Thought Leadership

Scar Tissue

Jonny Hawton, Group Strategy Director at Virtue LA introduces the agency’s latest report that examines the lasting scars that the current crisis will leave on the next generation.

Jonny Hawton, Virtue LA

Group Strategy Director


I don’t think anyone would call it hyperbole to say that 2020 is a year none of us will forget. A cascade of global crises, the COVID-19 pandemic, consequential recession, and an overdue global reckoning with systemic racism, have fundamentally changed our world. Businesses and brands will need to adapt, sometimes in fundamental ways, to remain relevant.

There is no shortage of well-researched literature advising brands on how to behave and adapt during a recession or crisis. Rather than add to the noise, we chose to take a different tack. Recessions, while challenging times for everyone, companies included, are often a period of innovation and invention. As brands and products are born or redesigned for the new reality, we’ve looked at what the long term effects of this moment might be in order to equip brands with the knowledge to build something that will be relevant for the long term, not just during the next 12 months.

If we’re unlucky enough to go through the hardships of a recession during our formative years of 16-22 years old, it can leave lasting ‘scars’ that influence our behaviour throughout life.

Jonny Hawton

Lasting behavioural scars

While the challenges of a downturn can stall life plans or spark changes in our consumer behaviour, most of us return to our previous habits once the economy improves. Critically, however, research from Severen & van Benthem shows that if we’re unlucky enough to go through the hardships of a recession during our formative years of 16-22 years old, it can leave lasting ‘scars’ that influence our behaviour throughout life.

Examples of this are can be seen in the oil shock recession of the early eighties, where those who learned to drive during this time have continued to drive less and take public transport more throughout their life. More recently, the 2007-2009 Great Recession has left the scars of job and income insecurity on millennials. This enduring anxiety of instability can be seen in their decision to push back the major life moments like having children and buying a house.

Today, it’s Gen Z who face a recession during these key formative years. The scars for this generation will be deep, impacting society, culture, and business for the rest of Gen Z’s life, and potentially setting in motion profound cultural shifts that their younger peers will continue to follow.

At the start of the crisis we noticed four major shocks that were being experienced by this generation: the overnight global shutdown of many businesses; a mass WFH experiment; the health crisis due to COVID; and widespread unemployment and consequential fierce job market. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. We see signals already happening that point to how this generation will move forward and adapt to these shocks to change society for the better. Below are some of our predictions of what these behavioural scars may look like.

1. Insourcing

During the past few months, ‘How-to’ searches on Google have been spiking as we try to figure out how to do things for ourselves when traditional supply chains and services shutdown. We’ve also seen Gen Z spending time picking up new hobbies and skills, experimenting in the kitchen, and learning new languages.

We predict we’ll see a massive acceleration in Gen Z’s DIY attitude, with them demanding greater control over everything in their life, from what they buy to where they work. With this, greater demand from education and advice from trusted sources so they can create and problem solve on their own rather than outsource to third parties. We’ve seen examples of this many ways in the crisis already, from Reese Cooper selling ‘make you own Chore Coat kits’ and Shake Shack DIY burger kits to brands offering instructions on how to cut your own hair.

2. Rurmote

Even before the COVID crisis, we were seeing an urban exodus among young adults from major cities. This trend is only going to accelerate after seeing how the virus has affected major cities. We’re also seeing most people express a positive experience of WFH, for those who are lucky enough to do it. The forced mass experiment has helped push through many of the myths of lower productivity or creativity that had always held back the movement from going mainstream. Lastly, we see that Gen Z are very comfortable being alone but not lonely as they’re able to escape and be connected to friends and culture just by going online.

We predict that instead of rushing to major cities post-graduation as Millennials did, we might see a lot of Gen Z choose to be never-urban, instead recognizing the benefits offered by living outside of major cities such as lower cost of living, more space, and less stress. With more people working remotely, we’ll need to cultivate the innovation and creativity that’s forged in the chaos of cities. We’re already getting a taste of what that ‘Metaverse’ future might look like with things like the Fortnite and Travis Scott experiment, the explosion of Animal Crossing, and Snapchat’s latest AR updates.

The consequences of this shift could be ground-breaking, influencing things as wide-ranging as architecture, as people choose homes with home-office space over a garage for example, to society, with the redistribution of political ideology and wealth away from cities into more bucolic areas. It will also enable companies to hire more diverse talent who previously couldn’t or didn’t want to live near their office. This last point is particularly exciting for creative agencies to get out of our hip city bubble.

Technology and innovation can only help so much if there aren’t fundamental changes to overly complex and expensive systems.

Jonny Hawton

3. Health Check

This recession is inseparable from the COVID-19 pandemic that has triggered it. In the US, the strain of the crisis has made apparent the inequalities in the health system and laid bare just how broken things are. It’s a fact not lost on Gen Z. Even before the crisis, the majority of Gen Z had zero trust in the government or corporations. This moment will likely erode any remaining faith in the current system. However, health is a top priority for Gen Z. They’re generally much more comfortable discussing the full spectrum of health including emotional, cognitive, and social well-being.

Off the back of this crisis, we may see Gen Z turn away from the for-profit healthcare system just as we saw Millennials turn away from major banks after the 2007 recession. This could have dire health consequences and continue to reduce life expectancy in the US. We also predict wellness to revert from the luxury hobby of recent years, think Goop, into a core necessity and for Gen Z to be much more pragmatic and less spiritual about their health. There will also likely be an explosion of health-tech just as we saw FinTech blossom after the last recession, making health care more affordable and accessible.

All that being said, technology and innovation can only help so much if there aren’t fundamental changes to overly complex and expensive systems. With a near-universal belief in equality and health a top priority, we predict Gen Z will vehemently advocate for a universal healthcare system that is accessible to all.

4. Work≠Life

Students finishing college this year not only didn’t get a graduation, but they’ll also be entering a very challenging job market where they’re competing against far more qualified people with a lot more to lose. However, even before this crisis we saw that Gen Z didn’t want to be defined by what they do for work, and instead think it should be their passions and values that define them. This desire for stability over wealth or passions driven by job and income insecurity is likely to only strengthen this belief. This crisis has also hit the reset button and made them reconnect with the things that matter to them, whether that be family or hobbies.

We predict this crisis will break the grip of what you do for work on the identity of Gen Z. They’ll likely look elsewhere for passions that define them. That may mean putting less emphasis on work and carving out more time for the things that really matter to them, family, personal growth, and hobbies. Companies will need to find new ways to motivate their staff outside of title changes and pay raises by supporting their passions and family.

Next steps

While we’ve focused on four behaviour changes that we believe are highly probable and will have a major impact on society, culture and companies, this is by no means all encompassing. There will be major shifts in other categories too, such as travel and higher education, where 98% of Gen Z were already feeling short-changed before they had to give up campus life to sit through Zoom lectures.

Furthermore, since our initial report there has been a global reckoning around systemic racism. We intend to follow up this work with an exploration on the long-term effects of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as explorations on the future of retail, travel and education.

Visit Virtue's profile to download and read the full report.

Guest Author

Jonny Hawton, Virtue LA

Group Strategy Director,


Group Strategy Director for Virtue LA, Jonny heads up the strategy team for Virtue’s West Coast office. He has spent the last three years establishing Virtue’s Los Angeles operation and leading creative strategy for a diverse set of brands from Canada Goose to Target to Weedmaps. A transplant from London, Jonny previously led strategy for both Vice and Virtue in the UK. He is on a mission to help brands grow by creating work with purpose that contributes to culture and society.

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