I love trend-spotting. There’s something about a new year and a new semester at Kent State University that makes for ideal trend-spotting conditions. Maybe it’s the Winter Break, where we all had some extra time to rest and reflect. Maybe it’s the mental exercise of evaluating the past and projecting ourselves into the future. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. But I’ve recently had a number of conversations with others that have helped me to lock in on some new trends that seem to be emerging among today’s younger generations: including continued cultural ripples from the COVID-19 Pandemic and a new phobia gripping today’s youth, called FOBO.
Life in Kent is getting more and more normal, as we get further and further from the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Still, some of the early “Post-COVID” college life observations that I made back in October have started to calcify and clarify. They may come to define the generation that came (or is still coming) of age during the early-2020s. But they may also fade. We’ll just have to wait and see. For now, in any event, here are some of the things that I’m noticing.
“Monitor Yourself for Symptoms”
It’s becoming clear that today’s younger generations are more attuned to their bodies, their minds, and their souls than previous generations. We taught them to “monitor yourself for symptoms” throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic. This was primarily intended to be a look-out for physical symptoms, such as fever, congestion, loss of taste, etc. But it also happened to fall during a time period in which conversations about mental health had already been increasing. So, I’m seeing today’s college students continuing to evaluate their physical capability, their emotional bandwidth, and the state of their souls before they make any foray into the outside world. Their “Social Battery” still drains more quickly than it did pre-COVID. So they continue to monitor themselves for symptoms and take preventative action to limit any potential damage that might come from overriding those signals.
We also taught this generation to discern the difference between “Essential” and “Non-Essential” throughout the pandemic. Remember that phrase? It was especially prevalent in the Spring of 2020: “Essential Workers Only.” Essential Work Only. The concept seems to have evolved into a “first things first” approach to social life. Today’s young people do not generally show up to an event out of a sense of duty or concern for what others might think of them if they don’t show up. They follow the dictum to “Monitor Yourself for Symptoms” (as outlined above), and then they take what they deem to be appropriate action from there. The calculus is pretty different from the way I learned to think at their age. Or even what college students did five years ago. But it’s becoming hard to ignore.
I’m still learning how to deal with these dynamics, on both a personal level and on the ministry level. It can make me grumpy, accentuating the generational gap that defines my life. But it’s good to remind myself that always learning and reading and adjusting is part of what makes my job a fun challenge!
FOBO is an acronym for “Fear of Better Options.” I don’t know how widespread the term might be, but I heard it from my friend Daniel, who heard it from another friend Brooke. It evokes the memory of FOMO, or “Fear of Missing Out,” which had a moment in the cultural spotlight five to ten years ago, at the height of social network saturation. Back then, FOMO was a problem for college students because it led to insecurity and over-commitment. Now, FOBO is a problem for college students because it leads to insecurity and lack of commitment.
I noticed this most acutely over the Winter Break, when we were trying to plan for a family dinner. It was just an average weekday evening. We knew that our household’s adolescents and young adults were being pulled in several different directions. So, we just wanted to know how much food we should prepare. But our kids were painfully non-committal. And non-communicative. It took multiple messages and a phone call to get through to one person in our family. I finally got the chance to ask, over the phone, “Are you joining us for dinner?” And then this (intentionally-unidentified) individual responded by saying, “Yeah, I might pull up.”
What a perfect encapsulation of the FOBO generation: “Yeah, I might pull up.”
Except for the most important, most essential agenda items, plans are held loosely. It’s nothing personal. It’s not intended to come across as rude or disrespectful. There’s just a reluctance to commit to something that might end up being “secondary.” Somewhere, deep down inside, today’s young people may always wonder if something better might come up. I believe there are strengths to this approach, as well as weaknesses. But this Fear of Better Options could be worth continued conversation.
Ironically, even with all of the tragic and radical societal shifts that have come through COVID, I’ve started to hear some hints of COVID Nostalgia. At least some younger people are inclined to remember the “good old days” of the pandemic, even more than the devastation. “Life was simpler back then.” People had time for family and hobbies and long walks outdoors…
And honestly, I feel some of this myself! Our family has fond memories of take-out dates… and Easter greetings out on the street with our neighbors… and creative diversions (like the time that my boys invented “March Muffin Madness” in our driveway when the more traditional “March Madness” of the NCAA Basketball Tournament was cancelled). It wasn’t all bad.
My grandfather talked about Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl in similar ways. Even though our history books are inclined to write these things as unmitigated disasters, the lived experience is far more nuanced. We human beings are a resilient bunch. We figure out ways to survive, to adapt, to overcome. And I’m curious to keep an eye out for new and continued trends that show the way forward.