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The class of 2020 on what it’s like to face down crumbling colleges

Hillary Hoffower and Juliana Kaplan May 22, 2020, 5:47 PM

The oldest members of Gen Z are facing uncertainty.

For the 18-year-old, self-described introvert Tanner Keck, a coffee shop in his rural Tennessee community was more than just a source of caffeination. It was a lifeline to the outside world.

Keck is dual-enrolled as a high-school senior and at the local community college. He did all his studying at the shop, with the aim of transferring to a four-year institution. He said the café and the local gym were places for him to recharge when he struggled with depression last year.

“Since all that closed, all my happiness has been taken away,” Keck said.

An only child whose parents are both essential workers, Keck said his opportunities for socializing during the day have shrunk. His workouts now mostly take place at home and his school classes in the family breakfast nook. His district doesn’t have a lot of access to broadband internet, and some students are receiving assignments by mail.

He’s still supporting his favorite coffee shop, but it’s bittersweet. Keck said he went in the other day, wearing a mask and gloves, and got his usual order. And then he had to leave.

Everything in his life has suddenly gotten much smaller and more difficult than it was just a couple of months ago.

“I want to feel as productive as possible,” Keck said. “I don’t like sitting home and doing nothing. I always want to feel productive. This virus just says, ‘No, you can’t be productive all the time.’”

The shrinking of Keck’s world and the possibilities it once presented is the sudden reality of Gen Z.

The oldest Gen Zers are turning 23 in 2020, and the youngest just 8 years old. The younger half is missing social connections during a critical time, while the older cohort is graduating during a pandemic. “Minecraft”-based graduation ceremonies have become one telling sign of an already digital generation forced to go even more online as the crisis upends opportunities for education and employment.

In reporting this story, we sought to represent the full breadth of the class of 2020, talking to more than a dozen Gen Zers, from high-school seniors to graduate students. From the cofounders of the March For Our Lives, who have to taken their activism online, to the high schoolers who have begun making face shields at home for healthcare workers, or influencers like Emma Chamberlain and Bretman Rock adapting to new filming conditions, these young people told us of how their worlds had suddenly shrunk, much like Keck’s newly out-of-bounds coffee shop. Their stories, and the insights of economists and scholars who study them, tell of a generation on the brink of adulthood that’s seeing the challenges they’ve already been struggling with — shaken mental health, frozen job market — dramatically amplified.

College seniors are graduating into a paralyzed economy.

The pandemic hasn’t just taken away the concerts where Lexi Shannon, a 21-year-old wrapping up her last year at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, would blow off steam. She wanted to make her career in the music business, but her part-time job in the industry evaporated with the onset of social distancing. And now Los Angeles, where she hoped to pursue the field, feels farther away than ever.

She’s also been thrown back into her childhood home from her on-campus apartment. Now she spends her days absorbed in Netflix and YouTube to cope with her “plummeting mental health.”

“It’s been a huge adjustment,” she said. “I just want to know what I’m doing.”

Shannon’s graduating class is entering a job market crippled by a 14.7% unemployment rate. If the wave of layoffs continues unabated during the second quarter, as many as 53 million Americans who want to work will be out of a job, the St. Louis Fed predicts. That would be a staggering unemployment rate of 32% — greater than both the 10% unemployment rate the Great Recession saw at its 2009 peak and the 25% mark from the Great Depression.

“I spent the past four years trying to get a job in this field, but what will the live-music industry look like after this?” Shannon said. Now she’s wondering about putting her communications minor to use in public relations or journalism. “I’m trying to find ways to adjust to this new way of life.”

It’s a frightening situation for a generation that swore it would never follow in the footsteps of its millennial predecessors, the oldest of whom graduated into the Great Recession. A dozen years removed from the dark days of 2008, that group’s total wealth is 34% lower than if the crisis hadn’t occurred, earning them the nickname as the “lost generation.”

Now, America may see two lost generations in a row. Nearly half of the members of Gen Z — 47% — have already said they’re earning less as a result of the pandemic. It could be the beginning of a 15-year stagnation in financial growth for Shannon and her peers.

Hannes Schwandt, the economic demographer behind this research, is an older millennial whose career was shaped by graduating into the last financial crisis. He watched his friends who’d graduated just before the recession land high-paying jobs, and friends graduating afterward get lower-paying jobs. As this disparity persisted years later, he began studying the income-health relationship among recession graduates for his doctoral thesis.

At Stanford, Schwandt teamed up with UCLA’s specialist in recessions, Till von Wachter, to explore new data.

“Little did I know, when I wrote the first version of the paper … that the results would become relevant during a global pandemic a decade later,” said Schwandt, now an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.

He found that the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of jobs; it’s that recession graduates start at “lower-quality” jobs. But even that outcome can have benefits, he said. “Over time, what you see in these cohorts is a higher degree of mobility from one employer to the next. It helps them climb up the quality ladder.”

And while the service industry has been hit hardest so far, Schwandt said that perhaps more productive jobs requiring higher skills for job entrance haven’t been as strongly affected.

Consider Emma Havighorst, a 22-year-old marketing major graduating from Fordham University in New York City. In March, she sat stunned in front of her laptop: Nearly every company on her wish list had pulled job openings.

“That’s when it hit me that this is real, that this is going to impact what I do next,” she said.

But Havighorst still landed a paid internship, managing social-media channels for Next Gen HQ, a business hub that aims to empower entrepreneurs. She hopes it can turn into a full-time role come August.

Yet Havighorst is confident.

“Gen Z is innovative and powerful,” she said. “The way we see the world is very different from prior generations.”

For three years Havighorst has hosted the podcast “Generation Slay,” which profiles Gen Z creators and entrepreneurs, from mental-health advocate Gabby Frost to nonprofit founder Ziad Ahmed.

In her estimation, the pandemic will produce even more innovators.

“Necessity breeds invention,” she said. “We’ll be trying to figure out solutions to problems that plagued past generations.”

Whether you’re finishing your associate degree or your master’s, it’s rough out there.

Simon Beltz, 21, has been concocting the perfect plan to get into sports marketing. He earned an associate degree in business administration at Los Angeles Pierce College last fall. He was working part-time as a stadium worker with the Los Angeles Clippers and had plans to transfer to a four-year program at Cal State Monterey Bay.

But it all changed with the pandemic.

Beltz was laid off, missing out on an expected playoff run for the NBA franchise. Now he doesn’t have counselor access, and he worries he’ll miss a degree-planning appointment, leaving him unable to register for a class he might need to graduate on time.

Beltz said he wouldn’t mind being online in the fall. As a commuter student, he wouldn’t have to pay facilities expenses and could have a more flexible schedule. At his house, it’s just him and his mom, a nurse who works almost every day. He said he’s more worried about his career prospects after graduation.

His field is already competitive, and many internships and summer education programs have been canceled. The number of available internships on LinkedIn has plummeted by 60%. “The level of competitiveness has basically doubled,” he said.

Meanwhile, those in graduate school are weathering the storm. Grace Gubbrud, a 22-year-old set to graduate in June from DePaul University in Chicago with a master’s in public relations and advertising, was lucky to not lose her internship at a PR agency. But her weekly hours were cut from 38 to 28 and full-time employees on her team got furloughed. Now she’s hustling to pick up the workload. She’s not expecting a job offer since the agency is on a hiring freeze.

“I’m graduating with an advanced degree into a crumbling economy,” she said. “I’m concerned for my own wealth and financial management.”

She’ll also take a hit because her parents claimed her as a dependent on their taxes, meaning she won’t get a stimulus check. It’s a government oversight that affects many Gen Zers working part-time or as interns.

But Gubbrud’s father, an accountant, instilled in her the values of saving money. She said she’s been good at building her savings account over the past few years, and she’s worried for friends who have yet to learn money management.

The other class of 2020 — high-school grads — are facing uncertainty about their college plans.

College students aren’t the only class of 2020. For high-school seniors, the pandemic added a complicating factor to an especially formative and stressful time of life: college-decision season.

Ask 18-year-old Sophia Kianni, a climate activist recently in the pages of The Washington Post, Refinery29, and Teen Vogue. Her calendar is telling: prom, high-school graduation, a part-time job as a referee, and her summer internship researching microplastics and environmental neuroscience have all but disappeared. So too have many of the climate-change speaking engagements she had scheduled at Stanford and Duke.

“It was really disappointing,” Kianni, who lives just outside Washington, DC, in the Virginia suburbs. “I was really excited to be able to educate such large audiences.”

The very business model of university education is being disrupted, and many colleges are going to collapse.

Come fall, there may be a radically different version of college, one with lectures being conducted on Zoom, empty stands at sporting events, and virtual parties. But some colleges may not find it financially viable to reopen then. Christopher Rim, a college-admissions consultant and the CEO of Command Education, said some schools depend on the tuition of international students, many of whom pay “full sticker price.”

Other students are considering taking a gap year, where incoming freshmen generally defer their studies and travel, volunteer, or work before matriculating. The gap year has slowly become more popular in the US, and schools have taken note: Harvard University has a full webpage encouraging students to take a gap year. While there isn’t extensive research on gap years, the data that’s out there outlines an uptick.

But taking a gap year may present problems of a different kind, as previously popular options like in-person volunteering or travel are no longer possible. Look at Kianni: She remains an exemplary Gen Zer, but now she’s also a model of uncertainty. Her speaking events have all been rescheduled for next year, and she’s worried about how they’ll fit into her college calendar. She’s questioning whether she should take a gap year. Even if she did, with her research internship and speaking engagements canceled, she said it would be harder for her to make a gap year productive at home.

And what happens when everyone tries to do the same?

“It’s a little uncertain how colleges are going to approve or deny gap-year requests,” Rim said. He thinks so many students will apply for gap years that colleges may stop allowing applicants to request them.

As with any decision in the admissions process, there are winners and losers when students defer. If spots open up from gap-year takers, students who got wait-listed at their dream schools could get good news.

It’s nothing short of a college crisis for Gen Z. A survey in March found that 10% of high-school seniors would no longer attend a four-year institution, and four-year institutions could see an overall 20% decline in enrollment, a far cry from the cohort previously on track to become the best-educated generation.

Stress about money and the future could lead to Gen Z’s mental health deteriorating

Gen Z already had high reported rates of mental illness, particularly among teenage girls. The pandemic could exacerbate that.

In 2017, 13% of US teens between the ages 12 and 17 — 3.2 million people — said they had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Some 37% of Gen Z is likely to report fair or poor mental health, compared to 15% of millennials. Suicide was the second leading cause of death for Gen Z in 2017.

Jean Twenge, a psychologist who wrote a book on the generation, said that many Gen Z trends will likely accelerate during the pandemic, including the deterioration of mental health.

There’s already early evidence of this. Gen Z is most likely to feel not “mentally well” during the pandemic. It may have an economic origin: Researchers have linked having debt to mental-health issues. Female Gen Zers could be worse off: They’re more likely to experience a major depressive episode. Meanwhile, a coronavirus recession will likely affect women more, perhaps putting them at further risk.

“Coronavirus is having an effect on the lives of most people for months at a time, affecting day-to-day life in a way that we haven’t seen since World War II,” Twenge said. “The question is, what effect will it have?” It’ll be a couple of years before we know, she says, but the outcomes don’t look great.

“My best guess is we will see more depression and anxiety,” she says.

There is a silver lining: The pandemic could enhance Gen Z’s already flexible and entrepreneurial characteristics.

Jeffrey Arnett, a Tufts University psychologist who studies when and how people become adults in modern life, said he thinks the pandemic downturn will be more catastrophic for those in their 40s and 50s who have established career and financial obligations. But Gen Z, despite the setbacks, will eventually get by.

“Even in good times, young adults feel they’re falling behind and not making enough progress,” he said, adding that it’s typical for young adults to struggle in their 20s as they figure out their identity and future. It’s a positive, he said, that they have less at stake.

“I wouldn’t make light at all of the challenges Gen Z will face,” Arnett adds, “but they will be able to pick up the pieces and move on.”

When the going gets tough, the young get creative.

While she’s no longer rolling through speaking gigs, Sophia Kianni has been tackling her quarantine by preparing the launch of a nonprofit. The plan is to translate climate-research information online for non-English speakers.

She said she’s still figuring it out, but thinks she’ll end up enrolling in Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business to study public policy and sustainability. Ultimately, she said she wants to pursue a career in environmental law, which would mean graduate school.

“I have a good seven-year buffer,” she said. “Hopefully by the time those years have lapsed, the economy will be in a better place.”


Business Insider

Originally published in Business Insider on May 22, 2020.

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