Call it the Coronavirus Class. The cohort born between 1997 and 2012, roughly the children of Generation X, will be uniquely affected by the coronavirus crisis. The youngest members of the cohort are in second or third grade, and the oldest of those who attended a four-year college are just coming into the job market. In other words, almost the entire cohort has experienced the shutdown of schools, the missed classes and activities, and the altered educational trajectory. And the oldest are coming into a job market that will have profoundly changed from the one they thought they were preparing for.
The previous cohort, Generation Y, or the Millennials, experienced the Great Recession, and those in various parts of the cohort experienced the downturn differently. For the Covid Cohort, everyone is experiencing the same interruption of education. But the position in the cohort is again important. The oldest will struggle to reorient themselves right at the beginning of their careers, while the younger members will be able to alter their educational, job and entrepreneurial plans to align with new economic realities as they emerge. Where there is great peril there is also great opportunity.
Figure 1 shows the population pyramid for the United States in 2018. It shows the commonly used cohorts in 15-year brackets which correspond fairly closely to the generally accepted years of each cohort.
The pattern is clear: more parents means more kids. The larger boomer generation gave us the large Gen Y, or Millennial cohort. The smaller Gen X cohort, in turn, gives us the smaller Gen Z. The next generation, Alpha, is shown at the bottom, with the under-5 age group. The Millennials are off to a slow start with this new cohort, the Great Recession having delayed family formation for many of them.
A major question that the Gen Z cohort will help answer is the degree to which the coronavirus crisis, and the resulting economic and demographic shifts, leads to changes in migration patterns. As with young generations before, the Millennials moved around the country in search of opportunity, and landed in in large numbers in places like the Seattle area. So where does this cohort start? Figure 2 shows the share of the population that Gen Z comprises in the 30 largest states.
Since this generation has not started to migrate in large numbers, the variation is due to other factors. States with older population simply have fewer younger families. But in the case of Washington and Oregon, the state demographics have skewed the population in the direction of the prior generation. So many Millennials have moved to these two metro areas that what might be a normal distribution of cohorts gets distorted. We see this in Figure 3, which shows the Gen Z share in Washington counties.
King County, the yellow bar, has a low share of its population in Gen Z, sharing space on the chart with counties known for much older populations. King County has attracted so many Millennials that the population structure is quite distorted. And because King County is such a large share of the state, the state’s Gen Z share gets lowered below the national average shown in the upper red bar. The orange bar in Figure 2 shows the Gen Z share of the state after removing King County, and it is almost exactly the national share.
The ethnic composition of the Millennial generation was heavily influenced by the large national increase in immigration that began in the 1980s, and the Millennials are known as the most diverse generation in U.S. history. Well, Gen Z is even more diverse. School districts around the state conduct an enrollment survey each year that includes race and ethnicity data, so we can get an accurate reading of the composition of each of the cohorts.1. Figure 4 shows the ethnic composition of the Millennial and Gen Z cohorts in school districts in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
In each county, Gen Z has a lower share of its cohort identifying as white. King County shows significant growth in the Asian share of the generation, and all counties show growth in the Hispanic share. It is likely that the members of the cohort who were attending private schools during these periods skewed toward white students. In King County, where private schools are more common, the white share of each cohort is likely larger.
Anecdotal reports from early in the coronavirus crisis indicate that young people are sticking close to their family homes. As the economy gets going again, and opportunities begin to emerge, we will see new, and as yet unknown, migration and settlement patterns on the part of Gen Z. Gen Y was marked by strong migration to the “superstar” Metro areas like Seattle and the Bay Area. But the lockdown has challenged assumptions about agglomeration economics and the imperative for high skill workers to be in close proximity to one another in large headquarters campuses.
The degree to which there are permanent changes in assumptions about business locations and employee flexibility will influence the migration preferences of Gen Z. If this generation does not feel the need to be at the Head Shed, it opens vast possibilities of locations and lifestyles.
- The cohorts were derived as follows. Generation Y is taken from all student enrolled in the 2001-2002 school year, plus 11th and 12th grades from the 1999-2000 school year. Generation Z is taken from all students enrolled in the 2017-2018 school year, plus 11th and 12th grade students from the 2015-2016 school year.