Summer used to be a time for career exploration and discovery — I worked for a reining horse trainer for two high-school summers — but now high-school and college students this year face empty months. For most students, there will be no summer school, study abroad, or career-building internships. There will be few opportunities to network and meet a mentor, to decide whether one likes being in a chemistry lab, or to save up for college.
This summer has the potential to negatively affect the rest of Generation Z’s lives. As the shutdown drags on, the unemployment rate has soared for Gen Z more than for any other age group. Joblessness jumped more than 20 points (from 11 percent to 31.9 percent) from February to April for workers between 16 and 19 years old, and just under 20 points for those aged 20–24. This spike resulted in a higher unemployment rate than during the 2009 recession.
All of this should come as no surprise. Young adults were poised to suffer economically from the pandemic. According to Pew Research, prior to social distancing, nearly one-half of workers ages 16–24 worked in service jobs such as restaurants and hotels.
Worse still, the effects of coronavirus joblessness on Generation Z will not evaporate along with the summer heat. According to data from past recessions, students graduating during an economic downturn often must combat lower wages and slower career growth for decades. The Federal Reserve thus refers to older millennials who came of age during the Great Recession as the “lost generation,” because they have less opportunity to accumulate wealth during their lifetimes. Like today’s graduates, those older millennials entered the workforce facing high unemployment and high debt. Many are still recovering.
This summer also follows on the heels of a disruptive spring semester. Colleges and universities sent home some 50 million students. Within the space of weeks, students lost out on on-campus camaraderie, relationships with professors, research projects, their final sports or band season, study abroad and other experiential learning opportunities. Many also gave up certain rights of passage, like prom, awards dinners, and graduation.
Then came summer. Many of my college students in Missouri were looking forward to internships on Capitol Hill, to living and working in Washington, D.C., a place some had never visited. Others saw their dream jobs evaporate with social-distancing guidelines. Some are now considering graduate school, which may well be conducted only online in the fall, making research difficult and shortchanging students of the full on-campus experience.
But the prospect of more school comes with uncertainty, too. As universities announce they will remain shuttered for the fall semester, teaching only online, students face tough decisions. According to an American Council on Education (ACE) survey, 17 percent of college students indicated that they were uncertain about or definitely not returning to college in the fall. Similarly, a survey of high-school seniors found that the same percentage (17 percent) definitely or likely will change plans to enroll in a four-year institution in the fall.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that our young adults are not coping well with the pandemic and its economic fallout. In a survey of college students, 91 percent expressed concerns about the economy and half worried about their finances.
More pressing, a new CDC study shows that 40 percent of young adults have experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety in the last month. The National Center for Health Statistics asked questions modified from the Patient Health Questionnaire (used to help diagnose depression) and from the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale (used to measure anxiety). In answering the following questions, forty percent of students scored at levels associated with diagnoses of major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. Some of these students indicated that they had felt down or hopeless, at least some of the time. Others indicated that, in the past week, they’d frequently been anxious and unable to stop worrying.
Our young people were not in a great position before the pandemic. According to a 2018 American Psychological Association report, Gen Z was the “most likely” age group to report poor mental health. In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death among people ages 10–24, and for the same age group, suicide rose 56 percent from 2007 to 2017.
As policymakers consider options to reopen and revitalize the economy, they should not leave our youth out of their calculations. Generation Z is struggling; they may not contribute this year to the COVID-19 death toll, but, unless something is done soon, many will be casualties of the shutdown.
ERIN HAWLEY is a senior legal fellow at the Independent Women’s Law Center, a senior fellow at the Kinder Institute for Constitutional Law, and a former clerk to Chief Justice John Roberts.