Airreona Godfrey, a Detroit native, could not have been more excited for the final weeks of high school. Though she was juggling an internship and a part-time job, she was ready to celebrate prom and graduation with her closest friends and family.
Then the pandemic struck – and, within weeks, everyone in Godfrey’s 11-person household was infected or exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. Still, she says, “I kept reminding myself – it could be worse: one of them could die.”
Around the same time, Catie O’Reilly had landed a health care consultancy job in San Francisco, which she planned to start soon after her graduation from Vanderbilt University. But her hopes of beginning the next chapter of her life – and paying down her $15,000 in student loans – were soon dashed.
As Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the economy, the consultancy firm pushed back her start date to 2021, with little guarantee that it would happen at all. “Though I understood why they had made this decision, my ability to maintain my composure – to hold onto hope – temporarily receded into the background,” she writes.
Meanwhile, Vinay Rao was preparing to graduate medical school and begin his residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. However, instead of a traditional introduction to practicing medicine, he had to abruptly shift to an alarming new reality – one in which he’d be helping patients battle Covid-19, a disease compounded by the city’s stark racial differences in health care access.
“To be effective health care providers,” Rao explains, “my colleagues and I [now] have to do more than treat the individual patient at his or her bedside. We have to delve into the disparities affecting the communities in which we serve.”
These students are a snapshot of the new and complex realities facing young Americans across the country. With classes going virtual, graduations postponed to spring of next year and millions of job opportunities lost, young people are being forced to contend with some of the greatest challenges of adulthood right now.
But there is some good news: The generation that is feeling a particularly heavy blow from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic – and now a month of protests against centuries of racial injustice – is largely taking it in stride and showing why it deserves to be called “Generation Resilient.” In this series, we’ll explore the strategies that young people are employing to tackle these unexpected challenges and the ways they are charting a course toward a brighter future.
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The pandemic struck students at a particularly vulnerable age. According to Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University, ages 18-25 comprise “emerging adulthood,” a period of time falling neatly between adolescence and young adulthood.
In an article for “American Psychologist,” he explains that this is “a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.” In other words, it’s when young people lay the foundation for an adult life – both professionally and personally.
And while this would ordinarily be a period of near limitless possibility, the pandemic has greatly reduced the opportunities available to recent high school and college graduates. According to Pew Research Center, in May, about a quarter of Americans aged 16-24 were unemployed (up from 8% in February of this year) – and some have had to settle for significantly lower paying jobs in order to make a dent in their bills.
There is also growing concern that these financial hurdles can have long-term negative effects on earning potential. Millennials are evidence of that. After graduating into the Great Recession more than a decade ago, employment opportunities were sparse. And while most millennials have since found work, their earnings have not grown at a rate commensurate with their experience, according to a 2019 research paper from economist Kevin Rinz.
The risk is not just limited to economics. According to a National Center for Health Statistics survey, which relies on the same mental health scale used by medical professionals, between January and June 2019, 10% of 18-34-year-olds showed clinically significant symptoms of an anxiety disorder, 5.8% experienced a major depressive disorder and 12.2% reported anxiety and/or depression.
Karla Gutierrez, who recently completed her junior year at California State University Long Beach, tells CNN that even before Covid-19, she suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression. From a working-class family in Bakersfield, California, she struggled to balance her desire to pursue her college education with her need to earn money and help support her family.
“I just kept thinking, my mom, a janitor at a local clinic, is so stressed. What can I do to make her happy? Will earning good grades be enough, or do I need to get a full-time job and bring in extra cash? There was just no easy answer,” Gutierrez says.
Since the pandemic, the percentage of Americans, especially younger ones, dealing with mental health issues has increased at an alarming rate. Over a six-day period in early June, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 41% of 18-34-year-olds showed clinically significant symptoms of an anxiety disorder, 35.1% experienced a major depressive disorder and 47.5% reported anxiety and/or depression.
Justice Georgie, a freshman at Baltimore City Community College, has experienced this anxiety first-hand. When the pandemic struck, he was forced to move out of his cozy dorm room back to his mother’s one-bedroom apartment. “The transition was not the smoothest,” he admits, “and with my mother, a hairdresser, temporarily out of work – it was a stressful beginning to a new chapter of my life.”
Compounding the matter was the death of George Floyd. As a 19-year-old Black man, Georgie is no stranger to the threat posed by systemic racism, but now he is confronting images of it daily – and, he says, the brutality of it all feels, at times, overwhelming.
Nancy Darling, an Oberlin psychology professor, explains that while there are many factors contributing to these levels of anxiety, one of them is likely a desire to have more control of a chaotic world – one, in young peoples’ case, that has been punctuated by mass shootings and increasingly divisive politics.
Now, Covid-19 and the country’s reckoning with police brutality have taken away whatever semblance of control students like Georgie thought they had, Darling says.
They get knocked down, but they get up again
Despite these challenges, many young people remain committed to starting the next phase of their lives. Arnett says this is because of their resiliency, or their ability to bounce back from even the most daunting of circumstances.
But why can they bounce back seemingly so easily? In his 25 years of studying this age group, Arnett says he has noticed a phenomenon. Young people are often confident that whatever struggle they are facing now is temporary and will soon pass. Even young people who have little going for them seem to believe that they will eventually get what they want out of life. “The power of their belief in the future is enough to motivate them to press forward,” Arnett tells CNN.
Findings from the Harvard Public Opinion Project support Arnett’s theory. While a recent survey of people between the age of 18-29 showed that their faith in government institutions had waned, it also revealed that “they have a vision for the future, and it includes an acute sense of altruism and optimism,” write student researchers Katie Heintz and Will Matheson. “In poll after poll and focus group after focus group, we’ve found a prevailing narrative of change toward hope and hope toward change.” And a study by Goodwin Simon Strategic Research and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of nearly 4,000 Black, Hispanic and low-income young people found that they often see themselves as the best agents of that change.
Arturo Ballesteros, a recent graduate of Back of the Yards College Prep in Chicago, agrees with these findings. In conversations with his friends and classmates, he says there is a general consensus that government institutions – from the local to the national level – have failed to adequately address their concerns about racism and other forms of discrimination.
But, he adds, his generation isn’t without options. “If you look at the protests from the last month, you’ll see that young people are taking to the streets, demanding justice and proving that we have an important role to play in reshaping our country.” Rather than waiting for state legislatures or even Congress to act, they are reclaiming our power as drivers of change, Ballesteros says.
Arnett also notes there may be a more practical reason for young people’s activism – the stakes of their actions and decisions are not as high as that of their older cohorts. As students graduate, most of them have a limited number of personal responsibilities and financial commitments. With young people marrying and buying homes later in life, they are freer to take risks in their early 20s. Some of them even have the option to move back in with their parents if all else fails.
Psychologists at the University of Manchester have found another factor critical to young adults’ resiliency – the strength of their social bonds. While they report that older people have stronger problem-solving skills, they find that young people (under the age of 26) have stronger social networks that provide them with the support needed to weather the worst storms. And when the pandemic began, we see that many students activated those social networks – booking flights home to their families, who took them in when their schools no longer could.
Taking steps to level the playing field
Of course, not every student has a strong family network they can invoke in times of crisis. Janel Benson, a sociologist at Colgate University, explains that this reality is particularly acute among low-income students of color. While more affluent students have social safety nets in place, many low-income students lost their jobs when the pandemic began – and then, assuming they could, returned to parents who either found themselves unemployed or who were deemed essential workers and could not be home to support them.
If we want to give all students a chance at success, Benson says we must take steps to even the playing field – and that requires the assistance of adults outside the traditional family unit.
Benson is not alone in her thinking. Sara Simons, a professor of theater education at the University of Texas at Austin, says that when her students transitioned to online learning, they were dealing with trauma, fear and a loss of any semblance of structure. As an educator, she felt her role was not limited to just teaching the “content,” but also acknowledging the “context” in which her class was operating. Simons says she subsequently transitioned from full-time professor to 30% online educator and 70% unlicensed social worker.
But this kind of support must extend beyond the traditional classroom setting, she argues. High schools and universities must take a more aggressive approach to addressing students’ mental health issues – exacerbated by the pandemic and trauma of systemic racism.
Katie Donnelly, a Princeton graduate student in sociology, is particularly grateful her university has been so accommodating of students’ health and well-being. As a single mom to a three-year-old, she has been juggling the demands of researching and writing her dissertation prospectus while raising her son, who she can no longer drop off at daycare.
In order to better meet the varied needs of its current students and to take care of those who are already in the program, her department announced it suspended graduate admissions for the 2021 cycle. Donnelly writes, “My department’s decision reflects one of the key lessons of this pandemic: in times of crisis, compassion and understanding go a long way.”
But Simons warns, “Trauma doesn’t take a summer vacation.” And schools, in whatever form they take this fall, must continue to be as proactive on the issue of mental health as they are about wearing masks or encouraging social distancing. They need to create counseling hotlines, virtual support groups and spaces for students to speak candidly about their experiences.
Joiselle Cunningham, CEO of Pathways to Creative Industries, tells CNN we need to go even further than that. We’ve traditionally thought of young people’s support system as their immediate family and some of their closest teachers, but given the scope of the challenges students are now facing, she argues that we need to bring potential employers into the conversation.
“It takes a village,” Cunningham says. “And the village needs to be trained.” In the aforementioned Goodwin Simon study, young people said they were empowered by forming connections, but they admitted they did not always know how to form them. This finding, Cunningham argues, creates an opportunity for employers to assist low-income students. But to do so, they must change their frame of thinking from “how few students can we select” to “how many students can we engage,” says Cunningham.
Angela Jackson, a partner at New Profit, a venture philanthropy organization, adds one way to do this is to expand internship access – especially through virtual paid internships. In other words, use technology to broaden opportunities for students left out – or looked over – during the traditional hiring process.
One student who can attest to the power of this kind of virtual internship is Godfrey, who attributes much of her ability to navigate Covid-19 in a home full of sick patients to her internship coordinator. When the pandemic started, her coordinator offered her both the ability to work remotely and additional pay. In doing so, she likely helped reduce the chances Godfrey would transmit the virus as her family members became infected.
Cunningham notes that scaling this kind of change requires providing all students, regardless of income or race, “radical access” to academic and professional opportunities. Her organization, she says, works to provide this kind of access, not just through internships, but also through job training, fireside chats with industry leaders – and workshops for organizations that have committed to reshaping access to career development.
‘Generation Resilient’ has its own ideas
While many students are eager for potential employers to help guide them through the uncertainty, they also have their own ideas about how best to tackle these new obstacles. The first step O’Reilly took after her job offer was all but rescinded was allowing herself to grieve. “Grief may well seem too strong a word to use for the loss of a job or the loss of a graduation. But when I sat with it, and allowed myself to feel it, I felt more open to taking my next steps,” she writes.
Though every student is facing a different set of challenges, O’Reilly explains that it was only when she felt the full weight of the experience that she was able to recalibrate, begin applying for jobs again and even land a position as a medical scribe in her hometown of New Orleans. While the pay is significantly less than her original offer, it’s still in the health care space, where O’Reilly hopes to build a career over time.
Of course, it’s not always easy to navigate grief alone. Niles Francis, an 18-year-old high school senior, knows this first-hand. In the fall of 2018, he lost everything he owned in a house fire. A month later, his mother unexpectedly passed away from diabetes. If not for his remaining family, friends and even school guidance counselors, he is not sure he would have made it to senior year of high school.
And while he is disappointed he won’t get to celebrate his graduation milestone with all those people who came to his aid, he refuses to let the pandemic get in the way of his future plans: “I am fortunate enough to have a community of folks who are genuinely invested in my success, and, well, I can’t let them down.”
For Shemar Powell, a freshman at Morehouse College, community is not limited to his friends, family or even school – it includes his church and its many members. When his in-person classes came to a close and he lost his part-time job in Atlanta, Powell returned home to Baltimore to finish off the semester online. Depressed and exhausted by the magnitude of it all, he turned to his faith, which in pandemic times took the form of Zoom church sessions.
“Imagine you are a small child with an ear infection. As you struggle against the pain, you feel the world is coming to an end. But then your mother approaches you, comforts you and takes you to the doctor where you get the treatment you need to heal. Church is the healing mother for me – more so than my school or job or any other mainstay in my life right now,” he writes.
Though not every student has found a “healing mother,” most young people who contributed to this series acknowledge they would need to be resilient, breaking with old habits and adopting new ones in order to thrive amid both a global health crisis and a nationwide movement to end systemic racism. As Donnelly puts it, this new reality “is one I simply have to accept, in all of its messy uncertainty.”
Rethinking college and student loans
While students grapple with solutions of their own, it’s vital that school administrators, educators and even state and federal legislators think broadly about how to address the gaping holes that the Covid-19 and its aftermath have exposed.
Any sort of large-scale educational reformation requires a functioning university system – and if there is one thing the pandemic laid bare, it’s just how many institutions of higher learning are falling short.
One reason may be public colleges’ lack of sufficient funding – a problem only exacerbated by the economic fallout from the pandemic. Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, explains that with states facing significant budgetary shortfalls this year, public colleges will be contending with an even more precarious financial reality. And if the past recession is any indication, they may see jumps in student enrollment, as many unemployed adults return to school to learn new skills.
If public colleges are to continue to educate almost three-quarters of Americans who attend university, then a “federal investment that helps states weather the storm in the short-term, but ensures long-term funding from both the states and the federal government, has never been more important,” says McCann.
Another option is for Congress to provide additional funding to community colleges, which also play an integral role in preparing Americans for the workforce. After the Great Recession, the federal government created the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program, providing almost $2 billion of additional funding to community colleges to retrain workers for the new economy.
Research at New America shows that this program was quite successful. Their analysis found that students who partook in the TAACCCT program were 30% more likely “to have positive labor market outcomes than comparison students.” McCann argues a similar program could be implemented now to assist unemployed Americans of all ages gain new skills and credentials for the post-Covid world.
But what relief can the government offer O’Reilly and the many students who have just graduated school with significant debt, but limited – if any – employment prospects? One option is to reduce the burden of student loan debt, an idea popularized by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders when they were running for president and one which Warren resurfaced again during the pandemic.
While Democrats have put forth multiple plans around student loan relief, few beyond the Cares Act, which suspended payment and interest on federal loans through the end of September as a consequence of the pandemic, have passed.
However, Roopika Risam, associate professor of secondary and higher education at Salem State University, doesn’t think that means Democrats should stop trying to push for debt forgiveness. If a Republican-led Senate is unwilling to take any major action, she says they could consider debt relief for all essential workers, whether current students or recent graduates. It is “the least the US can do to recognize their sacrifices,” she writes.
Astra Taylor, co-founder of the Debt Collective, an activist group, believes there is a simple economic argument to be made in favor of large-scale student loan forgiveness – and one that might persuade some Republicans who are focused on restarting the economy. According to the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College, broad student debt cancelation could provide a significant boost to the GDP – somewhere between $86 billion and $108 billion per year. And the reason is clear, Taylor says: “All the money currently sent to loan servicers would be freed up,” increasing recent graduates’ spending on everything from cars to homes to starting businesses.
Debt relief has an added benefit – narrowing the racial wealth gap. Economist Marshall Steinbaum says student debt is “a creature of this country’s legacy of racial discrimination, segregation and economic disadvantage patterned by race.” In other words, Black students, on average, take on more debt to go to school, but when they graduate, they face significant wage disparities compared to their White counterparts, one factor that could make it difficult for them to pay down those debts.
In a moment when the country is reckoning with ways to dismantle institutionalized racism, debt relief could be an ideal place to take concrete action.
The pandemic poses a risk not just for recent graduates, but for the many students who must return to school this fall. And since Covid-19 will likely be an issue come September, teachers must consider how they design lesson plans for their students – taking into account the challenges of the spring semester.
As schools across the country transitioned to online learning in late March and early April, many teachers and students struggled to adapt to the virtual environment. Teachers had designed curriculum for face-to-face learning, and students – assuming they had access to online classes – were ill-prepared for this style of instruction.
One approach – that allows for the flexibility of moving between in-class instruction and virtual learning – is “resilient pedagogy,” which is based on the architectural concept of “resilient design,” in which structures are designed to be responsive to their changing environments. David Perry, a senior academic adviser in the history department at the University of Minnesota, says that this begins with “the assumption that everyone is going to need maximum flexibility…. when it comes to deciding how to learn, and maximum patience, trust, and care from professors, staff and peers alike.”
Joshua Eyler, director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, says that rather than having the professor present a poem in class and spending the remainder of the session interpreting it, students would be required to read the poem and answer a set of analytical questions in advance of the class. This additional preparation creates an environment where students do more work on the front end, so the class – in whatever form it takes – is less about learning new material and more about analyzing and dissecting it, a process that can easily be adapted to multiple settings.
But this requires both resilient students and faculty. For students, Eyler says, this means they need guidance in how to excel in online coursework, and for faculty, this means “they need opportunities to learn about engaging teaching strategies that work” outside the usual classroom setting.
Depression era idea for millions of new jobs
Education isn’t the only field in need of reinvention – the labor market could use an update, too. Paula Krebs, the executive director of the Modern Language Association, is a proponent of a new Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the 21st century. Though the original WPA program, designed in the wake of the Great Depression, created more than 8.5 million jobs – many devoted to public infrastructure projects – Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education & Skills at New America, writes that the country’s needs in 2020 are far broader than they were in the 1930s.
But, she adds, “they are every bit as urgent.” While a new WPA should contain funding for infrastructure projects, it should also funnel money to local and state governments, so they can share funds with local businesses and nonprofits, in an effort to slow the number of people applying for unemployment benefits.
Krebs says the program can go even further, just as it did in the 1930s. “[T]he WPA also employed writers, researchers, historians, artists, musicians, actors and other cultural figures – and the work they did had as profound and lasting impact on the nation as the bridges and roads built by thousands of laborers,” she writes.
A modern version of the WPA would allow Americans to begin making sense of this new and complex world. And who better to be a part of that journey than young people just launching their careers. Be they artists, historians or writers, recent graduates can help people better understand, through words and images, how our perceptions shape both ourselves, our surroundings and our beliefs – or lack thereof – in institutions.
More concretely, Krebs says, “A new WPA would put cultural workers, humanities graduates, in municipal offices and nonprofits, in corporations and health care facilities, to help nonprofit and for-profit sectors alike understand difference and communicate effectively. It would put researchers into museums and libraries to help find ways to make resources available remotely and to analyze the ways those resources are used. It would put unemployed PhDs to work within public school systems, to help overburdened teachers with shaping new remote curricula and with introducing new texts and approaches that will enable students to make a smooth transition to college learning.”
This kind of program could also help Americans begin to reimagine both the role of the worker and the workplace. As Joan Williams, founder of the Center for WorkLife Law writes in Harvard Business Review, the American perception of the “ideal worker” – which encourages people to enter the workforce at an early age, and then work “full-time and full force” for the next four decades, is stuck in the 1960s. It depends on a breadwinner-homemaker sort of arrangement, where one spouse can work a seemingly indefinite amount of hours, while the other sees to the needs of the household.
Six decades later, and the majority of American families can no longer rely on that kind of arrangement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, among married Americans with children, almost two-thirds of them had two working parents. In light of this shift, Williams says parents have had to stitch a patchwork approach to child care together – and the pandemic, which brought child care to an abrupt halt, threw their entire system into disarray.
But this sudden disruption also created a chance for change. And, Williams believes, now is the right time to restructure the workforce and re-envision the “ideal worker.” For example, pre-pandemic, she says many employers said telecommuting was impossible and that all employees had to report to a central office, and yet within days of the pandemic, millions of employees had adapted to remote work fairly successfully.
In fact, according to Gallup, as of early April, 62% of employed Americans said they had worked from home during the pandemic, a number that doubled within less than a month. Interestingly, the same poll found that three in five workers who have been working remotely would prefer to continue working from home, even after restrictions have been lifted.
Williams says this shift in mindset, while perhaps a major adjustment for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, actually complements the preferences of millennials, who have less of an affinity for and loyalty to the traditional workplace. She believes Gen Zers are likely more similar to millennials and will embrace a new kind of labor market – particularly one that allows for remote work, flexible work hours and potentially even job sharing.
Employers, who Williams says may face increasingly less loyal employees, would be apt to embrace this kind of large-scale change. More specifically, she believes they should consider making telework a permanent feature – and balancing it with on-site needs of each company. Williams notes, though, that institutionalizing telework will also require some finessing – since it still largely depends on the existence of child care and a place in the home where employees can easily focus on their work.
There is growing research to persuade employers of the efficacy of models like telework. Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University, conducted a study of a travel company with his graduate student James Liang and found that not only did “at-home workers” report being happier and more likely to stay at the company, but they were also more productive.
Of course, all of this change is premised on the idea that recent graduates have employment opportunities at all. And, in this economy, there are no guarantees. Katherine Howard, who graduated in 2020 from Syracuse University, says, “There is no rulebook on how to begin a career in the middle of a global pandemic,” but if there is one thing she has learned over the last few months, it’s to be flexible and patient as the country begins to reopen its doors.
As a music business major, she intended to move to Los Angeles after graduation and work in booking live music events. But, as she points out, it is unlikely people will be gathering in large events anytime soon. While Howard says she still intends to move to Los Angeles, she is open to exploring other career possibilities that may not have been on her radar.
And, she adds, there is a silver lining. She will soon be able to add a new skill to her resume – “how to survive and thrive during a pandemic.”
I’d like to begin by congratulating you on such an enormous accomplishment. If your experience is anything like mine, you are perhaps drowning in a pool of disbelief, struggling to assess how you truly feel about it.