The pandemic has thrown gen Z dreams and ambitions up in the air as economies shrink and the world becomes a more dangerous place.

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Photography by Kyle Gregory Devaras (right). Images courtesy of Unsplash.
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In the US, almost half of parents in a survey by Civis Analytics in May reported a change in their child’s plans after high school. Among currently enrolled US college students, 17% are either not returning or uncertain if they will, according to another survey by the American Council on Education. In both the US and UK, there are growing calls for new funding for youth community service programs to fight COVID-19 and at the same time absorb those who would otherwise not be studying or employed.

Tara Kripalani, an 18-year-old in Singapore, was hoping to head in the fall to Bristol University in the UK to study biochemistry and live far from home for the first time. “I would like to go to the UK, but my parents are less keen. They think it’s not safe in the UK right now,” Kripalani tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence.

Her friends are in similar straits: “Everyone’s confused about what to do. Some are leaving. Some are deferring for a year. Some have decided to stay here.”

Kripalani considered enrolling in a local university or taking a gap year. But after Bristol awarded her a partial scholarship, non-deferrable, she confirmed her acceptance. Even so, she may end up doing her first term online from home in Singapore.

Search for stability

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Images courtesy of Unsplash
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Gen Z is heading into what the International Monetary Fund calls the worst recession since the Great Depression, with unemployment surging globally. Some are rethinking their motivations and drivers—passions, interests, money, freedom—for things like security and service to society.

“Like a whole generation changed after the Great Depression, the behavior of young workers in regards to savings and risk-taking is going to change forever,” Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor, was quoted saying by Fast Company. “You’re going to see, long after the coronavirus is gone, people being much more conservative and careful about savings and looking for stability and work.”

In China, for years the world’s most dynamic economy, there’s anecdotal evidence young people may be gravitating towards civil service jobs and healthcare jobs, investing in low-risk financial products and wanting to move closer to family.

In a focus group run by Wunderman Thompson in Shanghai in the first week of June, ten participants in their 20’s were asked if the pandemic had caused them—or friends and family—to rethink ambitions and motivations. “It’s obvious to us that COVID-19 has influenced their future plans,” Karen Wang, Chief Strategy Officer of Wunderman Thompson China tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence.

Among their sentiments:

“One of my advertising colleagues started preparing for the civil service examination recently,” said Vanky, 24.

“My parents also recommended me to choose a more stable career, such as civil service,” said Shinning, 20.

“Some of my colleagues around me have been laid off, and others want to go back to their hometown to find a new job,” said Kelly, 26.

Several also spoke of wanting to serve fellow humans. Rinna, a 22-year-old, told those gathered that if she had the opportunity to study again, she would choose medical school. In fact, she said: “My sister, who is in junior high school, has decided to apply for medical school because of the shortage of medical staff during the epidemic.”

A generation of activists

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Photography by Callum Shaw (top), Markus Spiske (left). Images courtesy of Unsplash.
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There are echoes of this sentiment—wanting to contribute to the greater good—amongst young people in countries around the world.

“I know they’ve always been considered an engaged generation,” Stephanie Capuano, CEO & Founder of 31st State, a UK-based youth-oriented skin and hair-care brand, tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “But I think the confluence of events in 2020, for this generation, right as they enter adulthood, it can only make activists out of them.”

“If they study business and they go and launch their own businesses or they go work at Morgan Stanley to be a good business leader, that’s one way. I think if they decide to go into education, they will view that as their form of activism to educate the next generation of kids. If it’s health care, in providing more access to people and valuing health care in our society.”

When Time interviewed teens and young adults for its June 1-8 edition titled “Generation Pandemic,” the magazine quoted Maria Victoria Cardenas Guerra, an 18-year-old in Buenos Aires. “I don’t know if this pandemic will make us—our generation—paranoid,” she said. “But I think it will make us really involved in everything from health to economic to political issues…After all, this pandemic shows us how far we can go when we do what is best for everyone.”

Guerra plans to study political science and economics at the University of Buenos Aires so she can “positively influence people’s lives.”

As Oprah Winfrey put it in her online commencement speech to this year’s US college graduates, “never has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose and vision, passion and energy and hope.”

The pandemic, she said, has revealed doctors, nurses, teachers, grocery store workers, cashiers and cleaners as the essential workers keeping society afloat. To her audience, she asked: “What will your essential service be?”

Where the jobs are

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National Youth Council Singapore
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Some job-seekers reckon their essential service is whatever they can get.

“The biggest worry is just landing a job,” Catherine Chia, 19, said in a recent video on youth and job prospects by Singapore’s National Youth Council. In the same video, 25-year-old Goh Wei En spoke of submitting multiple applications and attending multiple interviews only to be disappointed because companies could no longer afford to hire.

With sectors like travel, luxury, dining and entertainment decimated, recruiters are steering young people to fields that are still growing, such as e-commerce, logistics, telemedicine and other digital-related services.

Some recruiters say a years-long discord between traditional university education and practical job skills may be coming to a head.

“I see a huge mismatch in terms of skills,” said Joanna Yeoh, a director of ConnectOne, a Singapore talent solutions consultancy for Southeast Asian tech start-ups, who also appeared in the National Youth Council video.

“Your degree is like a gun. But you currently have no bullets. People tell me, I want to do marketing. I say, do you know SEO? Can you create a social media campaign? They look at you like a deer in headlights,” Yeoh tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “We need to almost go back to medieval times – with apprenticeships.”

Life lessons

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Tara Kripalani
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Zoe Maisara Azlan

Even as they grapple with the future, for some teens, the pandemic has prompted introspection and resilience, and perhaps the beginnings of the kind of emotional maturity many employers seek.

Zoe Maisara Azlan, a 19-year-old in Kuala Lumpur, has spent the lockdown continuing virtual Japanese language classes at home and cooking. She’s got one more year of high school and is hoping to get a scholarship to study in Japan, possibly speech therapy or marine biology or food science. “I used to take my life for granted,” she said. “I’m really grateful I have a comfortable home to stay in, with wifi and aircon.”

Kripalani, the Singaporean teen, has been working at a hospital, registering cancer patients. She wears a face mask and checks their appointments; makes sure they have no Covid-19 symptoms.

“This job has given me perspective,” she said. “Sometimes when I’ve been here for six hours and I’m really tired and fed up and still have to smile and register patients, I’m reminded that I don’t have anything to complain about. Some patients are really young and they are going through palliative care.”

Main image by Iris Wang, courtesy of Unsplash.