My maternal grandmother, Loretta Kemna, died this spring. Her death was unrelated to the coronavirus — she was 103 years old — but due to the pandemic, only 10 people were allowed to be physically present at her funeral. Her five surviving children attended with their spouses, so her 19 grandchildren and 32 great-grandchildren watched from their homes as my aunt streamed the proceedings with her phone. My daughters, ages 6 and 8, witnessed their first funeral at the kitchen table via Facebook Live.
As the girls peppered me with questions, I tried to explain that this was not normal. But the truth is, amid this virus, the lockdowns, and the ensuing social and economic fallout, no one really knows what normal is or will be. We’ve spent months reprogramming our children not to hug, not to play in groups, and not to touch their faces. We’ve trained them to attend everything from school to dance class to family reunions virtually. We’ve drilled them on rationing toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
Of course, that last lesson on conserving resources is one that we as parents should have been teaching all along. And it reminds me of my grandmother.
Born in 1917, Grandma Kemna and the rest of her generation were shaped by the Great Depression. Growing up in rural Missouri during those extraordinary times instilled in her and her contemporaries certain traits and attitudes that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. Some would be considered positive, like the value of hard work and the “waste not, want not” mentality. Others were more negative, like a mistrust of government and banks. When Grandma Kemna’s sister died, her children found cash taped to the bottoms of kitchen drawers. When my paternal grandmother died, my dad found stacks of Styrofoam trays, the kind meat is sold in, washed and squirreled away in the cupboard for, well, we don’t really know.
Almost a century later, children find themselves growing up in the middle of a historic pandemic. In addition to the anxiety and isolation caused by the coronavirus itself, their families also face a recession that has put millions out of work. How will these events shape who these children are and who they become? How will these times inform the society they go on to build?
DURING THE GREAT Depression, children, especially those who were poor, became increasingly aware of the world around them. According to Vincent DiGirolamo, assistant professor of history at the City University of New York, who has written extensively about children during historic crises, current events worked their way into children’s everyday lives, even into their play. For instance, there was a rope-skipping rhyme that went: “Hoover blew the whistle/Mellon rang the bell/Wall Street gave the signal/and the country went to hell.”
“These events politicized [these children],” says DiGirolamo. “They made them think anew about capitalism, the legal system, or political leaders. About the banks, courts, and the federal government.”
As those jump-ropers grew up, Herbert Hoover’s perceived blunders and the politics of the era eventually spawned swarms of young FDR New Dealers who counted on the government to do better in providing for its people. With today’s children now sequestered all day with their parents, privy to their political discussions, DiGirolamo says, he could see a similar progressive politics emerging in this new generation, particularly on the issues of the social safety net and access to health care. “Young people are paying attention,” he says. “They’re forming opinions about leadership and the role of government. If this current administration records epic failure in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, these young people will not forget when they become voters. Did the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill help their families survive these hard times or did it transfer wealth upwards to billionaires and large corporations?”
The sparse data on the preferences of Generation Z (children born in 1997 and later) indicates that the older members are already wary of capitalism and the current health care system. Jason Dorsey, president of Gen Z research at the Center for Generational Kinetics, a research and consulting firm, believes that today’s younger children will continue the trend and grow up expecting even more from their government than just health care. “They have only ever known a time when the government sent checks to millions of people,” says Dorsey. “They will always remember a time when the government stepped in and paid people and made payroll loans for small businesses to address this pandemic. That’s important when it comes to issues like universal basic income and health care. They’ll have seen the government intervene exponentially more than any generation has seen in decades.” Perhaps this will usher in a generation of Democratic rule.
While their expectation of government spending might be greater than that of their parents and grandparents, Gen Z might swing in the opposite direction when it comes to how they handle their personal finances. “We believe they will take with them more frugality,” says Dorsey. “The oldest members saw their parents go through the Great Recession and were much more practical with money. They were already predisposed to save money, to look for benefits from employers, and shop at thrift stores.”
TECHNOLOGY HAS ALWAYS been central in the lives of today’s children, but it has never been more crucial than now, when they’ve been trapped indoors, away from their friends, sheltering at home with their families.
The most drastic change for child and parent has been the sudden shift to online schooling. “They’re not going to associate schooling as simply a place you go to,” Dorsey says. “That’s a massive shift. The youngest Gen Z-ers will always remember having gone to school at home through the computer.”
Some of the kids practically born with a tablet in hand have readily taken to independent and interactive online learning and now will expect more of it. But that exacerbates disparities between those students and the rest of their classmates.
A study by Brown, Harvard, and MIT economists found that when the coronavirus crisis hit, students living in high-income ZIP codes had a temporary reduction in learning on a popular online math platform before returning to normal levels, while students in lower-income areas persistently completed about half as many lessons as before. And according to the consultancy group McKinsey & Company, if school closures continue intermittently into the 2020-21 school year, low-income, Black, and Hispanic students stand to lose 12, 10, and nine months of learning, respectively, compared to just seven months for the average student.
Online schooling will only increase screen time for a generation that was already glued to their devices. These screens aren’t just where the kids go to educate and entertain themselves. It’s also where they go to communicate with each other. “We all used to congregate in classrooms and concert halls,” says Mitch Prinstein, director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina and a certified child and adolescent psychologist. “These will be adolescents that will grow up in a world where we’ll be really reluctant to do so. They were already far too socialized to online interactions. We were already seeing they are having a harder time introducing themselves to strangers offline. I think we’ll see a hyper-connection to technology and an increased lack in basic offline social skills.”
Young Gen Z’s social skills may be even further stunted by the culture of social distancing. These children are suddenly being told they can’t play with other children, can’t high-five or hug. Will child anxiety over school shootings be surpassed by germaphobia? “This is going to mark this generation,” says Dorothy Espelage, a child psychologist and professor of education at the University of North Carolina. “The level of trust and intimacy is changing now that we can’t shake hands and hug. Some of these children are cringing.”
TODAY’S ADOLESCENTS WERE already growing impatient with government’s inability to stop school shootings and engage with climate change, and they were using social media to organize and take action (see: Emma Gonzalez and Greta Thunberg). They were already starting to think more about where their food was coming from and how they spent their money. And Prinstein says he has already observed the older members of the generation retreating from the urban centers that have been ravaged by the coronavirus and from the materialism that defined their elders.
Who knows, perhaps my children will emerge from this crisis as frugal, rural-dwelling Americans who believe government has a responsibility to provide financial security for its citizens.
In that case, they would be pretty familiar to their great-grandmother.
Tony Rehagen is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.