Even before the pandemic, there was evidence among some 18- to 22-year-olds of a pendulum swing away from some technology. These digital natives recognized a need for in-person social interaction and a real-life community. Generation Z may have proven that they could form meaningful relationships in the digital realm, but they also understand that it was not a full replacement for human contact.

The good news is that the Gen Z’s tech-savvy nature made this cohort of students somewhat more prepared for the rapid shift to online education that took place in 2020. On the other hand, this necessary shift was met with varying degrees of success in part because of its troubling impact on social interaction.

When schools shut down in the spring of 2020, Scion saw many students opt to remain in their educational communities. For those already in off-campus student housing, there were only modest drops in occupancy during the height of the pandemic. In April 2020, as the nation shut down, Scion observed physical occupancy rates in the low 80% range in off-campus, purpose-built student housing. Citing the need to stay connected to write papers, take exams, and so on, young people often did not return to their families’ homes. They stayed in the environment most conducive to their studies and where they hoped to retain some sense of community among peers.

Grieving lost moments

In interviews, students who opted to stay home for the 2020-2021 school year tended to express regrets about this lost opportunity for in-person social interaction as their friends moved onto campus. Graduating high school seniors were “ready to launch” and those who started college in Fall 2020 reported profound sadness from being denied earned rites of passage including such momentous events as high school graduation ceremonies, prom, and significant parts of the first-year college process. While a year may seem like a brief moment in time, for incoming college students it was a highly formative time they expected to spend creating lasting memories. Students who stayed home delayed that first roommate or residence hall experience, or the fun of hanging out on the quad with new friends. For many students, losing a single year might mean losing the opportunity to play a college sport or study abroad.

Another result of this loss has been a shared desire across Gen Z to reclaim a sense of youthfulness. For a generation that had long been considered to have lost its childhood— having been pushed to compete at a young age in preparation for higher education, suffered high rates of stress, and had their play time carefully scheduled by parents to provide balance to screen time—this sense loss has been deeply felt.

This yearning for an elongated adolescence has left this generation wanting a “typical” college experience. Students today talk about their desire to live more fully, once COVID-19 vaccinations are more widespread. They anticipate hanging out in crowded bars, going dancing, and attending concerts, ballgames and religious services—being out in the world and together with their peers.

Balancing in-person and online social interaction

Longing for connection could drive an uptick in craving for communal activities. Housing officers will want to consider the impact this may have on campus housing and provide housing offerings that make space for this generation to rejoin the college or university community—and perhaps regain some lost rites of passage.

It is important that housing professionals be mindful of amenity and common area usage, as the tendency may be for residents to not comply with recommended social distancing requirements that may remain in effect. In focus group discussions, many students assumed that most of their peers will get COVID-19. It is an attitude both dismissive of the risk, but also defeated by it, and it impacts their willingness to comply with safety recommendations.

For all their talk, this generation is not known for its partying attitude. After all, Gen Z has placed an incredibly high value on higher education. This is a generation that drinks less, and is statistically less sexually active, than other generations. It is also a generation that has been long accustomed to building meaningful relationships through technology. While they are craving opportunities to be together in person, prioritizing these types of community outings may be a big shift for many Gen-Zers accustomed to having most of their social interactions on a screen.

This is a trend that housing officers will want to watch carefully. The higher education experience is well known as a time of transition, but housing officers will play a key role in keeping students safe during their evolution.

For more, download our full research on Welcoming Back Gen Z Residents in a Post-Pandemic World or register for our upcoming webinar.

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