Taylor Robertson wasn’t expecting his freshman year of college to end at home. The 21-year-old William & Mary junior spent most of 2020 away from his campus after classes went remote in March, and like so many other students, found that the virtual format didn’t work for him. An already-difficult academic year was even more straining because he struggled to retain information from Zoom classes. When he learned that most of his fall 2020 classes would also be online, he decided to take a semester off. What he would do if in-person classes didn’t start up again in the new year was a different, more daunting question.
A year later, Robertson’s classes are entirely in-person. His college has a vaccine and indoor mask mandate, and almost everyone he knows is living a “normal” life. His parents’ house was full for Thanksgiving this year, and he’s gathering with family again this winter at a ski resort. “People don’t want to talk about COVID anymore,” he told me. “It’s just not a thing that people enjoy doing, really. What is there to talk about with it that isn’t just a drag from the rest of the life that we want to be getting on with?”
Robertson echoes a feeling that has permeated the minds and lifestyles of many young people who have missed out on experiences, friendships, and milestones over the past two years of coronavirus disruption. There is a sense of needing to make up for lost time and reclaim a sense of normalcy, even as case counts rise and new variants take root. For these cohorts of Gen Zers and “Z-lennials” (those born roughly from 1993 to 1998), they’re once again learning and working in-person; they’re dining, drinking, and dancing indoors; they’re traveling and celebrating birthdays and holidays; and they don’t have plans to stop anytime soon—Omicron variant be damned.
It’s still too early to determine just how disruptive the Omicron phase of the pandemic will be for most Americans. The Delta variant turned out to be much more transmissible than the original strain and stunted summer celebrations with breakthrough cases and surges in unvaccinated communities, but many of the young people I spoke with for this story told me they aren’t as worried now. Part of that response comes from pandemic fatigue, but much of this feeling is a result of the new risk calculus they have developed for how they want to live their lives. As a member of this generation, I can confirm as much from what I’ve observed among friends.
“To be honest, if anything, I feel like I fall into the mindset of: I am vaccinated, so I’m just gonna, like, do me,” Jacob, a 23-year-old living in Baltimore, told me. (He asked to be identified by his first name only because his job doesn’t permit him to talk with the press.) He’ll be traveling to the United Kingdom to see his family for the holidays, if restrictions remain lifted.
Other young people I spoke with said they just haven’t kept up with COVID-related news: They’re worried about final exams, job applications, and seeing their friends before the holiday break. They want to take more trips and go to concerts. The through line I heard was a sense of exhaustion with pessimistic news and disgust at the idea of more isolation. The 2020 shutdowns and stay-at-home orders hit young people especially hard, generating a surge of new stresses that made things like dating, making friends, and learning uniquely difficult. Nearly half of Gen Zers report that the pandemic has made their educational and professional goals harder to achieve, and a similar number say the pandemic has strained their ability to make and sustain friendships, according to a recent AP-NORC survey. More than any other age cohort, young Americans report that dating and maintaining romantic relationships has been more difficult over the past 20 months. These dramatic disruptions to their adolescence and early adulthood have hit at important stages in their human development, including when the average young person is solidifying control of their executive functioning—the mental ability to carry out daily actions without distraction.
Still, young people have shown resilience. Some never stopped working in person and some continue to work remotely, but across the country, they have adapted to living with the coronavirus—taking tests, donning masks, and braving a new world with better knowledge of how to reduce risk. No one’s experience is universal; as story after story has reported over the past two years, people’s precautions during the pandemic have depended on where they live, what the political makeup of their community is, and whether they trust public-health guidelines. But many young people know that because of their age and relative health, they have some of the lowest risk for serious complications from COVID-19. Perhaps accordingly, they have had the slowest vaccine uptake this year—about two-thirds of young Americans are at least partially vaccinated—and they overwhelmingly support mask and vaccine mandates. Among the youngest of this cohort, those ages 5 to 17, the coronavirus isn’t a central fear, and most describe their home and social lives positively. Among teens, a recent FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll found that more than 70 percent have little to no fear of getting sick with COVID-19. A separate poll found that just about a third of Americans ages 13–24 are seriously concerned about getting sick or were worried about how the pandemic would unravel this fall.
“It’s been very different down here because I feel like Florida never acted like we had a pandemic,” Kelsey, a 24-year-old HR professional in Tampa, told me. (She asked to be identified by only her first name because her employer prohibits her from talking with the press.) Kelsey said she’s considered herself to be on the more cautious side of pandemic living because most of her family is immunocompromised. Though she was planning to be a teacher after graduating from college, she considered the exposure to kids to be too risky and changed careers. But life has been steadily improving since she got vaccinated earlier this year: Her first stop was Disney World, and she traveled to New York to see friends this month. “We just take the precautions as much as we can, and I feel better now that we’ve all had our booster,” she said. “I’m not as paranoid now.” She and her family are big hockey fans, so she’s looking forward to seeing the Tampa Bay Lightning play around New Year’s, and she has a February trip to Nashville that’s still on the books.
For Carisa Parrish, a child psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, it’s not strange to see young people wanting to jump back into life after such an extended period of isolation, uncertainty, and personal loss, but she also doesn’t see enough attention or acknowledgment of the smaller joys that teens and adolescents lost during the pandemic’s first year. She and her colleagues have been alarmed by the higher rates of depression and anxiety that kids, teens, and young adults have reported during the pandemic. “There has to be a certain acknowledgment of grief and bereavement, that there’s some things that just did not go how we wanted them to go, and I don’t know how you could make it up,” she told me. “Some things are just sad.” But as much as young people may mourn the loss of proms, graduations, and senior trips, they still made memories and created new milestones—some of these can be as simple as shared trends on social media, like those that teens have now romanticized on TikTok.
Part of Gen Zers’ hunger to return to normal can be traced to the fact that they are not bearing the brunt of hospitalizations and deaths. And socioeconomic privilege can isolate a number of them from the tougher realities that young people from marginalized backgrounds have had to endure. The recent FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll judging pandemic attitudes among children and teens found white kids to be the least concerned by the possibility of getting sick; Black, mixed race, and Latino teens and children were comparatively more concerned. They are also more likely to report that someone they know has been sick, hospitalized, or died from COVID-19 than their white counterparts, and these youth are also more likely to suffer more severe complications from illness. That distance, Parrish told me, may also explain why many young people might be dealing with the pandemic more abstractly now. They’ve habituated themselves to the virus’s threat because many don’t see immediate consequences from riskier behavior, and they then incorporate that experience into future calculations of risk.
“There’s this general exhaustion and burnout from all of the information” young people have gotten, “and a lot of people haven’t necessarily been directly or indirectly affected by the virus itself,” she told me. “They haven’t gotten sick; their parents haven’t gotten sick; they don’t know someone directly connected to them who has died … and that’s the general kind of invincibility of adolescence: ‘Those bad things you’re talking about, those are other people; that’s not me.’”