According to most standards, Harkirat Anand did everything right. He went to one of the best schools in the country, Washington University in St. Louis. He focused on STEM fields, double-majoring in economics and math. And when he finished his internship with a major telecommunications firm during his junior year, the company offered him a part-time position, all but guaranteeing him a full-time job the summer after he graduated. He worked diligently his senior year, forgoing hallmark experiences — 3 a.m. diner runs, dingy basement parties, regrettable hookups — in pursuit of a brighter future. “I thought it was a worthwhile trade-off, quite honestly,” he says. “I thought, ‘If this amounts to something, I’m OK making that sacrifice.’ ”
Then Covid-19 hit, and he heard nothing from the telecommunications firm for a month. “They totally ghosted me,” he says. When staffers finally got back in touch around April, they informed him that because of the pandemic, they were no longer filling the position. With nothing to do and nowhere to go except back home, with nearly 10 other family members, Anand, 22, fell into a deep depression. He gained weight and would stay in his room for days. “I became very reclusive and fell into despair for a while,” he says. “That all but paralyzed me.”
Anand is a member of the undergraduate class of 2020, one of the most star-crossed generations in recent history: born just a few years before 9/11, coming of age during the Great Recession, and leaving college during a global pandemic and an unprecedented attack on American democracy, with unemployment rates skyrocketing. They now face the seemingly insurmountable task of establishing careers and adult lives during a time when being an adult feels pretty much impossible for everyone.
From the very start of the pandemic, when classes were canceled and students kicked off campus, the class of 2020’s segue into the real world has been shaky at best. “When you leave college, [it’s] like, ‘What was the purpose of that? What did I take away from it?’ ” says Andrew Garcia-Bou, 23, a recent graduate of Bates College in Maine.
When I first began speaking to Garcia-Bou, he was living at his parents’ house in Westchester County, New York, hundreds of miles away from his girlfriend in Vermont; though he was unfailingly affable and decorous, it didn’t take long for his frustration at being deprived of his anticipated post-grad experience — an apartment in the city, a stable job, starting to pay off more than $50,000 worth of student loans — to bubble over. “Like, yes, I gained an education,” he says. “But so much of it is the general social experiences and developing friendships and relationships.” He got a job in June, but continues to live at home, while his girlfriend has since moved to Boston; in early 2021, he was diagnosed with Covid-19.
In an effort to understand their fears, concerns, and frustrations, over the past year Rolling Stone has spoken with dozens of recent college graduates from all over the country and with varying racial and economic backgrounds, following up with a select few struggling to carve out a place in a stubbornly resistant job market. “The fact that this crisis is continuing to drag on and people are staying unemployed for longer doesn’t paint a good -picture” for recent graduates, says AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist for the job-listings website Indeed.com. Garcia-Bou puts it differently: For recent grads, “it just sucks.”
Generally speaking, the unemployment rate has been slowly but steadily declining since its peak last April, after the initial shock of lockdown. But the job market has far from reverted to its pre-pandemic state, particularly for people between the ages of 16 and 24: As of January 2021, the youth unemployment rate is 11.3 percent, still significantly above the 8.5 percent rate a year earlier. Part of the problem, according to Konkel, is that there simply aren’t enough jobs out there for recent graduates. As of September 2020, Indeed.com postings for banking and marketing, fields that traditionally attract recent college graduates, are down 30 and 38 percent, respectively. Even internships, a standard method for young adults to enter their chosen industry, are down by 25 percent — despite clicks for internship postings being up 28 percent compared with 2019.
With so few jobs available and so many graduates looking for work, the climate is fiercely competitive. “I’d find an entry-level position and I’d see on LinkedIn ‘2,000 people applied in 18 hours,’ ” says Justin Grauer, a University of Miami graduate. “And I wouldn’t even apply because the chances of me getting an interview, let alone a job, are slim to none.”
“It’s just heartbreaking,” says Payton Pampinto, 23, of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “I feel like I’m trying so hard. But employers will just ghost you. It’s like they don’t care.”
The obstacles facing recent college graduates during the pandemic don’t just affect them in the short term. Prior research on graduates during recessions indicates that the effects of un- or under-employment for recent grads may linger eight to 10 years after graduation, says Stephanie Aaronson, VP and -director of the economic studies program at the Brookings Institution. If jobs in their chosen field aren’t available, many will take positions in other fields, which research has shown can have a long-term impact on their ability to gain a foothold in their desired industry.
“Your first job isn’t usually your best job, but it’s the way you make connections and learn what it means to be in the labor force. It’s the thing that provides the springboard to your future success,” Aaronson explains. “The concern is that it just could take longer, and the evidence shows that if you graduate into a recession, it takes longer to settle in and move up the career ladder.”
To make matters worse, it is those who are already at a disadvantage — black, indigenous, people of color, and low-income recent graduates — who will likely be hardest hit. Previous data has found that black college graduates are twice as likely as their white peers to be unemployed, a trend that will likely be exacerbated by the pandemic. “I try not to think ahead too much just because it’s kind of scary to wonder what anything looks like even a month from now, just the way this year has been going,” Larisha Paul, a black NYU graduate and aspiring music writer who is unemployed and owes $14,000 in student loans, told me in September. Currently, her only source of income is blogging for a music website for a few hundred dollars a month. “I just turned 22, and I’m already feeling very old,” she says.
Because employers were by and large not hiring for entry-level jobs last summer, there’s also been an increase in unpaid internship opportunities and companies asking for freelance projects on spec, which automatically serves as a barrier for low-income students, according to Dana Hamdan, an associate dean and executive director of the Career Development Center at Oberlin College. “Students who don’t have these financial challenges are the ones securing these unpaid opportunities and in the long term are benefiting more,” she says.
The end result is a sizable cohort of young people stranded at home, bored and alienated, with a multitude of qualifications and nothing to do with them. “We have all the degrees, all the knowledge, and we just cannot land a job,” says Dean-Anna Gayle, 25, a Florida International University graduate. Last April, when I first started talking to Gayle, she was unemployed and living in Miami with her mother, a disabled veteran, and sister, after Geico revoked a job offer; she was applying to 10 jobs a day. “We’re ready to work. We want to work. That’s why we go to college,” she says. “It’s difficult to have all this knowledge and all this drive to work, and not be able to.”
Gayle’s readiness for the workforce was apparent even in our early Zoom interviews, where she was relentlessly professional, wearing office-ready button-downs and always referring to me as “ma’am.” It was hard to understand why any prospective employer would not want to hire her for virtually any role.
It didn’t take long for Gayle to get back on track — Geico hired her in May — but many college students who had job offers rescinded weren’t so lucky. This has led to them feeling as if the ground beneath their feet had suddenly given way — leaving them stranded, with their lives abruptly put on hold. When she left the University of Alabama with a degree in marketing, Pampinto, the graduate from Muscle Shoals, was expecting to move to Palm Springs, California, to take a job as an events coordinator at an upscale hotel. After she graduated, the hotel kept pushing back the start date — first by a few weeks, then by a few months. So she moved back home to live with her stepmom and dad, expecting it to be temporary. Six months into the pandemic, she got a call telling her she should start looking for other jobs.
“It’s been terrible, really,” she said in September of post-grad life. “You get your hopes up so much to start your own life. Now I’m just stuck at home seeing only my stepmom and my dad every single day. And it’s just so tiring, even though I don’t have much going on. I literally just sit in bed and message people on LinkedIn.”
In February, Pampinto moved into an apartment in Atlanta with a roommate who lost her job during the pandemic, using money she’d saved up working at a bridal boutique and selling clothes on sites like Depop and Poshmark. When we last spoke in February, she was applying for nanny jobs and a position at SoulCycle. But she had given up hope on working in the events space, for which she had spent nearly four years in college studying to get her degree.
“I’m just scared,” she told me. “I don’t know how long this is gonna last and if things will ever go back to the same in the events industry. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do what I originally planned to do.”
All of this uncertainty is taking a toll on young people’s mental health. In the U.S., nearly 75 percent of people between 18 and 24 are reporting at least one adverse mental-health condition, including depression and anxiety — more than twice the number of Gen Xers and baby boomers reporting such symptoms, according to CDC data. Crisis-outreach inquiries are also spiking. Taylor Mewhiney, 22, is a recent college graduate and a volunteer for a suicide-prevention hotline. She says she’s seen an influx of calls from people her age. “They’re very drained,” she says. “They’re not used to having no structure, no schedule, and a lot of people are teetering on the edge of ending their own lives.”
Lexi Torrence, 22, is a soft-spoken University of South Carolina graduate who majored in journalism. Immediately after graduating, she moved into her boyfriend’s one-bedroom apartment in Savannah, Georgia, and spent months fruitlessly hunting for editing and social media jobs. In August, after experiencing mysterious stomach pains, she had to have gallbladder surgery, but complications from the procedure forced her to go on bed rest, temporarily pausing her job search.
Torrence has also had to deal with the stress of having family members who are glued to Fox News and who, at the start of the lockdowns, regularly diminished the seriousness of Covid-19, a common narrative among recent graduates in the pandemic’s early days. “I feel helpless. I feel like I can’t do anything, -physically or with my family and with the world and life,” she said last spring. “I’m the kind of person who likes to take charge and do stuff, and I feel like I can’t right now. I can’t make my family wear a mask or wash their hands. I feel like I’m teaching a class of toddlers that doesn’t want to listen.” (She says they have since come around on being vaccinated and they also accept that Biden legitimately won the election.)
Torrence’s life, she says, has been “derailed” by the pandemic. She is now freelancing for her hometown paper, getting $20 per article. “All the control and all the plans I had for 2020 and 2021 fell through, and I had no way of stopping it,” she says. “I can’t stop myself from being sick. I can’t stop the pandemic. It’s just frustrating. I feel like I am more helpless than I’ve been since I was a kid.”
Such feelings of helplessness and malaise have contributed to recent graduates’ general sense of disillusionment toward their own alma maters, particularly career-services departments. Graduates (especially at large schools) often expressed their frustration with the paucity of resources available to them the second they graduated, as well as the uselessness of services like career-counseling departments. They felt that college was, in general, a rip-off, and they may very well be right: The average student-loan debt for the class of 2018, two years ahead of the class of 2020, was $29,200, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
“For graduates, there’s really no assistance. For current students, yes, but not for graduates,” says Gayle, the Florida International University graduate. “It’s basically like, ‘Here’s a job on Indeed,’ ‘Here’s a webinar.’ And that’s basically about it.”
Even those whose job is to help these individuals don’t find this an unfair perception, noting that their offered services — things like résumé writing and interview prep — haven’t changed in decades. “These services only cater to the needs of affluent students who are already immersed in a thick supportive network and have completed an internship or two,” says Hamdan. “We need to offer programming that allows all students — and in particular less-affluent students — help.”
In the first few months of the pandemic, in lieu of being able to find more traditional jobs, Hamdan says, many college students started volunteering and embarking in activism in order to give themselves a sense of purpose. Many became deeply involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests against the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last summer. In the early months of the pandemic, some focused on making PPE.
For Anand, the WashU graduate, the killing of Floyd was a turning point. In the absence of a paying job, he decided to assume an activist role, doing pro-bono college consulting and tutoring individuals in marginalized communities. “There is something to be said about how institutional issues play into a world where everyone is forced to sit and ponder these experiences without the distractions of the real world,” he says. “It gives our generation clarity to evaluate the situation and present solutions that are proactive.”
He started reevaluating what he could do with his off time and began exercising, losing 60 pounds. He also grew closer with his family, particularly his mother. “One day she just showed up at my door and grilled me on what was going on, and I broke down in her arms. I kinda cried and told her I was really in the shitter. She just sat there and listened,” he says. “She didn’t give me any advice, like she usually does, she just let me vent. She told me that my anxiety won’t disappear tomorrow and it’ll probably follow me around, but ‘Let’s work on getting you to a place where you feel better and can move forward.’ ”
Unlike many of the people I spoke to for this story, Anand has distinct memories of the post-9/11 ecosystem; as a Sikh American, he and his family faced discrimination in the wake of the attacks. For this reason, he feels he has a fairly unique view of what it’s like for a generation to be shaped by a single cataclysmic event. “I’m very aware that if one thing goes awry, things could fall apart,” he told me in February. “They’re very precarious as they stand.”
In January, however, Anand started a position at AlphaSights, an information-services company, in New York City. He has an apartment near Hudson Yards, though he plans to move back home to save money and help with his family’s mortgage. But a full-time job in New York had been his destination all along. It just took him a little longer to get there. “Everyone ultimately adjusts,” he says. “The fizz ultimately settles. Sure, this might be a new normal. But I don’t think we’re cosmically fucked.”