The Next Great Generation

The class of 2020 will be remembered for all that it sacrificed.

Seniors at Columbia University taking graduation photos on March 15, 2020.
Nina Berman / Noor / Redux
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of commencement addresses commissioned by The Atlantic for students who will not be able to attend their graduations because of the pandemic. Find the collection here.

Back in September, the members of the class of 2020 must have felt all the usual anxieties and hopes that come with the final year of college. Students eagerly prepared for the next stage of their life, whether that meant applying for graduate school or submitting job applications. The nerves about succeeding were softened by the desire to savor the remaining months with good friends and with teachers who’d made a difference. I remember walking on the Princeton campus, eager to meet my new students. Everything seemed normal.

Then the coronavirus swept across the globe, reaching the United States at the start of the new year and gradually bringing the entire nation to a halt. Schools all around the country closed their doors; classes went virtual. Youthful romances were moved online. Best friends were left watching old movies together in chat rooms.

Some contracted the virus, and many others experienced the pain of losing a loved one. All the natural markers of being a senior were gradually canceled or made virtual: senior week, class day, graduation, family celebrations, internships, and much more. Many college seniors are being told that the job they were waiting to start is no longer there.

Young Americans don’t even have the comfort of knowing what comes next. There is no back to normal on the immediate horizon. They can’t have confidence that they will be able to secure good jobs and start families on anything like a typical timetable.

Everyone in the class of 2020 will have stories to tell about dreams that have been stolen forever.

But rather than thinking of what has been taken away, members of the class of 2020 should think of themselves as part of a generation that gave—a generation that sacrificed.

While the images from spring break in Florida were used to tarnish Generation Z as irresponsible and selfish, the truth is that most young people did exactly what was asked of them—despite the fact that they are at relatively low risk of a serious case, let alone a fatal one. Leaders called on citizens to self-isolate to flatten the curve. And the class of 2020 listened. Generation Z is doing its part, for everyone, simply by staying home.

It’s not easy. But no one ever said sacrifice was easy. We often speak about the Greatest Generation of Americans, who endured the Great Depression in the 1930s and fought fascism in World War II. In his 1998 book on the subject, the NBC anchor Tom Brokaw explained that in 1940, “the nation turned to its young to carry the heaviest burden, to fight in enemy territory and to keep the home front secure and productive. These young men and women were eager for the assignment. They understood what was required of them, and they volunteered for duty.”

It was indeed a heavy burden. After the trauma of mass joblessness, more than 400,000 Americans were killed during World War II. Life on the home front was demanding too. Loved ones were far away and rations were the norm.

Getting through hardship is what made the Greatest Generation great. And the way through then is the same as now: by privileging the “we” over the “me.”

When the grandchildren of the class of 2020 ask what it was like to live through the pandemic, they will hear stories about loss and sadness. They will also hear about how citizens sacrificed themselves for the collective good. Generation Z will join the Greatest Generation in discovering that a nation that privileges individualism and self-interest can also come together and put the country first.

So to the class of 2020: Thank you for what you have sacrificed, for all of us. You’re doing your part to get us to a better place, one that’s full of all the experiences that you gave up, for the greater good.