This was originally posted on LinkedIn on March 27th, 2020.
Just one month ago, many of us felt secure, entering a job market touted by politicians and businesspeople for its soaring stock market and record low unemployment. Seemingly overnight, this security has been neutralized as trusted sources threaten short-term unemployment projections reaching as high as 20 percent.
This COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented.
And with universities closing, major companies closing their stores and entire nations under lockdown, the sense of anxiety amongst soon-to-be graduates is palpable.
“The only thing we have to compare this to is 2008 crash,” says Louise Barnes a senior from Syracuse University. In 2008, the housing bubble burst. A cumulative default on debt payments sent the economy into a recession. At its worst, we saw unemployment numbers for recent graduates peaked to as high as 7 percent.
The fear felt during this time was very real. But as the economy recovered, recent graduates got through, with unemployment for the segment dropping back down to nearly 5 percent by the spring of 2011.
With the oldest of us just becoming teenagers when the Great Recession began, some got to see the effects of this recession firsthand. And while there may be some similarities, this situation is developing much differently.
Generation Z has been painted an idealized picture of college; a haven of old libraries and knowledge just waiting to be found; the place you find your independence and discover yourself, while setting the foundation for a promising future.
Settle in as a freshman, have fun as a sophomore, buckle down as a junior and get your first job as a senior.
That’s the story we’ve been sold.
The experiences of many have already fallen far short of this ideal… but in just a moments time, things have gone from disappointing to downright bizarre.
Before crisis, the most recent generation of college graduates carried a unique anxiety… not that they wouldn’t find employment at all, rather, that they’d fail to find a job which directly utilized the skills just attained from their college degree (picture the hapless barista or the office-bound creative).
But in the blink of an eye the world has changed.
We are now living in a state of global emergency. The anxiety we may have felt over underemployment has given way to a much greater fear.
The fear of finding your first job in an economic recession.
“With businesses just trying to get by, I just don’t see a place for me anymore”, said Tori Smith, senior at George Washington University. She, like many of her peers, worry that, as companies downsize, internships, fellowships, and entry-level positions will be the among the first priorities to go.
And there’s some credence to this fear— with industries losing billions of dollars overnight, many companies have shifted their emphasis from sustainable growth to mitigating losses. As Smith continues, “how could a recruiter invest in me if they’re worried about keeping their own job?”
Even for industries that have not been as directly affected by the outbreak, the in-person interview season has been cut short. With outright bans on travel and non-essential contact, searching for a job in the short-term future now must be done remotely, immediately putting those without reliable technology or robust social networks at a disadvantage.
Some students have even seen their initial offers rescinded, like Christian Hayward, a student at SUNY ESF. He had an exciting fellowship scheduled to begin in early summer, but last week he received an email saying that, because of COVID-19, the program has been postponed.
“It has been really disruptive,” he said. “thinking you have your future all mapped out, to then get the rug pulled from under you like that… it’s scary.”
Upcoming graduates have a wide range of concerns about entering this daunting future. One more immediate concern, finding sustainable income now.
Over 700,000 Americans filed for unemployment claims last week as millions of workers have lost jobs or been asked to reduce hours, college students are no exception. With nationwide campus shutdowns have come a massive shock in student employment. Those with on-campus jobs, or even those working closely off-campus, have been suddenly upended in the past two weeks, asked to go home, and thus, forfeit their primary source of income.
“That’s something that’s been missing from the conversation. Outside of finding that dream career, there’s pressure to find a job just to sustain today” says Barnes.
Without a consistent source of income, many students are dipping into savings or even asking their parents for money.
A far cry from the independent lives we had been preparing for.
College has been sold to us as the first step to personal and financial freedom. The coronavirus is yet another threat to that vision, as the sudden shock has threatened to suspend millions of life milestones; walks across the stage at commencement, moves to new cities and celebrations after securing that first job.
It has attacked our sense of security, filling an already unclear time with more uncertainty.
The class of 2020 has uniquely felt the impact of this terrible pandemic.
And just like everyone else, the only thing we can do is wait… with bated breath… and hope that the future brings a strong recovery.
*names were changed for purpose of anonymity*