The current COVID-19 pandemic means that schools are closed, and children are at home. Much has been written about the Millennial Generation and Generation Z, which is the cohort that followed the Millennials.
According to social researchers (e.g. James Emery in Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World), members of Gen Z were born between the years of 1995 and 2010 and are today’s teenagers. This means that the children age 10 and under, who are at home right now, and who are experiencing the current “social distancing” strategy, are members of America’s newest generation — “Generation Alpha.”
This term was coined by an Australian researcher, Mark McCrindle, in 2008, who observed that by the time all members of this generation have been born, they will number almost two billion people around the globe, and will be the first generation to be born entirely in the 21st century. Most demographic experts agree that members of Generation Alpha are the children born between 2010 and 2025, observing that all the generations in recent history have a birth span of approximately 15 years.
One of the defining characteristics of each generation is a significant, common historical event or situation that members of a specific age group encounter together during their formative years. Some examples include the “Greatest Generation” (as named by well-known news anchor Tom Brokaw, who experienced the raid on Pearl Harbor and the eventual allies’ victory in World War II. The “Baby Boomers” lived through “the Sixties” together including the assassination of President Kennedy and the Vietnam War, and the “Millennials” came of age just as the terrorists’ attack of 9/11 happened.
In addition to the health ramifications, perhaps there will be another lasting effect of the Coronavirus pandemic. For sure, the growing death toll and the infectious nature of this virus will leave an enduring impact upon today’s kids who are experiencing this phenomenon together.
However, there may be another, somewhat unexpected result of this current global crisis — and that is the generational affinity that comes from experiencing something this significant together with others of the same age and in the same stage of life.
Potential Consequences of Lengthy Social Distancing
Time will tell, but there are likely to be enduring effects of this far-reaching pandemic. Depending upon the actual duration of this isolation from other people, there are habits and life patterns that are apt to develop that may persist with the members of Generation Alpha for decades to come.
This pandemic may create a new normal for today’s children that proves to be like the lasting life changes that happened following the other similar generational-defining events or seminal moments.
Here are five possible consequences of an extended time of social distancing and isolation from a broader community:
1. The Feelings of Fear and Anxiety May Continue to Grow
Today’s young people are more likely than previous generations to struggle with depression and anxiety disorders. Plus, their negative feelings are only likely to grow as a result of the current days of virtual quarantine.
The constant, pervasive nature of negative news relating to the coronavirus is quite likely to become a breeding ground for even more apprehension and worry for today’s children. Coupled with the reaction to the current crisis by parents and other influential adults, this situation is likely to develop a growing sense of foreboding and uneasiness in the lives of the next generation.
Of course, this will not be universally true, but the likelihood that the anxiety that comes from the potential of getting sick, or someone they know getting sick; compounded by the negativity in a socially isolated atmosphere will be even greater than it is now for Gen Xers and Millennials.
Church leaders, youth workers, and other caring adults would be wise to put positive and hope-filled resources into the hands of parents, other guardians and caregivers, and the children themselves during these days of crisis and pandemic.
2. Being in Seclusion May Become More of a Norm
Another long-term effect of social distancing for children is that living without the presence of other children and other influential adults in their lives may become an enduring pattern. There are some children from homes that may be accustomed to a socially isolated world much like the situation today.
For example, some homeschoolers may fit into this description. However, it’s important to remember that humans are designed by God to live in community with others, and it is especially important for followers of Christ to be actively involved in His work — the church.
One of the potential dangers of a quarantine is that the segregation from others might become “safe”, or even cozy and natural. This generation already has a natural propensity toward technology, which is a key reason why parents and church leaders alike should make it a priority to provide opportunities for some positive and healthy social interaction for kids even if that is via tech — especially if these days of social distancing increase.
3. The Creative Use of Interactive Technology Will Expand
The first wave of Generation Alpha began in 2010, which is the same year the iPad was released, Instagram was created, and when the term “app” was selected as the word of the year. It’s no wonder that this generation is very comfortable with using all kinds of technology.
This time of isolation from a larger community will certainly not be a problem for them. They have grown up with various forms of “smart” technology and are most likely used to a “virtual” world. Since today’s school-aged children are now home for longer periods of time, they will be compelled to utilize technology even more and more for their educational requirements and pursuits.
The current global crisis will very likely push this new generation toward even more creative use of technological tools. Parents, church leaders, and educators alike should expect more and more members of Generation Alpha to become creators, publishers, and entrepreneurs instead of being just consumers of virtual media.
4. The Stress of Financial Pressure May Become More Intense
One of the lasting ramifications of living through the Great Depression (1929-1939) for the “Silent Generation” of that era was the lack of finances and a scarcity mindset, and the members of the World War II generation experienced several years of shortages due to the needs of the war effort. Economic struggles are already one of the leading pressure points for any generation, and this occasion is likely to be no different for Generation Alpha.
The wide fluctuation of the Stock Market, plus the rapidly growing unemployment rate has caused a major and unprecedented reaction from the United States government. Customers have already experienced the grocery stores' lack of commodities such as toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, and medicines.
As this pandemic tarries, and as more and more travel restrictions are enforced, Generation Alpha is also expected to experience more widespread shortages in several areas. Some are predicting a rapid economic upturn once this crisis is over, but today’s children are likely to remember and experience a lasting impact of financial pressure as a result of COVID-19. Parents and other influential adults, such as grandparents and other caregivers, will need to be diligent to teach and demonstrate financial discipline during these difficult days.
5. There Will Be a Growing Number of Hurting and Non-Traditional Households
According to some authors (e.g., Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace in Generation Z: A Century in the Making), many members of today’s younger generations are already living in broken, hurting, dysfunctional, and non-traditional households. This means that the current coronavirus crisis is not going to be a good thing for many children.
Both community and church leaders must remember that there are several households out there where it will not be a positive experience for children to have more extended time at home. That means that household stress and pressure are likely to grow and have more of a lasting impact on members of Generational Alpha.
This is exactly why it will be imperative for conscientious outside influencers to stay in regular communication with both children and other household members. One youth ministry writer also put it this way:
“Churches would be wise to bolster their resources for counseling — marriage counseling, family counseling, addiction recovery, and a response to abuse. We must pray for healing and grace in homes today and be ready to provide pastoral care and help… hopefully, before it’s necessary, but we probably won’t hear about most of the heartbreak until the dust has settled.” (Facebook, April 6, 2020.)
What Does This Mean?
This COVID-19 crisis will sadly have many victims. The impact on adults and teenagers will undoubtedly be devastating, but its lasting influence is likely to be arguably greater on children.
Everyone is learning to adapt to this new normal and it’d be easy to say that today’s kids will take it all in stride, however generational history says that this will not be the case.
Caring adults must be truly compassionate and be intentional about keeping lines of real interpersonal communication open. Children and adolescents watch adults and will learn much about handling crisis situations from them.
Members of Generation Alpha are at home right now and that is likely to have a lasting effect on them.
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Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and he is also the youth pastor at Wyoming Valley Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Mel has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 40 years. He is also an author, speaker, and a consultant with churches. More information about his speaking and writing ministry can be found at www.GoingOnForGod.com. Mel has written 13 books on various aspects of youth ministry, including Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for the Church. Mel & Peggy Walker are the parents of 3 adult children—all of whom are in vocational ministry. You can follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.