By Marsha Loda, Ph.D., and Michael Dugan, Ph.D.
The after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown will reveal many unintended consequences from a consumer behavioral perspective. While research varies, reports suggest varying amounts of time for a new behavior to become a habit. The COVID-19 lockdown has exceeded six months and counting, likely ample time for new behaviors to become ingrained and habitual. Consequently, many daily behaviors could be permanently changed.
Behaviors that often come to mind as the “new normal” include frequency of eating at restaurants, air travel, wearing masks, and commuting to work. However, the list of consequences could be much more unexpected and far reaching. One example concerns Generation Z, young adults born between 1997-2012. While previous research dubs this sizable cohort “Digital Natives” as they were raised on the internet and social media, new qualitative research suggests that a surprisingly large percentage (41.3%) self-report that, due to circumstances related to COVID, they are less fond of technology than they were before the pandemic started.
This finding is from written responses to a voluntary extra credit question on a midterm exam in the business school of a university in the southeastern United States. Students were advised that there was no right or wrong answer to this question: Since the pandemic started, it is common for people to work more often from home on their laptops or personal computers. Has this experience left you more or less fond of technology? Please explain if your attitudes have shifted or not and why/how.
This strong, negative response to technology was unexpected, especially from the younger generation, and consequences could be far-reaching to an economic infrastructure becoming more technologically focused. While the data are still being mined, one clear attitude shift surfacing from this research is that these young adults are less likely to return to their computers for entertainment after a day of working or taking classes online (”once I complete schoolwork and work, I turn all technology off in the house because I’m over it” and “I no longer use my computer for leisure”). In short, they equate computers with work now, not fun. Additionally, frustration with usability and technical issues is also apparent (“using technology more, I have noticed more flaws” and “I can see how much work technology needs”).
Consumer behavior is often a pendulum that swings from one extreme to the other. Some impacts are passing trends while others can have significant and lasting impact.
Trend: when most communication is on the internet, it is the hand-written note that stand out.
Significant impact: the lasting lack of job loyalty by a younger generation who witnessed parents laid off during the recession.
“Being on computers all day is now something you have to do which takes the fun out of it,” said one Digital Native. Is this the tip of the iceberg, or an ice cube? More study is certainly warranted. And is the attitude shared or even more extreme in K-12 grades as all their lessons went online?
A mere six months ago, Gen Z demanded safe spaces when confronted with offending ideas. Now their world has been turned upside down and they report feeling “devasted.” Every generation has its defining moment. Indeed, this is theirs.
Because Gen Z will soon be America’s largest age group, there is a lot at stake. Certainly, one way to increase the odds is to decrease frustration by users. While this research involved a small sample of 47 students, that number is large enough for normal curve distribution. If some 40% of today’s Gen Z cohort is less fond of technology, then what? As a first step, it seems that more intuitiveness and digital empathy from tech companies and programmers is in order.