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Perspective | Magazine

I’ve been sheltering in place my whole life and I’m over it

Generation Z’s world view is shaped by terrorist attacks, active shooter drills, and now a pandemic. We’re going to change things.

Adobe Stock images; Globe staff photo illustration

I was 3 years old in 2001, when America suffered its deadliest terrorist attack. I don’t remember what the world looked like before it. Gen Zers like me grew up traveling in high-security airports, surfing a highly-surveilled and monetized Web, and trying to make an uneasy peace with this new and never-ending war on terror. Experts predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will bring similar world-tilting changes, ones that we aren’t even aware of yet.

Right now, a lot of us from my generation are missing out on major coming-of-age milestones: proms, graduations, and other traditions are getting canceled or postponed indefinitely. I found out through a mass e-mail that my last semester of college was being moved online, and my peers and I are dreading entering a job market likely to be ravaged by a major recession. Meanwhile, teens and twentysomethings everywhere are having to shelter in place during what should be some of the most formative and exciting times of their lives, trying to preserve relationships and experiences via FaceTime and Zoom.


The coronavirus impact is just the latest layer of childhood trauma for a generation that has already been through a lot. We were just kids at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. I remember sheltering in place while police conducted a statewide manhunt. Suddenly, it seemed to me, terrorists could be anywhere. “Stay away from big crowds and parades,” my mom warned me afterward. “Don’t go into the city. Be aware of your surroundings.”

The warning about large gatherings turned into warnings about movie theaters, restaurants, and schools. Each time another mass shooting was reported, going out got a little bit scarier. I started searching for emergency exits in concert venues and theaters. In high school, we began practicing school-shooting drills, huddling in the corners of our classrooms.


The ever-present fear only intensified as climate change reports started getting more bleak, foreshadowing a future of famine and natural disasters. We would read these reports while we filled out college applications and tried focusing on our coursework, unsure of what the world would look like once we were settled into the lives we’d been working so hard for.

It’s no surprise that Gen Zers are more likely than members of any other generation to report their mental health as fair or poor, according to a 2018 survey by the American Psychological Association. At least 27 percent of Gen Zers struggle with their mental health, compared with 13 percent of Gen Xers and only 7 percent of baby boomers.

It’s easy for others to dismiss the Gen Z experience during this pandemic as minimal. We appear to be far less likely to die from COVID-19 than our elders, and once we’re past this, we’re still just at the start of adulthood. Those of us who’ve lost jobs will get new ones before long, and our parents will help us out if they can, so maybe it’s OK that a lot of us won’t receive stimulus checks. But Gen Z will experience life differently than other generations will.

The pandemic is a “generation-defining moment” for Gen Z, says Jason Dorsey, president and lead researcher of the Center for Generational Kinetics, a Gen Z and millennial research firm in Austin, Texas. “It’s an event that causes you to stop in your tracks and look at the world differently,” he says. “And once that sense of vulnerability is out, you can’t put it back. You’ll always remember it.”


Worse, we young people were raised on 24/7 social media, and it has felt like an assault throughout this and other societal crises. “The news of the world has been constant, endless, and very emotional,” Dorsey says. That constant influx of information may also desensitize some of my generation to bad news, which could explain the lack of precautions taken by young people when social distancing instructions first went out.

Or maybe not. Maybe that was all just kids being kids: reluctant to cancel our fun spring break trips, unable to keep up with the ever-changing news cycles, carelessly confident that this wouldn’t affect our youthful bodies.

This pandemic is no joke, and we all need to pull our weight to fight it — members of Gen Z included. But while young people’s feelings aren’t the priority in this crisis, they are valid. Most of us are still just kids, and this historic pandemic is just the beginning of another traumatic wave that will alter the way we live.

The truth is that, in some ways, Gen Z is prepared for this all-new existential hurdle. Thanks to the chaotic times we’ve grown up in, we’ve built up emotional antibodies that will help us maintain resilience. Plus, we’re all coming of political age; I believe soon we’ll be using the skills we learned in our lifelong panic mode to bring about substantial change. We’ll come out of this on the other side ready to fight: for sustainability, for freedom, and for a reality where we aren’t afraid.



Monica Petrucci is a writer and digital assistant at Culture Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.