The pandemic is slowing down Gen Z’s futures, but they actually have less to worry about than other generations. A psychologist explains why.

The oldest members of Gen Z are seeing their lives upended during a pivotal life stage. Marin Tomas/Getty Images
  • The oldest members of Gen Z are facing uncertain education and job prospects in the crucial period known as emerging adulthood.
  • Emerging adults – those ages 18 to 25 – tend to grapple with their identity and future.
  • The psychologist behind the concept told Business Insider that the pandemic will compound these feelings and slow down older Gen Zers, but that he thinks they will “shrug it off” in the long run.
  • They have less at stake than older generations, he said, who might suffer more severe consequences.
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The oldest members of Gen Z are staring down an uncertain road.

High school seniors are oscillating between a difficult choice: A virtual college experience or deferring for a year. Meanwhile, college graduates are considering new career paths in the face of a grim economy to avoid falling behind.

And it’s all happening during a pivotal life stage: emerging adulthood. Coined by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, the term describes the period between adolescence and adulthood that mainly spans ages 18 to 25 (the oldest Gen Zer turns 23 this year).

It’s a time already characterised by uncertainty as young adults struggle to answer big identity questions on who they are and what they want out of life. “Even in the good times, young adults feel they’re falling behind and not making enough progress,” Arnett, visiting psychology professor at Tufts University and author of “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties,” told Business Insider.

These feelings are bound to become even more complicated amid the chaos of a pandemic, which Arnett said will slow down the oldest Gen Zers. Already challenging things like education and finding a job will become even more difficult, he said.

But, he added, the age at which you finish college or find a job in your 20s isn’t significant. “It seems like it matters, especially when you haven’t found it yet,” he said. “But in the course of a lifetime, it doesn’t seem to matter that much.”

The pandemic may compound what is already an emotionally difficult time for emerging adults, but it’s a positive that they also have less at stake.

While the pandemic is disruptive for older Gen Zers, Arnett said he thinks it could be more catastrophic for older generations who have a long-term commitment to a career and financial obligations. Young adults don’t yet have responsibilities and debt and have less commitment to the structure of an adult life, he said.

Arnett also said he thinks that Gen Z’s comfort with technology will be beneficial during these troubling times. He said that while parents and grandparents are “groaning” over learning how to use Zoom and FaceTime, these tools are second nature to Gen Z and will help them connect with others.

But whether the older cohort of Gen Z experiences a significant delayed onset into adulthood depends on how long the pandemic lasts. Arnett anticipates it enduring for a year or two, but says he’s hopeful that there won’t be long-term consequences for the generation.

“Most emerging adults will shrug it off and go on,” he said.

He added: “I wouldn’t make light at all of the challenges they face. But they will still be able to pick up the pieces and move on.”