We research the crossroads where Generation Z members meet the workplace. As part of our work, we look at the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on university students. The initial economic indicators for young people are not reassuring. As summarized in an August report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD):
Young people risk, once more, being among the big losers of the current crisis. This year’s graduates, sometimes referred to as the “Class of Corona”, are leaving schools and universities with poor chances of finding employment or work experience in the short run. Meanwhile, many of their older peers are experiencing a second heavy economic crisis in their short careers. Initial labour market experience has a profound influence on later working life, and a crisis can have long-lasting scarring effects in terms of future employment opportunities and earnings. Not only has the crisis interrupted their skill development path but they will also bear the burden of financing high debt levels incurred by governments for measures to mitigate the immediate negative economic consequences of the crisis.
These economic observations and predictions provide the context for our observations of an unsurprising rise in depression and anxiety disorders among our students compared with a pre-pandemic baseline. Students have been speaking up more than before about the stress in their life, including concerns about employment in the short term and opportunities and earnings in the long term. In addition, students have expressed worry about the health and safety of their grandparents and about the financial security of their parents. Furthermore, some students have been grieving the COVID-related loss of a loved one.
Covid-19 takes a toll on student well-being
While these stressors are on the increase, students in the time of COVID-19 are relatively isolated from their professors and from each other, despite the wonders of videoconferencing. Students would typically be interacting with faculty in person, not only in the classroom but also through office hours, meeting for coffee, and participating in special school events together. Students would also be interacting with each other, not only in the classroom and the library but in their social life, building friendships that customarily endure long beyond the period spent studying together.
Not all students are suffering; not all students who show signs of suffering are in a crisis; and in the other direction, some students who are in fact in a crisis are skilled at concealing the signs of suffering. Generalizing is difficult because the reality is complex.
This complexity goes hand in hand with a paradox: during France’s spring lockdown, self-reported well-being actually improved for most people. As part of the CoCo project (for Coping with COVID), social scientists began to track hundreds of subjects before the lockdown began in France, obtaining daily self-reports of well-being. These self-reports quantified both positive factors (such as relaxation, happiness, and general good health) and negative factors (such as nervousness, discouragement, defeatedness, and loneliness). In general, the daily self-reports during the lockdown showed a surprising overall rise in well-being compared with the baseline period.
This general trend was not universal, however, and three defined groups trended worse, not better, in well-being during the lockdown: working-class people; residents of Paris; and people working long hours at home. These factors correspond strongly to our student population. Most of our students, regardless of their family’s socio-economic situation and their country of origin, share with working-class households an inability to afford spacious housing. All of our students were in Paris just before the start of the lockdown period, though an undetermined percentage of our students left Paris to spend the lockdown period elsewhere. And all of our students, by virtue of the nature of both the lockdown and the typical workload of a student, worked long hours at home during the lockdown.
The CoCo project conclusions thus help explain why a higher-than-typical proportion of our students has been struggling to stay well.
The 3 main factors for well-being during the lockdown
In the other direction, the CoCo researchers identified three main factors that correlated highly with well-being.* Unlike the poor well-being factors that corresponded strongly to our student population, these healthy well-being factors correlate weakly to our student population.
The first factor highly correlated with well-being was Space: people with a spacious living environment during the lockdown tended to self-report better well-being. For these purposes, living environment refers to outdoors as well as indoors, which is why the occupation with the highest-reported well-being during the first lockdown was farmers. In contrast, our students usually live in small Parisian apartments, unable to afford to pay for anything more spacious.
The second factor associated with well-being was Sharing: people who could share the task-oriented burdens of everyday life (such as cooking, laundry, cleaning, and shopping) tended to have better well-being during the lockdown. Few of our students are in life partnerships such as marriage in which such burdens are typically shared, and similarly, few can afford to hire a household employee to whom these burdens might be delegated. Most of our students, therefore, shouldered these burdens alone during the lockdown.
The final factor highly correlated with well-being was Socializing: people who were able to maintain meaningful social connections during the lockdown tended to have improved well-being. For some of our students, maintaining meaningful social connections has been relatively easy. However, other students have had unreliable Internet access, making it difficult to participate in the videoconferences that became such an important method of maintaining relationships. In addition, many of our international students, with no pre-existing network in France and only a brief period before the lockdown to develop a local network, have felt quite isolated. Once again, the CoCo study conclusions help explain why we have observed a higher-than-typical proportion of our students struggling to stay well.
The well-being paradox observed in the spring lockdown did not repeat itself in the just-ended fall lockdown in France. A follow-up study showed a nearly universal deterioration in self-reported well-being during the fall lockdown.
Whether the young people in your life are students or new professionals, they may likely be experiencing a similar situation.
Listening and caring can make a difference
Controlling the forces that undermine the well-being of our students is beyond our power, but we can help to mitigate the consequences. We can, and do, listen to students who need to talk. We encourage the involvement of health care professionals. We make reasonable accommodations for mental health challenges. And sometimes just listening and caring can make a difference. Our formal role as professors does not include pastoral care, but as a practical matter, we have had to take on that responsibility.
We encourage our readers to do the same. No matter what your situation is, by all means, take care of yourself — and if you can, take care of someone else, too.
Professor Drew Shagrin teaches courses on law, ethics, and CSR at ESCP and contributes to KPMG’s Professorship on New Generation Management at ESCP.
The professorship examines the interactions of Generation Z members within not only the workplace, but also the consumer marketplace.
*These correlations are derived in part from one of the above-linked articles, and in part from unpublished spoken remarks by the article’s co-author Jen Schradie, a sociologist at the Sciences Po Observatoire Sociologique du Changement.
Feature photo credit: Carballo – stock.adobe.com.