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2020 felt like a “wasted year” for many young adults

But the fantasy of young adulthood has always been a myth.

Young adults are grappling with what feels like a “wasted” year in 2020.
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Marie Keller had a plan: She was going to move out when she finished school, get an apartment, and commute back and forth to visit her girlfriend. At 22, Marie is in a time of life known for possibilities.

But the pandemic, as it has for so many, has turned those possibilities upside down: She finished her senior project in her dad’s apartment as he recovered from an aneurism, did not move, and, as a first-generation student, wasn’t able to walk in her college graduation ceremony. She is currently working as a farmhand, the only job to call her back after she began applying in March.

“I feel like there is so much I’m supposed to be doing, but I don’t know what it is or how I’m supposed to get it done because of the pandemic,” she said. “I can’t wait until it’s safe to have a big party with my friends. We’ll have fancy cheese and show off our first homes to each other, talk about all of the moments we missed.”

For 20-somethings, this year has been far from fantasy versions of young adulthood: popular conceptions of one’s 20s depict a period of life driven by adventure, exploration, and ambition that is promptly tied up and “figured out” by 30. But the reality of 2020 has punctured the belief that this period of one’s life is uniquely transformational, defined by the grades hard won, jobs hustled for, and adventures that weave the story of one’s life. That was never entirely realistic before, and — during a year in which external markers of success seemed insignificant and business as usual vanished for most — it certainly isn’t now.

Young people ages 18 to 29 are moving back in with their parents at record rates (and, often, that’s spun as some sort of moral failing, an innate inability to “make” it on your own, without regard for the circumstances, culture, and caregiving that might play a role). Meanwhile, many college students have been booted from campuses, losing jobs, communities, and stability in the process. The pandemic is set to exacerbate postponement of “key” life events, including getting married, having kids, or buying homes, which were already happening later compared to previous generations, if one chooses to or can do them at all. A popular meme depicts the contrast between young people today and their parents’ generation when it comes to major life decisions.

Black and brown young adults are feeling the pandemic’s impacts the most — data published by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) shows that 53 percent of Hispanic young adults and 45 percent of Black young adults are experiencing unemployment during the pandemic, compared to 38 percent of white young people.

But framing these statistics as “setbacks” relies on myths about a period of life that were always marred by harsh realities — from job failures to becoming a caretaker for aging parents to navigating finances and health insurance sometimes for the first time solo. Of course, these things don’t only happen in young adulthood, nor are young adults the only ones who have experienced a year of pause, loss, or personal chaos. But because this period is often heralded as a crucial period of identity formation, it’s worth looking at how that narrative isn’t serving anyone — young adults included.

Darcey N. Powell, an associate professor of psychology at Roanoke College, said that people often compartmentalize young adulthood into two, rather contradictory, bubbles: either full of exploration with limited responsibilities, or a period to figure it all out, “without acknowledging that it’s much more intricate and there’s much more heterogeneity than that,” she said.

Powell said these “perceived norms” can’t predict behavior but do influence individuals. This includes personal-level norms, like your perception of friends and family. But entertainment and media as well as social media have “likely contributed to the cultivation of the false dichotomy” of young adulthood, she said.

The idealization of this time of life is everywhere: in films and TV shows dripping with nostalgia for road trips and first loves and mistakes made that can be turned into easily digestible chunks of wisdom; in lists outlining the most successful under 30; in wistful reminders that now is the time to live it up before “real life” sets in, conveniently ignoring how many young people have been managing adult roles and responsibilities for a long time.

Powell explained that “violated expectations” occur when your thoughts about what will happen don’t align with what you think, feel, or experience. This feels like a defining theme of 2020. “I would suspect this pandemic has likely increased stress related to doing so since securing employment, acquiring a partner, and so forth is significantly more difficult,” she said on the influence of these norms.

Shontise McKinney, a 25-year-old mom to two sons who is also pursuing her college degree, started the year brimming with optimism. But because of the pandemic, she lost her job, which left Shontise worrying about housing instabilities in the future. “Covid has obscured the future for many,” she said. “It’s hard to live in the present when we are concerned about surviving a pandemic along with creating a life for ourselves.”

Meanwhile, Courtney (who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy), 26, was supposed to be getting married next month. A lot of her 20s, she explained, was spent making choices to make things “good in the way that I thought they were supposed to be good.”

That meant going to college and having a good time, but also having a solid, long-term relationship; as a first-generation college graduate and a first-generation American on her mom’s side, she thought getting the right job and having the right partner would bring her joy. But earlier in the fall, her relationship ended, and now, she’s single for the first time in a decade.

“It’s definitely not that fun, glamorous, or dressed-up-to-go-out exploring of my life that I thought I would be doing,” she said about being 26 and single during a pandemic. 2020, instead, brought a different kind of exploration: “I think one misconception I had about my 20s would be that I had done a lot of exploring that I needed to do, or I didn’t need to, because I knew what I wanted,” Courtney said. Now, she’s reconsidering what she actually wants and needs. “Are there things that I was rushing full speed ahead on, where the motion of rushing was distracting me from where I was going, or if there were roadside stops that I wanted to make?”

For some young adults, 2020 has been a chance to reconfigure — or acknowledge — how they really want their lives to be

LuTisha, 27, has worked on three political campaigns within the last year and has felt the devastating realities of 2020: She has lost several relatives to Covid-19 and recalls the impact of having to break the news of those deaths to her mom in a parking lot. But, “I’ve had a lot of joy in my life,” she said. “For me, if anything, this year has shown me that my life is too short — you never know when you’re going to take your last breath, so why not live in the moment?”

With that in mind, LuTisha decided to get married this year without any hesitation. The embrace of joy and love, “as a Black woman in a time where we’re being killed in our own homes by the police,” is powerful, she said.

The Instagram-illustrated myth of the carefree 20-somethings has long felt painfully out of touch with many young adults — which is perhaps one of the reasons that quips of selfishness and irresponsibility and rootless freedom blanketed on entire generations of young people have always felt baffling.

“I wish that we were talking more about inequalities in this life phase,” said Pamela Aronson, professor of sociology and an affiliate faculty member of women’s and gender studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “The transition to adulthood looks very different for young people from different racial and class backgrounds.”

It’s crucial to note that a lot of the pressures commonly aligned with “being young” can’t be divorced from race, class, and socioeconomics. “The myth is that young people go off to college and try on identities,” said Aronson. “But the reality is that only middle- and upper-middle-class youth have the space to be able to do so.”

A 2020 report from Hope Center found that, of more than 38,000 students responding to their survey, 58 percent were experiencing basic-needs insecurity. An estimated 12 percent to 18 percent of caregivers in the United States are between the ages of 18 and 24, and young adults have the lowest rate of access to employer-based health insurance. Meanwhile, student debt continues to grow. And, as research from CLASP points out, US youth and young adults — “particularly those from communities of color — were facing disproportionately higher rates of poverty, unemployment, income inequality, debt, and unmet health and mental health needs” even before the pandemic.

Of course, young adults aren’t the only ones struggling. America’s blatant ageism and lack of consideration for elderly people have been underscored again and again during the pandemic. And it’s worth examining the youth-centric pressures of American society that can make people feel the need to figure out their lives as fast as possible.

What happens in young adulthood undoubtedly matters, especially given how much identity formation unfolds during this time of life. But the fixation on young adulthood feels at least somewhat rooted in classist, sexist stereotypes: You don’t stop learning, or experiencing fun, or trying new things past the “prime of your life” years — and tethering those ideals to a certain age ignores how many young people have been doing the “adult” stuff, like working multiple jobs or raising kids or caring for family members, this entire time.

Rushing to get your life together before “real life” settles in makes it seem like there’s a New Year’s Eve-style countdown clock on what years carry the most value. But this is a fantasy that, once punctured, should free us. The idealization of young adulthood doesn’t render the rest of one’s life less consequential.

Rainesford Stauffer is a writer, Kentuckian, and author of the forthcoming book about young adulthood, An Ordinary Age, out in May 2021, from Harper Perennial. You can find her on Twitter @Rainesford.