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20-Somethings Lost Something in the Pandemic. They Still Haven’t Found It

17 minute read
Klinenberg, the Helen Gould Shepard Professor in the Social Sciences and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, is the author of 2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year Everything Changed.

In January, 2020, Luis was 21 and beginning the second semester of his junior year at a public university in New York City. He lived with family in Queens, and everyone pitched in to make ends meet. His father was retired. His mother collected disability insurance. His older sister, with whom he shared a bedroom, was a veterinary technician. Luis worked at a law firm. The apartment was crowded, loud, and sometimes crazy. But in New York City, what isn’t? Luis was usually out in the world, anyway, because when you’re in your twenties, the world is yours.

When COVID hit, Luis’s universe suddenly narrowed. No school. No job. No parties. No friends. He went grocery shopping and was stunned to find the shelves nearly empty. “People were just hoarding,” he recalled. “There was nothing.” A few days later, he lost his sense of smell. Soon, his whole family had the virus. It was scary, because by then Queens was one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Ambulance sirens blared around the clock. Local hospitals were filled to capacity, with so many dead bodies that they needed refrigerated trucks to store the remains. Luis experienced all this as a shock to his system. A few weeks earlier, he was looking at graduate schools and thinking about a new life in a new city. Now his main goal was to survive.

In February, I was teaching an undergraduate course on the sociology of climate change at NYU, lecturing about how crises can spark major transformations in states, societies, and individual lives, too. My example was the Great Depression, which not only contributed to the rise of fascism in Europe and the New Deal in the U.S., but also—as all of us with penny-pinching grandparents who insisted we save up instead of buying that shiny new thing remember—shaped the habits and beliefs of a generation. When I used the phrase, “depression era mentality,” everyone knew what I meant.

Back then, in the Before Times, the class was focused on the prospect of an ecological catastrophe; only one student was concerned about the new coronavirus, and he had just arrived from China. By March the US was plunging into a pandemic emergency. Campuses closed everywhere. Classrooms went remote. Jobs disappeared. NYU undergraduates, like those at most residential colleges, were forced out of their dorms and sent home. In the years that followed, millions of young adults who had planned to spend their twenties immersed in social life, searching for new opportunities, and prying the world open, found themselves, instead, hunkering down.

How the sustained disruptions of the pandemic years changed America’s twenty-somethings is a question we’ve failed to answer. It’s not even one we’ve seriously examined. In recent years, scientists and policy makers have been consumed with the problems of other cohorts: children suffering from learning loss; overworked parents; old people with elevated risks of COVID death and disease. But this year, as young adults who came of age in 2020 have become swing voters in the presidential election—with pollsters noting their surprisingly high levels of disengagement and an unexpected surge of support for Donald Trump—there’s an urgent need to understand how the pandemic shaped them. Our future may be in their hands.

Luis was one of the 33 college students and recent graduates whom Isabelle Caraluzzi (an NYU doctoral student) and I interviewed for a book about the year 2020. They were a diverse group, from dramatically different universities, with a wide range of interests and ambitions, so it was striking to find so many commonalities in their pandemic experience: Stress, anxiety, and a generalized insecurity from which they have yet to be relieved. Deep uncertainty about the nature of the post-pandemic world. Feeling obligated to make enormous sacrifices for the good of others, despite no one in power ever naming, recognizing, honoring, or compensating them for their losses. Being disillusioned. Losing faith—not only in the core institutions that anchor society, but in the idea of society itself.

By summer, 2020, Luis had fully recovered his sense of smell and taste. “But I lost everything,” he reported. His family, once stable, was now impoverished. They relied on food pantries, which helped with the basics but satisfied no one. “It was just repetitive, the basic food you get. Eating crackers and cheese every day.” Luis looked for government programs that could help them with rent, food, jobs, dignity. There wasn’t much on offer. “So I ended up just going into stores to shoplift. I used to do it when I was younger, because I had no source of income. I was kind of going back to those days.” Luis lied to his parents, making up stories about odd jobs or gift cards he’d picked up. “It was harrowing,” he recalled, and not great for his pride or dignity, either. “But I didn't get caught.”

As the year dragged on, Luis found himself feeling trapped by the pandemic and its many burdens. The apartment was confining. The food insecurity, the problem of paying rent, the joblessness, the small businesses closing, the desperation that was suddenly visible across the city, the anxiety that lingered everywhere—all of it weighed on Luis. There were also bright spots. In the absence of reliable public assistance, New Yorkers started mutual aid networks and neighbors helped each other like they had never done before. He got a job as a COVID-19 contact tracer, though that also involved getting bombarded with sad stories from people who’d gotten sick and were afraid of what would happen next. In May, after the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, Luis joined thousands of New Yorkers in protests that lasted through the summer. “It was connected to the pandemic,” Luis said. “It was boiling over at that point, this kind of mistreatment. And the reason I went was because it kind of showed that, yeah, we've lost our jobs, we lost all our money. People are gonna do what they need to survive.”

Read More: Pandemics Don't End. They Echo

Some things, though, got lost or put on hold. Luis gave up on graduate school, for fear of condemning himself to years of online classes. His social life remained nonexistent – not for lack of events and parties, but because “I worry about my family and not getting really sick.” Like millions of his contemporaries, Luis “distanced myself from hanging out this year, haven't really socialized at all.” The toll of this deprivation was unmistakable. In some ways, the pandemic had stalled his development; in others, it aged him. “I grew up like ten years in the pandemic,” he told us. A remarkable number of the twenty-somethings we interviewed expressed this same sentiment.

So much happened while no one did anything and time stood still. Inevitably, young adults came out in a different place. 

Active, dynamic, and, occasionally, experimental or boundary-crossing social relationships are key features of what social scientists call the “extended adolescence” stage of character development. During ordinary times, most young American adults enjoy an open, freewheeling, permissive cultural environment, one that encourages and rewards the formation of social ties.The psychologist Jeffrey Arnett emphasizes the optimism and emergent sense of possibility that people in their twenties often feel during this period. Young people use this life stage to build up their personal and professional networks, setting up support systems and friendship groups that will nourish them even if they put off marriage. The pandemic produced a social famine, and its after effects persist.

"Instead of processing what we went through, we’ve largely repressed our collective traumas and neglected to recognize what it took to survive."

During 2020, young adults who had always been relatively carefree in their social lives quickly became circumspect and judgmental. Everyone’s behavior was loaded with new significance: wearing masks, attending parties, taking risky jobs, or eating indoors became emblems of politics and personal values. Everyone became a judge. Some became angry and disappointed by friends who violated health guidelines, or at those who followed the rules too closely, or at those who just didn’t seem to be paying attention. Others discovered that they were now outcasts, sanctioned and estranged from friends who deemed them irresponsible or untrustworthy about COVID.

According to a 2023 Gallup poll, Americans between 12 and 26 express strikingly low levels of trust in our political and social institutions, and those 18-26 are considerably more cynical than their slightly younger peers. The distrust extends from civic life into their social networks, making everyone a bit more defensive, lest another toxic personality piece their friend group.

I definitely have categories of friends now that I didn’t have before,” said Jamie, a 25-year-old actor. “Most of my close friends are [behaving] how I am behaving, trying to be a ‘good person’ I guess.” But some, he said, “I might never hang out with again because they behaved so poorly.” The young adults we spoke with saw their friend groups fracture due to sharp differences in values or the sense that seemingly good people were, in fact, selfish or dishonest. People revealed themselves in 2020. Society did, too. For most of the young adults we spoke with, the ugly things were hard to put out of sight. 

The coronavirus arrived in America just as local universities were beginning the winter semester. When campuses closed, the disruption was both acute and long-lasting, and the consequences included mental health problems, food and housing insecurity, and problems keeping up with school work. At first, the shift required adjusting to a new way of learning: distanced, digital, impersonal, and individual. There were no more office hours with professors, no more study sessions in libraries or dorms; no impromptu get-togethers after class discussions or debates at cafeterias and coffee shops.

University California officials announce extension of remote instruction on five campuses, say high positivity rates call for extra precautions.
California Institute of Technology students Carolyn Lu, 19, left, and Teresa Huang, 19, on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. University California officials announce extension of remote instruction on five campuses, say high COVID-19 positivity rates call for extra precautions. Gary Coronado-Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Some never made the transition to remote education; they stopped “attending” or missed assignments and wound up failing classes.Others simply lost interest and motivation. Subjects that had always fascinated them seemed irrelevant as the pandemic set in and their social worlds collapsed. Their performance slipped. When the semester concluded, a second set of problems emerged, and these had more durable significance. Was college really worth it? Should they change their course of study and do something to increase their odds of financial success? Drop out and help support their family instead?

It’s not surprising that the pandemic altered and, in some cases, prematurely terminated the educational paths of young adults. “The COVID-19 pandemic created the largest disruption of education systems in human history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 200 countries,” write Sumitra Pokhrel and Roshan Chhetti. Young adults in the U.S. higher education system faced a specific set of challenges, including the steep cost of tuition, the burden of substantial student debt, and the expectation of graduating into a tight labor market without a strong safety net.

Read More: Why Do I Keep COVID-19 When Those Around Me Don't

Fear, disorientation, and self-doubt were common themes in our conversations. So, too, was uncertainty—not simply about how to get through the pandemic, but about whether a good life would be possible in the new, climate-changed, virus-stricken world we were spiraling into at breakneck speed. Sharice, a 25-year-old public university graduate, said she lost her sense of direction during 2020. “I don't know what I want to do anymore,” she acknowledged. “I met with a career advisor and they asked what I was interested in. I went blank. I told my therapist, she asked me what I was interested in, I went blank. Before this whole pandemic happened, I had an answer for that. I don't even know any more, I really don't know.”

Craig, a 23-year-old private university graduate, had elaborate plans and aspirations before the pandemic started. “I'm like, a theater dude. I like to be in plays and make them, and that's just been wiped off the face of the earth for the foreseeable future.” He got a job at “one of those Instagram museums” so that he could make ends meet. “I've basically given up on any kind of planning for the future,” he conceded. “Ambitions are just dangerous right now. I don't even know that the world's going to be here!”

If, for some young Americans, profound uncertainty fostered nihilism or stasis, for others it gave rise to new commitments, of various forms. Angelica, a 21-year-old Latina student, had a job as a paralegal before the pandemic hit, and she used her income to pay for things like clothes and nights out at restaurants and bars. She lost her position, and the promise of a full-time job in the firm after graduation, soon after the economy contracted in March of 2020. It was painful and challenging, as was her decision, a few weeks later, to file for unemployment. Going on welfare just didn’t seem like the kind of thing she would ever do.

The experience made Angelica realize how important financial stability was to her sense of identity. As an economics major, she felt some shame at not being “economically independent.” By summer, Angelica had found a new job, but she told us that she no longer feels entitled to “the luxury” of spending money on things like drinking with friends. The shock of insecurity she experienced led her to invest in her future. She paid down her maxed-out credit card, chipped away at her student loans, and made sure she sent in her rent check on time. “My name is on this lease,” she explained, “and I have to pay my bills.” She also got fixated on improving her credit score, using the number as a marker of her accomplishment, a sign and symbol that she was back on her feet. “It's so funny, being a finance and economics major and finally understanding the value of a dollar in my last year because of a personal experience through Covid,” she remarked. She viewed the crisis as a hard but important life lesson, one that would ultimately take her to a better place.

Yasmina, a 21-year-old who attended a Jesuit college, said 2020 convinced her to look for a different kind of security. She gave up on fleeting friendships, and focused on the people whose values, interests, and goals align with hers. “I kind of see who's in my life permanently, and I see who is in my life temporarily… I find it a lot harder to maintain more of those surface level connections with people.” Leticia, who’s also 21, said, “I’m more picky with who I relate to. I started to hang out only with specific people that were my really close friends. I try to avoid socializing with people that are not going to form long-lasting relationships with me.”

Both Yasmina and Leticia are spending more time with their romantic partners. Yasmina believes that going through the pandemic together made her relationship stronger. It was their hardest year ever, she acknowledged, but they survived. For Leticia, her close bond with her boyfriend, whom she had been casually seeing before the pandemic, is in part a result of the months when they were unable to do anything other than text and video call. “I liked the fact that we were just talking for like three months,” she explained. When they finally were able to go on actual dates (“mostly getting takeout and sitting in his car!”), she was comforted knowing they had cultivated trust and friendship first. “We were just there for each other,” Leticia said. “That’s all I needed.”

Re-opening Continues Across Densely Populated New York And New Jersey Areas
People fill Sheep Meadow in Central Park as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on September 26, 2020 in New York City. The fourth phase allows outdoor arts and entertainment, sporting events without fans and media production. Noam Galai-Getty Images

In some cases, young people’s need for intimacy in the pandemic intensified and accelerated their relationships. Some couples made big leaps at the outset of the crisis, deciding to quarantine together even though they had never cohabitated. Others jumped into a serious relationship during the peak pandemic months. Many said they reconnected with people they had casually dated but not given much thought to before the lockdowns, or rekindled romances that they thought had flamed out.

The biggest opportunities during 2020 transcended personal relationships, and involved more political concerns. Studies show that some 15 to 26 million Americans participated in Black Lives Matter protests that year, with young adults, aged 18-34, expressing by far the most support. Twenty-somethings across the country came out, en masse, not only because they were outraged by police violence against Black people. In my interviews, I learned that they were also incensed by the glaring governmental failures and other forms of injustice that had become so apparent in the pandemic. That summer millions of young Americans were beginning to believe that a better world was possible. They marched. They organized. And then they did something seemingly routine but massively consequential: they registered to vote.

The civic reawakening of young Americans pushed participation among 18-29 year-old Americans to record levels in 2020, with fifty percent voting in the presidential election, compared to 39 percent in 2016. Joe Biden needed all of the twenty-point margin that he won among these voters to reach the White House. If he doesn’t get something like that this year, the U.S. will likely take another sharp turn to the extreme right.

There’s reason to believe that young Americans are pushing us in that direction. The passion for social change that inspired so many to protest and vote was nearly rewarded with policies that promised to transform the lives of twenty-somethings, from student debt relief to climate change mitigation. But conservatives in Washington, from Senator Joe Manchin, who killed Biden’s signature social and environmental bill, Build Back Better, to the Supreme Court, which deemed Biden’s student debt forgiveness program illegal, largely blocked the president’s plans.

As the 2024 primary elections get started, most 18-29 year-olds remain skeptical of Trump and incensed by the GOP’s assault on reproductive rights. But they’re also disappointed with President Biden for not fully delivering the post-pandemic boost he promised. His mixed record on core generational issues, including student debt forgiveness and climate change, has tampered their enthusiasm, as has his refusal or inability to curb Israel’s massively deadly counter-attacks on Gaza. During 2020, young Americans came out for Biden because they believed he would transform things. Instead, the country has stagnated. Nothing has restored their faith in the future, no national candidate has earned their trust.

By now, we’ve had years to reckon with the cascading crises of 2020. But instead of processing what we went through, we’ve largely repressed our collective traumas and neglected to recognize what it took to survive. The coronavirus, we know, was far less dangerous for most young people than it was for older generations. It may well have been reasonable to demand that they give up things they hold sacred, from social and educational opportunities to jobs and careers, for the common good and the health of more vulnerable people. But surely we owe them something in return.

At minimum, America’s twenty-somethings deserve recognition for their sacrifices. But something more substantial seems more appropriate, given how much we asked from them when everything was on the line. Respect. Debt relief. College scholarships. Compensation, perhaps. Today, none of these are on either party’s platform. Everyone wants to win over young people, but no one has offered meaningful support.

We haven’t even given thanks.

* All names here are pseudonyms, because the young adults in my sociological study were promised anonymity.

Adapted from Eric Klinenberg's 2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year That Everything Changed, published by Knopf.

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