Before the COVID-19 pandemic, life was pretty good for post-graduate Gen Zers, budding young professionals, and graduating college seniors. America was in the midst of the “longest economic expansion on record,” with personal income growing in every state save for West Virginia, and an unemployment rate comfortably between 2 percent and 5 percent.
Then, almost overnight, everything changed.
States ordered lockdowns as the coronavirus began to spread through the country, grinding the economy to a halt. All at once, young people whose futures had seemed bright saw their career prospects diminish. Studies have shown that entering the job market during a recession can have lasting effects on young adults, which include lower life-expectancy and depressed wages. Earning less can in turn delay home ownership, marriage, family formation, and other rites of passage. Bleak economic conditions are of course not permanent, but there is no doubt that, like Millennials who graduated after the fiscal crisis of 2008–09, many Gen Zers will face high levels of economic anxiety throughout their 20s and early 30s.
Even those who maintained employment throughout the pandemic saw their jobs change dramatically. Thayer, a young investment-banking analyst at Credit Suisse, told National Review about the upsides and downsides of a post-lockdown life in which she does all her work remotely.
“Being at home has allowed me to capitalize on my down time, whereas I typically would’ve had to stay in the office until 10pm at the minimum,” she said. “Now, I can do things during the day and not have to ‘show face’ as long as I’m online, and my laptop is accessible.”
With a bit more freedom and work-life balance, however, comes a reduced ability to learn from more experienced coworkers.
“I cannot watch second year analysts (and other higher ups) work out financial models,” Thayer said. When things get particularly busy in “crunch time,” the newer analysts “often get left out of the loop,” and it becomes increasingly difficult to ask questions as a remote employee. “I miss New York City more than I miss the office,” she added. “But I miss the social aspect [of the office], and I think I would be learning more.”
Another young professional who spoke to NR, James, a 2020 graduate who works full-time while earning an MBA online, had initially hoped that he would be able to enjoy senior year even as COVID began to spread. But “opportunity for college graduates was nonexistent as employers weren’t hiring, travel was banned, and socializing with friends and family was deemed unsafe,” he said. Though he adjusted his expectations accordingly, there was always an “unease” about the new post-graduate life as “the fear of unemployment” became “a harsh reality.”
“I am fortunate in that [my] current job was not hugely affected by the COVID-19 lockdown,” said Pete, a Gen Zer who works as a staff accountant. But he remains worried that the pandemic-ravaged economy has made him less willing to take risks in the pursuit of a better job, given the stability of his current position. “ I would say it has made me hesitant to freely explore other career options given the uncertainty in the job market and overall economy,” Pete said.
“I think it’s too soon to tell how or if the pandemic will have a marked impact on my long-term career goals,” said Julia, who deferred starting law school for a year because she was “wary of making such a huge financial investment for virtual classes.” “Even though I’d rather be in school right now, I’m thankful for the practical exposure I’m getting, and hope it will set me up to make more informed career choices.”
Despite the evidence that young adults who enter labor markets in a recession can experience “substantial impacts on lifetime outcomes,” many Gen Zers seem to be doing okay, or at least to be making the best of the hand they’ve been dealt.
“The pandemic will strongly encourage people to adopt a very long-term perspective on their careers — planning for years, not just months ahead,” Pete said. “But I also believe this younger generation is one of the most adaptive and could pivot very easily in an ever-changing world.”