Elder Z Insights: Pandemic Edition

Gen Z was taking their first meaningful steps into the world when the novel Coronavirus came and established a new norm. Check out our update on how COVID-19 impacted the upper echelon of this generation amid a global pandemic.


Defining and understanding Generation Z as they venture into making their mark economically on the world is a growing focal point for brands. Studying Gen Z’ers, born between 1998-2013, was a primary focus for Fountainhead Brand Strategy prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research concentrated on their habits and purchasing power, as well as the most meaningful tactics to reach this cohort.

We focused primarily on the oldest members of Gen Z, those born between 1998-2004, dubbed by our research and insights team as “Elder Z.” This group is on the cusp of increased earning potential and more relevant to the economy and marketers than ever before.

We wondered if the same insights we uncovered in 2019 were still relevant and true amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. So, we embarked on our second wave of research while COVID-19 was in full swing – and we learned which previous themes stayed consistent and what changes Elder Z made to adjust to the pandemic lifestyle.


We conducted our Elder Z pandemic research between September 30 and October 16, 2020. Respondents totaled 1,210, giving us a stout cross section of participants throughout the United States.

  • Ages 16-22
  • 50/50 Female to Male ratio
  • Varied education levels
  • Ethnically diverse
  • Economically diverse
  • Geographically diverse, across regions and settings (25% urban, 42% suburban and 33% rural/small town)

Elder Z Key Themes: Pre-Pandemic Insights

To understand the shifts in patterns, we first must understand what was trending before the pandemic started.

Prior to COVID-19, our research team studied cultural touchpoints that united individuals across this generation. The reason generation-specific content feels relevant and true to each cohort can be accredited to shared experiences. The pandemic has been a new formative thread that has created patterns and behaviors likely to have a lasting impact on this cohort.

Here are some of the common threads we saw in Elder Z prior to 2020:

  • Honesty and authenticity are valued and highly esteemed (like their Millennial predecessors)
  • Anxiety and mental health awareness are strong undercurrents in the lives of this cohort
  • Social media is a key part of the Elder Z lifestyle. Not only are they consuming content, creating and innovating content across multiple platforms, they consider social a vital source of information and entertainment.

Elder Z Key Themes: Post-Pandemic Insights

Education and the Workforce

As COVID-19 became an increasing concern for the world at large, the Elder Z generation, as true digital natives, were able to quickly adapt to an almost exclusively online world. That said, they weren’t without their struggles.

About 78% of those surveyed said COVID-19 had a negative impact on their education. Elder Z had to adjust to the loss of social interactions with teachers and peers, which for a group that already experiences much of the world through their smartphone, heightened feelings of anxiety and loneliness. Because 59% of this group lives with their parents, they’ve also lost their dedicated study spaces and for some of the poor or rural communities, the loss of access to reliable internet.

This monumental shift is expected to have not only have long lasting effects on this cohorts’ educational preferences such as in class vs. online classes, but it could also affect what kind of jobs they seek. Because of the effort this group put into helping stop the spread of COVID-19, pursuing work with companies who handled the well-being of their employees seriously can likely be top of mind for Elder Z. For brands recruiting new talent, consider meeting this group in spaces that are comfortable to them. For example: using apps like TikTok to increase brand visibility and test their new recruitment and career features. Elaborating on what safety procedures your brand implemented in a fun TikTok can enhance recruiting efforts while also building brand affinity.

Stopping the Spread

This cohort demonstrated their deep commitment to community and authenticity by taking the concerns about coronavirus seriously:

  • Nearly 80% were concerned about the impact COVID-19 could have on their communities
  • 64% were completely committed to following restrictions to do their part in stopping the spread
  • And they were 65% more likely to dine or shop in places that adhere to proper COVID-19 protocols such as wearing masks, enforcing social distancing, and taking additional sanitation precautions to help keep patrons safe. 

The concern for the global safety and well-being was top of mind for Gen Z throughout 2020—causing a halt on some big events. Delays in graduation, in-person celebrations, loss of jobs or financial struggles, and difficulty in maintaining friendships were just a few of the things Elder Z had to put aside to deal with the pandemic at hand.

We are unsure of the impact “stopping the spread” habits will have on how this group prefers to interact IRL in a post pandemic world. Prior to Covid, about 49% agreed that going out with friends was an enjoyable activity. With the pandemic in full swing, enjoying going out with friends was down to 30%. The trend of a virtual meet up or a hybrid mix seems likely to continue and marketers are taking notice.

Take for example the 5k fundraiser hosted earlier this year by the Boys and Girl Club of America Austin, which allowed people to participate in person or from a treadmill in the comfort of their own home. This was a great tactic to address the sense of community a 5k brings while keeping people safe by offering a hybrid option.

Pandemic Anxiety

A continued common thread within this generation is an increased sense of anxiety, which was already prevalent in the Elder Z generation prior to COVID-19. Financial pressures and parental relationships were among the top sources for increased anxiety. With a 59% majority of those surveyed living at home with their parents amid the pandemic, it’s no wonder that anxiety was a prevalent emotion among Elder Z.

Even with anxiety looming over this cohort, Elder Z showed some differentiation in the overall attitude, optimism, and feelings towards the coronavirus across gender, financial and cultural lines.

Here are a few things our research uncovered about Elder Z:

  • More affluent Elder Z’s were more likely than lower-income people of color (POC) to leave their house for things other than essentials, like visiting friends or shopping or dining out at their local restaurants
  • People of color were taking the coronavirus and its potential impact on their, their family and their community’s health much more seriously than their counterparts.
  • Those who identify as poor were more likely to feel anxious about the pandemic than all other income levels.
  • Males were significantly more likely to feel as if the country is overreacting to the coronavirus, disproportionate to their female and POC counterparts.

We know now that these young adults resoundingly agreed on the optimistic outcomes for a post-pandemic world: 68% said they believe that people could come together to assist each other now, both in their own households and their neighborhood.
For brands seeking to understand how best to engage this segment, a good indicator is their commitment to optimism around community, their dedication to causes that matter to them. Consider offering volunteerism opportunities and altruistic products that will garner support among Elder Z.

Social Media Use

Despite the disruptions that COVID-19 caused to Elder Z’s world, their social media activity remained a common thread. During the pandemic, Elder Z’s relied even more heavily on social platforms to be their window into the world that they couldn’t interact with IRL.

Out of our 1,210 total respondents, social media use increased with 71% estimating three or more hours of use per day in 2020. TikTok was a rising star prior to the COVID-19 pandemic with 26% engagement from this cohort, but during the pandemic, Elder Z was using this platform at a rate of 56% —making it their primary form of social media scrolling.

Geographically, Instagram was previously trending 10% higher among Elder Z living in urban/suburban environments and Facebook usage trending 15% higher in rural settings. Due to the pandemic and potential loss of employment in rural areas, we saw a 10% decrease in Facebook use and a slight increase in Instagram use from this group.

This indication correlates that social media consumption was down in groups that likely felt a higher level of anxiety regarding Covid, than in suburban groups that had an overall more stable feeling of optimism than other income groups or POC groups.

Connecting with this group through social media is meaningful, needs to be engaging, and serves as a true window into the world outside while everyone is locked inside. And with it’s increased use, marketers looking to meet Elder Z where they are would benefit from utilizing TikTok to build brand affinity.

Dining Habits

Prior to COVID-19, Elder Z favored mobile-oriented convenience when choosing a restaurant – as well taste and affordability over health—with only 10% of respondents choosing a restaurant because of their healthy options. With a newfound emphasis on overall health amid the pandemic, Elder Z has amended how and where they choose to dine. Here’s a look at how the pandemic affected their views:

  • After the emergence of COVID-19, 74% of Elder Z was interested in taking better care of their health vs. defaulting to taste or affordability  
  • 66%had financial concerns, but still chose to continue to prioritize convenience over affordability
  • 44% continued to use carry-out options, while 28% opted to dine in at a restaurant
  • 67% of 20–22-year-olds would only visit restaurants adhering to COVID-19 regulations

As the main mealtime decider of their social circle, brands and marketers should consider the stronger role health now plays in their brand story with Elder Z—while still maintaining focus on the reigning factors of affordability and convenience in their dining habits.

What Now?

A lot is still uncertain regarding COVID-19 and it’s long-lasting impact, but one thing that is certain for the marketing industry is the need to prioritize the habits and preferences of Elder Z. This new understanding of Elder Z amid a global pandemic can help brands determine the strategic and tactical shifts needed to reach this emerging, powerful consumer group in a meaningful way.

Interested in understanding how to make meaningful connections to Elder Z with your brand? Reach out to us to set up a call.