How will COVID-19 change us?

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Take it day by day.

I’ve been doing a reasonably good job of this task since we started this whole stay-at-home-at-all-costs social distancing thing. (What day are we on now? Somewhere around day 10,209,106?)

But for some reason, today has me doing a lot of thinking about how COVID-19 will change us as a society – and particularly how it will change this current crop of teenagers and young adults.

First, it seems like there is no way there will not be lasting effects to such a dramatic event. I look at my two teenagers and think about how they and so many others are in their formative years. What lessons are they learning right now – about what is important, what to prioritize, and how they should live?

Here are a few things I think just might change because COVID-19 brought so many of us to a screeching halt.

  1. More than ever, young people will likely view online social relationships as “real relationships.” Like it or not, teens often have online friends that they have not met in real life. They meet them in a variety of ways – through online gaming, through social networking and through friends of friends of friends they know in real life. Right now, one thing that is really interesting is that there is no distinction between young people’s online friends and their face-to-face ones – because all of those relationships are being pushed to a virtual platform. It’s hard to fully know the implications of this, but it feels important.
  2. A brick-and-mortar educational experience may feel less necessary. It’s been striking to me how easily my teenagers have actually had their learning move online. Minus band practices and soccer, they really don’t seem to be missing much in the way of education – minus the socialization piece – and they are compensating there by taking their socialization more online. Because I have a high school freshman and sophomore, we have been looking a lot lately at the cost of college. It’s striking how much money a family like mine could save by having a student attend college online while living at home. While this might be hard for some fields, many students could likely learn very effectively online. The same could be true of middle and high school students. Do they really need to go to a building every day? What would they have time to explore outside of school if they didn’t?
  3. Intellectuals, public servants and creatives are the new rock stars. Think about who is getting us through this time. Have you ever felt this much gratitude for scientists – particularly researchers who are racing to create a vaccine? Haven’t you been impressed by how quickly our public school teachers have pivoted, shifting learning online and through distance learning packets with almost no notice? Have you seen all the parents, newly home with their students and saying something like, “wow. I had no idea teachers DID all of this stuff, and maybe they should be paid more to do it?” How many young people – and families – have enjoyed coming together for virtual dance parties, author readings and free virtual concerts? The creatives of the world are continuing to create, and it is getting many of us through. This experience has given all of these groups a newly elevated status. I suspect they will get to keep it as this current generation comes of age.
  4. Planning to work very hard in a single career for a lifetime may start to feel a little too risky. We still spend a lot of time asking our young people questions like “what do you want to do when you grow up?” We want them to identify a career, get themselves some training or an education, and stick with it. But wow! Did any of us adequately plan professionally for the way that COVID-19 has disrupted our world? Today’s young people are likely going to grow up dramatically more aware that even the best plans are fragile. There is going to be a continued need to be able to adjust – to shift time and time again, as circumstances in this world change. Maybe that means spending less time asking what you are going to DO when you grow up and more time considering who you want to BE? Careers may have a lot less to do with personal identity. That, I think, might be a good thing.
  5. A government that cares for people in a crisis is a good thing. In America, we like to idealize self-reliance. There is a faction of our people who have come to have a knee-jerk reaction against any form of government safety net. Have you noticed that these folks are very quiet right now? We are realizing that we need our public health officials. We need the CDC to be effective and to work well and to be well funded. We need things like unemployment benefits and tax breaks and grants to get us through bad times that we just plain couldn’t avoid. We need shelter in place orders and curfews to help protect us from others around us who might not always honor our health needs, causing hospitals to be overwhelmed. We need policies that are created with the interest of all people – not just a select few – in mind.

I don’t have a crystal ball, of course – if I did, I promise I would tell you when we are going to come out of this thing so you could plan accordingly. But it feels like these are changes that are inevitable.

I don’t think that they are all good or bad changes – just changes. But today’s teens and young adults will inevitably be shaped by this experience – that much seems clear. And the rest of us? We had better be prepared to pivot and shift like crazy. Flexibility and creativity and innovation are what will get us through.

Take care, friends. Stay well. Be smart.

Now, let’s get back to just taking this thing day by day.

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