Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The coronavirus may be a defining experience for Generation Z that shapes its outlook for decades to come — disrupting its entry to adulthood and altering its earning potential, trust in institutions and views on family and sex.

The big picture: Demographers have observed lasting impacts from national crises — like the AIDS epidemic, 9/11 and the Great Recession — on the political, economic, health and societal aspects of Americans who came of age at the time.

"COVID-19 is going to be the 9/11 of the Gen Z generation," said Jason Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK), a research and strategy firm focused on Gen Z and millennials.

  • But this virus could pack an even bigger punch, given its tentacles, duration, death toll and the extreme nature of social distancing measures now in place.
  • It's how this generation will experience the notion of "profound trauma shared by the community," Cyrus Beschloss, founder of College Reaction Polling, told Axios.
  • And that will play out across the most racially and ethnically diverse generation to rise in U.S. history, notes Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.

There are different definitions of Gen Z, but all consider it to be the people born after the mid-1990s, roughly ranging from second graders to young adults just finishing college and entering the workforce.

The coronavirus could change the youngest generation's perceptions of safe social distances and what high school and college are about.

  • Some will lose grandparents, parents, siblings and friends.
  • Some may shake hands less or be more aware of coming within six feet of strangers, Corey Seemiller, a Gen Z expert at Wright State University's Department of Leadership Studies in Education and Organization, told Axios.
  • Sex aside, kissing's a riskier act in a respiratory pandemic with face masks.
  • Young people's lives could become even more embedded with technology because school has shifted online and there's more remote work and video conferencing.
  • Rites of passage are on hold. Graduations are cancelled. So are proms, team sports, weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras, college visits, spring breaks, summer vacations and sleepovers.
  • Isolation, fear and uncertainty could exacerbate mental health concerns. Gen Z is already more likely to report poor mental health, per the American Psychological Association, and suicides among people ages 10-24 soared 56% fr0m 2007 to 2017.

The economic impact will be severe, too. Gen Z was looking at a graduating into a strong economy and low unemployment. "That's all been turned on its head," Kim Parker, Pew Research Center's director of social trends research, tells Axios.

  • Nearly half of workers ages 16-24 held service jobs such as in bars, restaurants and hotels — many of which have now been shut down or greatly scaled back, per Pew. Young workers with less experience can be the first to be let go.
  • College students are losing internships, summer work and first jobs vital to build networks and careers. In a College Reaction survey, 91% cited concerns about the economy and job market, and more than half worried about their finances.
  • Past generations graduating in a recession saw depressed wages and career growth. Just ask millennials who lived it during the Great Recession.
  • "People gradually catch up, but it can take basically the first decade of their career," said Lisa Kahn, an economics professor at the University of Rochester.

The virus may shape Gen Z's views on the government's role in protecting public health and the economy.

  • They or their parents could lose employer-provided health insurance in the middle of a pandemic.
  • That could fuel their already strong support for progressive, social safety net policies such as universal basic income and Medicare for All.
  • They'll have experienced the impacts of biggest government bailout in history — and 70% already think government should do more to solve problems.
  • "Gen Z is now going to be able to say, 'I remember where I was' when they started sending out checks to everybody or when health care suddenly became free in order to get tested," CGK's Dorsey said. The progressive ideas they've supported are now less hypothetical.

Go deeper: 2020's new voters will usher in an age of demographic transformation

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