What the Pandemic Has Done to the Class of 2020

Students in blue graduation gowns huddle on the steps of a building
Nina Berman / NOOR / Redux

Noah Baumbach’s 1995 film, Kicking and Screaming, opens at a college-graduation party. Students dressed in boxy suits and flouncy dresses mill around campus, savoring their final moments of collegiate aimlessness: Today I am a student, an English major. Tomorrow these identities will fall away and I will have no idea who or what I am anymore. A group of friends gathers around a table to play a game in which a topic is chosen and players buzz in with answers that fit the category. One character suggests worst-case scenarios after graduation, and students chime in:

Bzz. “Heart attack.”

Bzz. “Live in Milwaukee.”

What would my answer have been? Trick question, because I didn’t go to any graduation parties. I attended my final Kenyon College classes over Zoom, three feet from my childhood bed, then watched my live-streamed graduation ceremony on my parents’ couch while eating a turkey burger. Once the 30-minute video ended, my fellow graduates and I were cast out into a world plagued by an actual plague.

I thought I’d spend the year after graduation living in a crappy apartment with a couple of roommates, working for a not-so-great salary, and trying to cobble together the transitory existence 23-year-olds are supposed to have. I could worry about building the beautiful house later—for the moment, all I would need to do was work on the foundation. But I haven’t been able to do that. I’ve spent the past year at home, applying for full-time work and doing odd jobs.

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I’m grateful to have a place where I can wait out this pandemic without sinking myself into debt to survive. But this sense of gratitude is frequently interrupted by waves of frustration and fear that I am now locked out of the next phase of my life. And I know I’m not the only 2020 graduate sitting in my parents’ house, scrolling through Indeed, wondering what I’m supposed to do next.

When you graduate from college, you’re expected to start somewhere, ideally an entry-level job in your field, but more likely an internship, a part-time job, or a service-industry gig—something that might not be your forever job but could put you on track for a career. The pandemic has made this soft landing impossible for many 2020 graduates. With our getting-started year delayed, we’re a micro-generation frozen in place.

This time last year, The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull published a story about us, under the headline “Generation C Has Nowhere to Turn.” The article read like an ominous fortune-cookie slip about the remainder of 2020, the kind you read and crumple up before digging back into the takeout bag, hoping you’ll find a spare cookie foretelling a more promising future. Instead, we got almost exactly what Mull predicted: months of pandemic with minimal economic relief, suffering businesses, and countless layoffs and furloughs.

I asked Chris Bollinger, the executive director of the Kentucky Research Data Center at the University of Kentucky, to characterize the labor market that 2020 grads are navigating. “It’s getting to be a boring word to use, but unprecedented,” he told me. The share of young adults (18-to-29-year-olds) living at home jumped to 52 percent in July 2020, up from 47 percent that February, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s the largest share of young adults living at home since the Great Depression. The COVID-19 recession is unique, though, because it was caused by a public-health crisis, not financial factors, so it’s hard to predict how severe the long-term damage will be. Even with the news that 916,000 jobs were added in March, unemployment among 16-to-24-year-olds is still the highest it’s been since 2015. Some economists told me that cohorts that graduated during a recession have higher unemployment rates and lower wages for seven to 10 years out of college, compared with groups that graduated during non-recession years.

Levi Conrad, 23, who graduated from the University of Tennessee last year with a degree in cinema studies, saw the field he was hoping to work in disappear during the pandemic. His plan had been to move to a film hub such as Atlanta or Los Angeles after graduation and look for production jobs. He spent late 2019 and early 2020 applying for internships, page programs, and office jobs. Almost every internship program he applied to told him that it was no longer seeking applicants, because of the pandemic. Eventually, Conrad moved back home with his parents in California.

He knew he had picked a tough industry to break into, but still, the past year has been demoralizing. “I didn’t figure on jobs suddenly not existing anymore,” Conrad told me. “I don’t know what to do about it. I feel somewhat lost.”

For Morgan Haney, 23, not even a degree in a still-thriving field was enough to land a full-time job. She graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2020 with a double major in integrated strategic communications and merchandising apparel and textiles. When her campus closed last March, she moved home with her family in Atlanta. After a few months of job searching with no luck, she found a sales-associate position at a boutique fitness studio that she never expected to love. She’s no longer just slogging through the job for some cash, though—she genuinely enjoys it.

Haney’s willingness to deviate from her plan aligns with the idea that people who graduate during a recession might learn to be flexible, says Hannes Schwandt, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University. He told me that when he looked at how Great Recession graduates are faring now, he saw that they had a slightly lower unemployment rate than their peers who did not graduate into a recession. In Schwandt’s opinion, their adaptability set them up to adjust to tumultuous circumstances later on, like Haney did.

After my plan to spend last year teaching English to elementary-school kids in France didn’t work out, I had to adjust too. I’m working at a warehouse-turned-brunch spot in my town, freelancing for a digital magazine, and reading on my back porch while people who’ve known me since I was 7 pass by on their daily quarantine sanity walk. I oscillate between being fine with where I’m at and being terrified that my life is over before it even started. Will I carry this uncertainty with me throughout my career? When May 29 rolls around and I’ve been out of college and without a full-time job for a year, will I be marked for life as someone who tripped at the starting line and now paces behind everybody else?

Jesse Rothstein, a public-policy and economics professor at UC Berkeley, has also studied the effects of graduating during a recession. He told me that those effects can stick with people even after the economy improves—youth unemployment can have a “scarring effect.” This damage can hinder educational attainment, family formation, and economic mobility not just for the individual but for future generations of their family.

As an example, if you want to have a good job six years out of college, you need to get that first job that sets you up to climb the ladder of success. If you have a low-paying job or no job right out of college, you’re starting on a lower rung of the ladder than someone who got a good job right after graduating. And they’re going to get to the higher rungs of the ladder, such as promotions and raises, before you. Getting that first job is especially difficult when there are fewer opportunities and more people vying for the same spots.

The identities and futures of the class of 2020 are tied to this once-in-a-lifetime crisis. It’s a heavy load for people who didn’t get to say goodbye to their friends or professors. It’s a heavy load for people who accepted their diploma from a mail carrier instead of a college dean. It’s a heavy load for people who had job offers rescinded, who never heard back about applications, who are working jobs in which they can’t use their degree, who aren’t making enough money, or who maybe aren’t working at all.

Our first year out of college makes the insecurity and anxiety of Kicking and Screaming seem minor, possibly pleasant. Not even Hollywood could dream up a worse worst-case scenario for the class of 2020.