Gen Z gets a bad rap when it comes to social distancing



Broadway St in Winnetka where walkers and runners are forced to pass in close proximity

It’s gray and chilly (because when is it not?) and I’m running down the sidewalk in a residential part of Wilmette. Twenty feet ahead of me, I see an elderly couple walking their dog. My mind immediately starts working out how best to separate myself from them. The way this block is designed, the furthest they’re able to move away from me is the rightmost edge of the sidewalk–if they moved to the left any more, they would be walking into the shrubbery lining a house. 

I’m the one tasked with “socially distancing” in this situation. I know it, and it dawns on me that the couple knows it too, because they’re wearing matching expressions of wariness, fear, and…anger? I’m struck because this is so far from the reactions I get when walking with my mom and dad. In those situations, the adults exchange similar looks of, “Oh, haha, here we go again, isn’t it crazy that we have to do this!” Here, though? Less rueful solidarity and more visible animosity.

When I move onto the street to let the couple pass, their frowns break open into surprised (yet relieved) smiles. 

This was three weeks ago, at the outset of Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order. Since then, I’ve experienced this situation countless times. Of course, as a Gen-Zer over-attuned to Boomer-related (ahem) discrimination, I immediately suspected that ageism was at play. “They have no reason to, like, scowl at me! I’m socially distancing! I have as much a right to be outside as they do!” I ranted to my mom. Was this an overreaction? Heck yes. Could I have dealt with a couple of dirty looks? Yep. But what exacerbated my original annoyance was a bevy of news articles bashing young people for their alleged lack of attention to social distancing. 

“Why Are Teens, Millennials Ignoring Coronavirus Warnings?” wondered US News and World Report. “Can Anyone Talk Sense Into Millennials and Gen-Z Concerning Coronavirus?” complained northeast Ohio’s online news outlet, Etc, etc, etc.

I think we should all check ourselves to make sure that these feelings don’t end up manifesting in finger-pointing and the blame game.”

Disclaimer: I’m sure there are some Gen-Zers and Millennials who are ignoring social distancing guidelines. We’ve all heard of the University of Texas students who contracted COVID-19 after vacationing in Mexico over their spring break. Heck, I’ve seen teenagers congregating in groups with my own eyes. But you know who I’ve also seen doing that? Older, distinctly non-Millennial/Gen-Z individuals.

I am sheltering-in-place. I haven’t been in a building other than my house in three weeks, for goodness’ sake. My friends are all in the same boat. So, please–don’t let the actions of a few represent the intentions of a group. Give my generation a little credit!

Look, I completely get that it’s a fraught time and that people are scared and anxious and stressed. I’m scared and anxious and stressed. But I think we should all check ourselves to make sure that these feelings don’t end up manifesting in finger-pointing and the blame game. Because, really, all that’s going to do is divide us when we most need to stand together.

Maybe, just maybe, if we have fewer articles about how young people are ignoring social distancing guidelines, the next time I run by an elderly couple, we’ll all be smiling from the get-go.