October 27, 2020

Young Americans Hit Hard by the Pandemic’s Economic Toll

Share of young people who are neither working nor in school spikes

When Owen Sandor graduated college in the spring of 2020, it didn’t immediately set in that his hopes of landing a job in journalism or communications in the Northeast might no longer be realistic. A few months later, as the pandemic continues to upend life across the country, he’s wondering when any kind of a career will be possible.

“I have no real job prospects at the moment. There’s just very few job opportunities,” Sandor said. “At this point, it’s just been pretty discouraging.”

For now, the 22-year-old is living with his parents in his childhood home in Reading, Pennsylvania, and writing obituaries for the newspaper one or two days a week.

“I didn’t think I was necessarily going to get my dream profession out of college, but I thought something was going to be available,” Sandor said. “You try to remain optimistic because it’s the only hope you have, but it’s a pretty discouraging time to have graduated.”

Young people like Sandor, ages 16 to 24, have been hit hard by the pandemic’s economic fallout. In June 2020, 10.3 million young people were neither in school nor in the workplace — that’s 28% of them, the highest rate recorded for any June since data became available in 1989.

of young people were neither in school nor in the workplace in June 2020

When 2020 started, those numbers were similar to other years, landing around 12%. From March to April, however, they spiked from 12% to 20%, before climbing even further in June. The experience of being “disconnected” binds together a remarkable number of young Americans, affecting both men and women, every major racial and ethnic group, and people living in rural and urban areas.

Karim Lokwa was born in Uganda but came to the United States as a refugee when he was 16. Lokwa was laid off from his job in a factory that made exercise equipment at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I felt so sad losing that job. I saw myself working there and saving up enough money to reach my goals and start my life, and now I feel like I’m two steps backwards,” said the 20-year-old Los Angeles resident.

One of those goals is taking the GED, since he was never able to finish high school.

“When I think about my future and my goals, I really feel like education is the key to my success,” he said.

Without a job to help pay for it, however, it’s a key that feels out of reach.

Maddie Mallett was stringing together a couple of jobs to make ends meet — one in retail and one at the community college in Austin, Texas, where she was studying philosophy when the pandemic struck. The 23-year-old was furloughed from her retail job but felt lucky that she was able to stay on her health insurance and that she qualified for unemployment.

As the pandemic drags on, however, Mallett knows that neither of those things will last forever. She isn’t optimistic she’ll be rehired once health conditions improve, which could soon mean losing her health insurance, a frightening thought in the midst of a global pandemic.

“Mentally I feel like this has shortened my life span,” she said of the mental health effects. “I’m so exhausted beyond the ability to function. Everything feels so pressurized and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”

From vulnerability to the virus, to job loss, to remote learning, the pandemic poses unique challenges for every generation. For Mallett and her contemporaries, however, entering adulthood during a global pandemic feels like a special kind of challenge: it feels like they never even got a chance to start.

Still, Mallett said she feels that her generation can play a unique role in defining a different future.

“I don’t give up because I know that tomorrow will be a better day,” Lokwa said.

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