By Gil Corr

 

This pandemic season has been significant for all of us. Lifestyles have changed for good, new language has been introduced to our vernacular, new industries have emerged while others have fallen. Complex debates have come to the fore around social responsibility, new technologies, and how we do life. For everyone, these past few years have been momentous.

But for our future generations, this historical moment hasn’t just been something to live through; it’s been something that will define their coming of age. For the emerging generations, this will define their worldview, culture, lifestyle and engagement with the gospel unlike any other generation.

We were able to speak with Ashley Fell, Director of Advisory for McCrindle Research and co-author of Generation Alpha: Understanding our Children and Helping them thrive. Ashley has a wealth of knowledge on how this pandemic has affected our younger generations and what that means for leaders of faith communities today.

How has change fatigue from this pandemic affected generation Z and Alpha? Has this been different from other generations? 

This global pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on a worldwide scale. From how we shop, to how we work, engage in community, learn, educate, contribute and lead, COVID-19 and our response is marking a significant societal shift. The impacts of which will be felt even after the virus is kept under control. All of this change is truly unprecedented, especially for the younger generations who have only read about similar responses to a crisis of this scale in history books.

While people of all generations have been impacted by COVID-19, it stands to define those who are coming of age during it, with more than four in five adults we surveyed (84%) agreeing that the COVID-19 pandemic will play a significant role in shaping the children of today. Both the virus itself and the response has already influenced the next generation’s sentiment, behaviour and lifestyle. The impacts will continue beyond when it is kept under control, and we emerge out of ‘iso’ (isolation), as many Gen Zeds are calling it. This virus and the world’s response to it is set to shape the emerging generations and their future for many years to come.

While these uncertain times can cause justified anxiety and concern, it is also in these times that we see community and human connectedness shining brightly. In challenging times, we see the positive and resilient aspects of the human spirit as we come together to respond to a changing world. This is true of the emerging generations as well, as this once in a century crisis stands to shape them and their future.

What does ‘digital integration’ look different between generations?

While every generation today is digital in some way, Generation Y, Generation Z and Generation Alpha are digital in more extreme ways because they have grown up in the digital world. While older generations might be ‘digital migrants’ who have migrated to using commonplace technologies, Gen Z and Gen Alpha are more ‘digital natives’ for whom technology is seamlessly integrated into every aspect of their life. This is especially the case for Generation Alpha, for these devices and technologies have been a part of their life since their birth, affecting how they see, engage and interact with the world. 

Many of us will have seen firsthand the different approaches of Generation Alpha to technology. While Gen Z children probably didn’t receive their first digital devices until their late primary school years, and the device was most likely for school, Generation Alpha children have typically had access to a device from their youngest years. From asking questions of the smart speaker like, ‘Hey Google, what time will the sun rise tomorrow?’ to watching YouTube videos of teens playing Fortnite, Generation Alpha are true digital integrators. 

What does ‘well-being’ look like for these emerging and present generations?

One of the biggest impacts of COVID-19 was on people’s health – not just their physical health but their mental health, wellbeing and resilience. When asked about the biggest impacts of social isolation, Generation Z was most likely to say that boredom (51%), less physical activity (47%) and increased feelings of loneliness (41%) were impacting them the most and significantly more so than any other generation. They are also the most likely to see the negative impacts of screen time in their lives (31% Gen Z compared to 25% Gen Y, 14% Gen X and 17% Baby Boomers).

The emerging generations were also more likely to say they experienced increased anxiety and stress. Almost half (49%) of Gen Z said they felt anxious about the unfolding COVID-19 situation, with one in four (25%) saying the biggest negative impact of COVID-19 has been on their mental health (more so than any other generation). The fact that these generations have never lived through anything like this before is a reason for their increased anxiety.

Another is that they were a ‘more anxious’ generation even before COVID-19. Currently, around one in four young people aged 15 to 19 years meet the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness. Of concern, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of young people meeting this criteria over the last few years. This is also reflected in the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America report, which concluded in 2019 that Generation Z adults indicated the highest average stress level of any demographic.

Younger generations are also more likely than their older counterparts to believe the COVID-19 experience will have a negative impact on the next generation of children’s mental health (88% Gen Z and 71% Gen Y, compared to 69% Gen X, 50% Baby Boomers and 48% Builders). Keeping this in mind as we lead, communicate, engage and educate the next generation will be key to helping them thrive and flourish during COVID-19 and into the future.

Exploring spirituality has been on the increase through this pandemic. What has this meant for generation Z and Alpha?

Our research has found that Australians are not just open to spirituality; they are spiritually hungry. Our in-depth interviews with Christian leaders show that they believe change, hardship, and crises can often cause a spiritual opening, as people are forced to think deeply about what matters. The COVID-19 pandemic is a significant example of spiritual opening across the world.

Pre-existing social trends, such as family breakdown, declining mental health and rising loneliness, point to a lack of fulfilment among Australians, despite the relative wealth and stability in our

country. Australians, particularly the younger generations, are becoming more open to spirituality as they search for community, connection and meaning in their lives.

While the core message of the gospel is unchanging, we believe it is important for churches to remain adaptable in a world that is constantly changing. An effective way for churches to keep across cultural change is to ensure younger members of the Church have opportunities to serve and lead. Engaging the next generation can encourage the sharing of new information and ideas, ensuring the Church remains culturally relevant.

This is also important for engaging with the younger generations outside the Church, where ‘peer to peer’ evangelism is an effective approach for sharing the gospel with the next generation. Ensuring young people are equipped and empowered to serve in the Church is vital for the sustainability of the Church. This requires relevant training and engagement strategies such as mentoring programs, apprenticeship pathways and leadership development infrastructure.

From a human perspective, the changing social, cultural, religious, and demographic trends were already providing challenges for the Church – and then came COVID. Yet our conviction, after completing extensive research throughout 2020 and 2021, is that the Church in Australia has the commitment of leaders, the innovation of approach and the pipeline of emerging generations to enable it to thrive into the future.

For leaders in Young Adult, Youth or Children’s ministry, what would be areas worth focusing on over the next 12-24 months? 

The emerging generations are the most uncertain about the future, having never lived through a crisis of this scale or magnitude before. Therefore, it is important for leaders of the emerging generations to provide context, reassurance and leadership during this crisis. Ensuring that clear and confident communication is maintained will help these generations to understand the changes around them and be best positioned to respond in the future.

Another way we can lead the next generation is to be aware of the fact they feel less emotionally resilient than older generations. In times of uncertainty and change, it is important for leaders to be checking in with people regularly about their well-being. This is even truer for the emerging generations who have indicated they feel less emotionally resilient and more uncertain about the unfolding COVID-19 situation than their older counterparts.

Another way we can help these emerging generations during tough times is to not only prioritise self-care when needed but encourage them to shift their focus outward and extend help or compassion to others. As we know from the Bible, it is when we take the focus off ourselves and show empathy and compassion to others that we gain perspective, and while we make a difference to others, it also often serves us in the process.

 

What is sure is that the way in which we practise our faith upon returning to life in closer proximity with each other will have a significant impact on future generations. There is a sense that the Church has a significant opportunity to engage and disciple future leaders and disciples of Jesus.

 

For more information about Ashley’s book, click here.