling his company to collect and recycle medical waste.

Much of the climate protest movement that attracted millions was built through social media. The Friday school strikes that spread around the world after Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, 17, staged strikes outside Sweden’s parliament in 2018, have moved online. With mass gatherings no longer possible, new strategies are being devised to keep climate protests visible. Last Friday, activists spread thousands of protest posters across the lawn outside the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building in Berlin.

The future may see less travel and more Zoom, as even hidebound legacy businesses have adapted to online conference platforms the youths have been using since they were 12. That evolution, the activists point out, comes with a benefit of being good for the planet.

“I think the digital divide that largely began with my generation, our use of texting and Zoom and FaceTime, for example, is clearly going to decrease" as such technologies become the norm, says Delaney Reynolds, 20, an activist in Miami and founder of Sink or Swim, a campaign to educate Floridians about sea-level rise.

Reynolds also thinks “science, scientists, and scientific facts”—a big trifecta in a polarised world—will come back into fashion.

“A crisis of this magnitude really helps illuminate which elected officials are capable of leading and which are not,” she adds. “I do hope that people will learn the difference as a result.”

Back to the future

Social scientists disagree about Gen Z’s characteristics, including its name. Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, prefers i-Gen; Neil Howe, author of multiple books on American generational trends, thinks Homelanders is better as the cohort spends more time at home with their parents than any prior generation. Post-pandemic, Alexandria Villaseñor, 14, a school striker who lives in Davis, California, says Zoomers might be the best fit: "Eighty years from now, our grandchildren can yell, 'Hey Zoomers," she says.

The unifying thread is Gen Z’s strong similarities to the challenges of the Silent Generation that grew up in the Depression and World War II.

“Fifty years from now, the children of i-Geners are going to find 150 rolls of toilet paper in their parents’ basement,” Twenge says.

“World leaders who bemoaned changing the planet’s energy systems as too costly and disruptive have now shown that the world is, in fact, highly capable of responding to challenges of great magnitude.”

A better world

Felix Finkbeiner, 20, who heads the tree-planting nonprofit Plant-for-the-Planet he founded at 15, considers himself “allergic” to grand narratives of generational traits. But he thinks the back-to-the-future viewpoint is on the mark. And full of possibility.

When we first talked, he told me he didn’t expect massive changes in the aftermath of the pandemic. A week later, he changed his mind.

“What really struck me is this is going to drag on for at least a year, probably two years,” he says. “And for those two years, it is going to be about the virus, the economic crisis, and political polarisation. It is hard to be optimistic that in a single country any climate change progress will be made. Effectively, at least two years are lost.”

And beyond that? The most revelatory moment of the pandemic so far has been the massive response to it. World leaders who bemoaned changing the planet’s energy systems as too costly and disruptive have now shown that the world is, in fact, highly capable of responding to challenges of great magnitude.

“There’s no going back,” Finkbeiner says. ”In three short weeks, we have chosen to effectively decrease our GDP by 10 percent by not allowing people to go to work. It is going to be much harder to claim that things are not possible. People’s expectations of what government can do in a crisis will be much higher.”

Seventy-five years ago, a stronger world emerged from two world wars, a stock market crash, and the Great Depression. Authoritarianism was driven out and Europe rebuilt. Social Security, created in 1935, arose from the depths of the Great Depression and public relief programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps that protected natural resources, put people back to work. The Gen Zs I talked with believe a better world is possible. Will it happen again?

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