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A person wearing a graduation gown and mortar board and facemask sits in the back seat of a car and holds up a diploma.
Graduates facing uncertain job prospects also have had ceremonies canceled because of the pandemic. Here, a graduate holds up her diploma at a drive-through ceremony for the “Resilient Class” of 2020 in Los Angeles County.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Meet the 2020 grads entering the bleakest economy in decades

“I think about it every day, maybe even every hour.”

The Highlight by Vox logo

Part of the July Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.


Many kids growing up in the shadow of the Great Recession have probably worried that they might graduate into a battered economy just like it. Last August, while I was entering my senior year of college, a piece of financial news sent me into a small panic about whether my own graduation would dovetail with a recession.

An economic crisis happened, sure enough, but it’s one far more catastrophic than anyone could have imagined. Plenty of graduates have had their jobs canceled or postponed indefinitely in the Covid-19 pandemic, and others found that the industries they’d trained for have more or less stopped hiring. Still others can’t get professional licenses to work in their chosen fields. Near the peak of the job losses in March, 31 percent of people ages 18 to 34 in an Axios-Harris survey said they were temporarily or permanently out of work.

“All my peers I’ve talked to feel that something was taken from us,” said Moxxy Rogers, a 22-year-old who just graduated from Portland State University.

You can hear echoes of that sentiment in how 2009 graduates talked about their fortunes during the Great Recession, which stripped many of their moment of triumph and left them facing a post-grad economy that will impact their health and wages for decades.

The class of 2020 is not the class of 2009. And this pandemic has not been like the Great Recession: A Pew report found that, after three months of Covid-19, the unemployment rate jumped more than it did during the two worst years of the Great Recession. Graduating into this level of economic turmoil will continue to haunt the older members of Gen Z.

“Early career events like this tend to have scarring effects, they tend to persist over time,” William Gale, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the Guardian. “The jobs available or the wages available won’t be as good as they would have been otherwise.”

Vox talked to five recent graduates of the class of 2020 to learn how they’re coping — and how they think graduating into a teetering economy will impact them in the long term. Their situations are different: One has a job, another is applying to grad school, some are stuck in career limbo. But most felt cheated out of their chance to celebrate the transition into full adulthood — and several have profound anxiety about the future.

“I’m extremely worried about my plan not working out. I think about it every day, maybe even every hour. … It’s never been more clear to me that there’s absolutely no security for me or for anyone,” said Matthew San Martin, who just graduated from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. “There’s no guarantee.”

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Elena Panos, 21, living in Gilroy, California

Cosmetology certificate, Gavilan College
Right now: Waiting for a license

All through middle school and high school I was into musical theater. I ended up going to community college, which is Foothill College here in Los Altos. And while I was there, I was taking a makeup class. It was about prosthetics, makeup, and wigs.

I was really down one day, and one of my teachers said to me, “I see you have an eye for creating characters just with makeup. I can see a story behind this face that you made.” I was like, I need a drive in my life. I need to figure out what I want in a career. My dream became to work as a makeup designer in theater.

[My teacher] said, “You can go to cosmetology school and get your license, and that’ll open up so many more doors for you.” I was thinking of cutting hair as something to fall back on.

Courtesy of Elena Panos

That was my last semester of college, and I enrolled straight into cosmetology school. My program took exactly two years.

Since everything is shut down right now, I can’t get my cosmetology license because I can’t physically go test. In my whole graduating class, only half of us have our licenses. We’re all just sitting in limbo right now, because we can’t work.

I’m supposed to move to New York City in August to further my education. I’m planning to go to the Make-up Designory [a trade school teaching makeup design]. I don’t even know if that’s going to happen.

It really scares me because my line of work is directly based on person-to-person contact. I can’t do my job without touching someone’s hair, without touching someone’s face, without having a packed room with an audience. It makes me think the theater industry is just never going to be the same.

Money-wise, I’m pretty lucky to have my parents supporting me through school, and I’m really lucky to have them financially supporting me still. I currently live at home with them. But definitely once I’m out of school, I’m worried about finding a place in the economy. That has always been a big source of my anxiety, but now it’s 10 times worse.

Even if Broadway reopens and shows start up again, no one’s going to want to hire a newbie. They’ll probably go back to their tried-and-true people who are established in the industry anyway.

I can’t see things going back to “normal” for probably the next five, 10 years. By then, it’ll be past my time where I should have been starting out and building my career, just as any other person in their early 20s does.

But I don’t regret what I studied. I don’t see myself being content with anything else in my life. I had a big realization that’s like, if I’m not going to be happy in what I’m doing, what’s the point? I’m trying to manifest my best life.

Brianna McGee, 17, living in Fresno, California

Graduated from Mountain House High School
Right now: Taking a gap year

My thought to take a gap year happened during my sophomore year. Being in high school really stressed me. For the last 14 or so years, most of my days were consumed with school. And I want to be a mental health counselor, and in order to do that, I’m giving up seven to 10 more years of my life to school.

I still want to take my gap year. My plans to travel got canceled, but I want to get a small job, something in retail or customer service, and get a little money out. Me and my cousin have a plan of moving and getting a place together. I like to do makeup, lip gloss, and lashes. [We] said we’ll put our heads together and start this business up.

Courtesy of Brianna McGee

I’m not so worried about the future of mental health counselors being impacted by the pandemic. Quarantine will have a long-lasting effect, so people will seek out help. With Gen Z, a good percentage of us are more aware and able to be more vulnerable. So I believe there will definitely be a need.

But I worry a lot about my motivation. I can’t say that I’ve never procrastinated before or put something off. But right now, when I’m working on something, I’m like, “Why does this even matter?” I wonder, “Is this going to help me in the long run?” because we’re in a pandemic. Is my hard work going to count?

My senior year, I didn’t think I was going to graduate. Depression hit everybody hard, but especially me. There were times where I wouldn’t even go to the Zoom lesson and my teachers would be emailing my mom. And I’m like, “No, no, I’ll get it done.” Then a week goes by, still not done. Two weeks go by, still not done. I was just laying in bed, sleeping until 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

Mental health issues are definitely real [in the] pandemic. There are a couple people from my class of 2020 that I have lost to suicide before graduation.

Hopefully, this is a chance for those who need help to recognize that they need it and seek it.

Jordan Kozar, 22, living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Bachelor’s in marketing, Louisiana State University
Right now: Applying for jobs

I ended up going to school for five years instead of the normal four. I started out in finance and had a change of heart, and I realized I had a lot more passion for marketing. Finance is a lot more working behind the numbers, not really working with people and customers.

Looking back at it, I wish I had graduated a year earlier and stuck with finance.

I’m currently living with my parents; I moved back home mid-May after I graduated. I’m applying to about five to 10 jobs a week.

Courtesy of Caroline Clayton

There’s definitely a lot less entry-level jobs that I noticed compared to pre-pandemic. It feels like I’m having to compete against people that have more experience or that have been in the job market a lot longer that recently lost their jobs. I’ve broadened to look at industries such as fundraising and nonprofits. I’m also looking at the esports community because I’ve worked a lot in esports in general.

My biggest fear is having to settle for a job that doesn’t use a lot of the skills I have now and won’t help me in the future. There’s a lot more opportunity in other cities and states when it comes to marketing specifically, so settling for a job in Baton Rouge feels very limiting.

I’ve been trying to look at the positives. Employers aren’t going to look at a gap on a resume as hard anymore because of what’s going on. [In my free time now] I’m also trying to increase my current skills. I’m trying to learn how to code through online programs.

I would say right now I’m emotionally in a good spot. Of course, there are times when the process of finding a job and applying to jobs can be stressful and frustrating. I know that in the long run, though, it will pay off, and I have to be confident to get where I’m going. This pandemic has definitely taught me how to be more patient.

A lot of my friends that before didn’t plan on getting extra education, like a master’s or a doctorate, are considering that now. Some are actually doing it. My parents have even asked me if I want to do it.

Honestly, I’m keeping it in the very, very back as an option.

Moxxy Rogers, 22, living in Portland, Oregon

Bachelor’s in creative writing with a poetry focus, Portland State University
Right now: Working as an AmeriCorps college application coach

Many of us are feeling scared because it’s the worst job market to graduate into. There used to be a protection of, “Oh, you’re a student, don’t worry about those big world problems, your priority is being a student.” Now that protection is gone. We are all the normal, functioning humans in society that we’re supposed to be, but there’s no jobs for us. It’s terrifying to think that you did all this work for all these years, and maybe it was for nothing.

Courtesy of Moxxy Rogers

I fell in love with creative writing when I was really young. My mom’s a writer too. I think she basically raised me in a Barnes & Noble. I put myself through college, I would say, 90 percent on my own. I came from a relatively poor family, and my mom didn’t finish college. My grandma immigrated from Taiwan. She’s had three children and a bunch of grandchildren, and I was the first girl in my family to graduate from college. For me, it was really important.

[Now that I’ve graduated] I have a position with AmeriCorps starting in August. It doesn’t pay a lot, but that’s my security for now. It offers an opportunity of putting my loans on hold. While at AmeriCorps, I want to be simultaneously writing a novel or a memoir that I could send to literary agents in the hopes of getting it published.

Yes, the economy sucks. I put myself through school only to graduate into the worst job market America has ever seen. But I am a poet. I am a creator. I will never stop creating as long as I have breath in my body. All I can do is bide my time.

I want to be a director, producer, actress, and a screenwriter. I want to be a Broadway star. I want to write books until I’m old and senile. I know the pandemic and the immediate crisis will someday pass. I’m lucky that I have writing, and a lot of that I can do from the comfort of my home.

Matthew San Martin, 22, living in San Antonio, Texas

Bachelor’s in communications, St. Edward’s University
Right now: Applying to grad school

I was the editor-in-chief of the student-run newspaper, called Hilltop Views, and I was president of the student-run digital media organization. I also worked as an IT guy.

[In my journalism] I focused on marginalized groups of people both on my campus and in the greater Austin, Texas, community.

At first I thought that I would try to find work in my hometown. But the fact of the matter is that a lot of the publications that I was interested in working for are going out of business.

I can’t stress enough how [all the] plans I had to make money and start my career were thwarted by the pandemic. Literally every single plan I had to start my own publication was thrown away.

Right now, I’m applying to grad school to study how media plays a factor in communication and society. [It’s] for the hope of deferring my student loans even further. Hopefully with an extra degree I have a better chance of getting my foot in the door with a job interview.

I’m extremely worried about my plan not working out. I think about it every day, maybe even every hour.

I think, “Shit, man, what are you doing? This could backfire in the worst way for you.” But I figure it’s a toss-up between going to school online and trying to find work in my field to hopefully gain experience while I’m learning, or just start the rest of my life already.

Courtesy of Matthew San Martin

There’s a part of me that can make the argument that yes, this is my only option. Because frankly, there is nothing that says that when this pandemic is over, for real, and everyone is able to safely go back to work, that a bachelor’s degree will be worth anything if there’s millions of 2020 graduates all competing for the same jobs.

As recent college graduates, we’re forced to put the past behind us and keep moving forward. There wasn’t really a time to be sad or dwell over anything. You just had to finish your degree and start making money to pay off loan debt. I don’t think myself or my friends ever processed what was happening until we were already weeks into our first stay-at-home order.

One other thing I’m worried about is the future of job interviews. The job interview rulebook has always been different for people of color, and you would think with such a big issue affecting everyone that the playing field would be leveled. But I’m worried that instead of employers taking notice of the usual stuff, they’re going to be taking notice of, “Do you have a stable internet connection? Do you have your own office or workspace? Are you able to work odd hours?”

It’s never been more clear to me that there’s absolutely no security for me or for anyone. There’s no guarantee, if I do find work, that it won’t be gone the next month.

I don’t anticipate the spread of the virus getting any better anytime soon. I don’t anticipate the job market clearing up anytime soon. I anticipate the repercussions of this to follow me for many, many years.

Michael Waters is a writer covering politics and economics. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, Gizmodo, BuzzFeed, and the Outline.

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