Gia W. realized things weren’t going well when she was kicked out of an office in the middle of a job interview. The entire building was shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That surreal experience is just the literal version of what thousands and thousands in Gen Z are experiencing in real time: a sudden stop to their lives just when they’re beginning.
Companies across the United States are starting to rescind job offers, cancel listings, and cut costs to figure out how to weather a financial crisis. The recent graduate worries that even the work she is doing — for a small marketing firm — may start to run out as other companies rethink budgets.
“I’m scared that I might end up unemployed and living in my parents’ basement, which is where I’m calling you from right now,” Gia told me over an early-morning phone call.
Even if no one could have predicted the coronavirus pandemic, America’s college students and early twentysomethings somehow aren’t surprised. We were mostly toddlers and small children on September 11. Many of our first full memories of national news concern the 2008 financial crisis, the housing market collapse, and the subsequent recession that left many of our young parents in financial nightmares that stalled them for years.
Now, we find ourselves in a once-in-a-century pandemic and an unprecedented economic crisis.
I’ve spent much of the last two years reporting on young Americans like myself and what’s shaped their political ideology. Most have few to no memories of the US before 9/11, unlike millennials and other older generations. The country has always felt like it was in a free fall — adrift with a government that they think lacks the imagination and willingness to address the problems that they’ll be handed long into their futures.
In New Hampshire, students told me they were so anxious about their futures and climate change that they were putting their education on pause to advocate for candidates and the Green New Deal. Students at HBCUs across Atlanta told me they were nervous about which candidate would become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee because they wanted to see drastic changes.
“I don’t want the next 20 years to look like the previous 20 years,” a student at Morehouse explained. “I don’t believe that just moving 2 feet is enough — [to paraphrase] Malcolm X, if there’s a knife in my back and it’s 9 inches deep and you take it out 6 inches, you haven’t done anything to help me, really.”
A year ago, two teenagers who had launched a pseudo-ironic, pseudo-sincere presidential campaign for Mike Gravel — an old-school, 89-year-old leftist — told me as much. “Millennials and Gen Z have grown up in a country where there’s no hope and it’s incredibly difficult to do better than your parents,” one said. “We are a generation of people who were not even conscious before 9/11, we’ve seen endless wars, and we grew up in the middle of the financial crisis. How much faith do you expect us to have in that kind of politics?”
And that was all before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Since the illnesses began and the economic loss started to be felt, I’ve interviewed nine young millennials and members of Gen Z across drastically different backgrounds — regionally, socioeconomically, and in their upbringings. Their concerns have metastasized into existential dread, and further radicalized the political views of a generation whose adulthoods could be picked apart and reshaped by a job market that could be far worse than the one that picked apart and reshaped their childhoods.
During our lifetimes, the country has always felt like it was in crisis or teetering on the edge of another: an endless sinking feeling that begins when you realize just how severe the situation might turn out to be — climate change, gun violence, debt. You get the sense there’s no turning back to the world you knew prior.
It eases on at first — a 30,000-foot view of the circumstances and how you think they’ll play out coming into focus; you start to see the pieces of a puzzle you desperately don’t want to fit together begin to form. You’re free-falling into a version of the future you didn’t want. That sinking, weightless feeling is what it’s felt like, for the most part, to be alive for the past 20 years.
Susana Simmonds, 21, remembers when her family used to go into New Orleans after they immigrated to the United States in 2001. They would drive the hour from Baton Rouge for visits to the Venezuelan consulate for visa paperwork.
After Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city, however, they didn’t go for about a year. When they finally did, she said, she realized the disparities in the government’s response to Americans in crisis.
“There were still houses that were literally upside down,” Simmonds recalled. “I remember it all seeming like an impossible problem and that there were a lot of people that needed help and I was wondering, ‘When is someone going to do something?’ It’s weird to recognize when you’re 7 or 8 years old.”
Now a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, Simmonds said that she hasn’t fully trusted the government to protect citizens since then — something that deepened as she watched her friends who lived in Houston suffer after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
She’s concerned that the same slow-moving, reactionary approach is being taken in response to the pandemic as she looks back at the lengthy recovery efforts it took for her neighbors and friends whose homes were washed away or flooded. She’s worried that her entrance into graduate school and her ability to work in labs on campus may be delayed if there’s not enough action taken to push the country toward recovery.
“I’m worried that I may just be stuck in limbo,” Simmonds said.
That worry was echoed by everyone I’ve spoken to — from people worried about their recent decisions (a planned move or a new school), to the increased burden of responsibility they may need to take on (to help parents or siblings), to the physical limitations of being stuck in one place (back in their hometowns or far away).
“It leaves you scared and wondering, Did I make the right choice?” Stephanie Preising, 24, told me.
Preising is supposed to move from Connecticut to upstate New York for her doctorate program in plant pathology at Cornell University. She’s a first-generation college student who immigrated to the United States from Peru in 2000 and now she’s worried that her fixed salary from her PhD program won’t cover any expenses her family might have if they lose their jobs during the recession. She said her family started to fret in mid-March about their income. Would her dad, a school custodian in Connecticut, still be paid when schools closed?
“We all sat around the other morning and looked at each other and said, ‘This is a big reality check,’” Preising said. “What happens when the money stops rolling in?”
The 2008 financial crisis derailed her parents’ dreams, said Preising, who was around 12 at the time. “I saw them take any and every job they could to keep us from going completely bankrupt and to keep our apartment and car — unfortunately, that didn’t work out.”
Her parents tried to hide those circumstances from their children, but she and her siblings knew. “Kids are intuitive; we know when something’s wrong,” Preising said. “I saw my parents go into major debt, I saw them working 50 to 60 hours a week, and I never want to see them struggle like that again.”
Rudy Regalado is facing a similar dilemma.
Regalado is the first member of his undocumented family to attend college — at Sacramento State University — and he’s spent his time mentoring students of color through a program with AmeriCorps.
Now, he’s weighing his options: continue that work or find a job with more promising pay. He’s concerned the program might run out of funding — or he might need to support family members, who aren’t able to continue working their off-the-books jobs, which are already in decline as the country sits at home under a soft lockdown.
There will be no economic relief for a majority of Regalado’s family because they won’t qualify for the assistance, safety net programs, or coronavirus stimulus checks. They live on the margins of American society. Regalado has begun to focus on making sure food stays on the table at his home.
“I just wanted to put my whole family on,” Regalado said about being the first in his family to attend college and his hope that his degree would place him in a better position to find a job that would provide some economic stability. “I’m fortunate right now because I can still work and serve the students over FaceTime right now.”
But he’s constantly thinking: Is the new job he was hoping to get after graduation even still available? Can he afford to sign another lease in Sacramento to maintain the job he has now? Should he just quit and go work at a grocery store? “I have to go where the pay is and it’s difficult right now.”
He’s never really trusted the government to assist his family, pointing to his constant anxiety around ICE raids, which he’s worried about since roughly 2012, when he was 15 — that was when he began to realize the implications they could have for his family and when he noticed just how worried people became when news spread that immigration officers were doing “roundups.” Regalado told me that a potential ICE raid would push him toward playing a bigger role in providing economic stability for his family if anyone were to be deported. “Just who we are, as brown people, we’re often overlooked and singled out when it comes to situations like this.”
“We’re good right now,” he reiterated, “but my top priority is making sure food is on the table and if I have to go to the front lines to do that, to work at a grocery store or something else, then I’ll do that. I don’t want to but I will.”
For Téa Franco, it was watching her own parents struggle when she was a child during the recession that made her realize that she would need to be realistic about her dreams — and instilled in her the belief that the government wasn’t doing enough to support its citizens. When the recession hit, her dad almost immediately lost his promotion at work, then she watched her parents fail to keep their family home.
She’s now a senior at Winthrop University in South Carolina and plans on attending graduate school in the fall. But her views are still shaped by what happened in those childhood years, and how the financial industry hurt her parents.
Franco said that before the financial crisis, her parents had been convinced to take out a mortgage for a home that they couldn’t actually afford. She pointed to that as the moment she realized that the government wasn’t doing enough to protect citizens and when she began to realize that things were starting to look bleak for many families across the country. “They got a bunch of vulnerable people to pay more for houses than they could really afford, and my parents were some of those vulnerable people,” Franco said. “They had bought a new house and we thought everything was going well and it turned out that it was a house that they couldn’t actually afford. So in 2008, we lost our house, too.
“2008 was not a great time for the Franco family.”
Even before then, Franco’s family had never really had an excessive amount of money. She’d thought that it was just something that her family had dealt with.
“2008 was the first time that I was conscious of the fact that things weren’t going well for a lot of people,” Franco said. “That was the first time I realized that this was happening to a number of people and that this wasn’t our fault — it was partially the government’s fault for not protecting people. These bad things are happening to my friends and my family and there was nothing I could do about it.”
Her parents raised her to believe she could do whatever she wanted, but in the years since that crisis, she’s approached things differently.
“It was around that same time when I started to leave my big dreams behind, and I started to think, Well, what’s the most realistic choice? What’s going to help me make sure that I don’t lose my job like my parents did when I get older?”
“I just remember feeling like there was something different,” Sumaya Lohia, a 21-year-old biomedical engineering student, recalled about her family’s financial decisions during the 2008 crisis. “When we lived in California, my family was considering buying houses and then all of a sudden we were like, Oh! Well, maybe not.”
Lohia, who currently plans on working at a Frito-Lay plant in an engineering role after graduation, says the uncertainty of the job market because of the pandemic has made her uncertain about the future. While the plant has said they still plan on hiring new workers, she’s worried that “anything could happen.” She’s still unsure about her decisions but she’s started to weigh the pros and cons of attending graduate school to weather the coming financial crisis; she’s frustrated that the government's response to the pandemic has left her and an entire generation of Americans in a precarious situation.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve had to look over my shoulder to see what’s coming next, and it’s frustrating,” Lohia said. “Watching how the government has handled this pandemic so far has made me frustrated. There are people out there who know what the right course of action is and they’re just not willing to listen or take some advice.”
What many of the people I spoke with are concerned about is the stasis of the Great Recession years: Americans moved less often because there were fewer job opportunities to move for; they were less likely to purchase homes, have children, or require different housing needs at the start of the crisis. They remember the stories from people they know, and the broader coverage: For a decade, people have written about older millennials permanently affected by the Great Recession. It’s not a promising sign for the early twentysomethings now. They’re worried that a recession will leave them in the same position.
“Do I take a job at a grocery store just to have a job? What happens if I end up stuck there because I never have enough to get out of this area?” Rachel Feagley, a recent 24-year-old college graduate from central Pennsylvania, told me about her current outlook. “It’s just a waterfall of bad situations.”
She’d read the stories about people who got stuck, underemployed, after the 2008 recession and continued to hear about those situations over the past decade. It took them years to progress toward their goals. “I’m scared that the same thing might happen to me. I don’t want that.”
Feagley graduated from college two years ago with a degree in wildlife conservation, but she’s always been planning her escape from Huntingdon, a small town an hour away from Penn State.
“There’s not a lot of opportunities here naturally,” Feagley said. “The factories are shutting down, main street is slowly dying. It’s always been in my head that if I want to get ahead I need to leave.”
She did leave to attend college in upstate New York — but after her first year there, a family issue brought her back home to Pennsylvania. In 2018, she graduated from Juniata College in her hometown.
“I tried to leave and then I got sucked right back in,” Feagley said. During her senior year, she started applying for environmental volunteering opportunities with the Peace Corps, and she was placed in a program in Mexico. Her move was abrupt — Feagley said that she was on a plane just two weeks after her graduation — and that it “just felt right.” She spent nearly two years there cultivating a relationship with her host family and fell in love with the country, and she didn’t plan on returning to the United States after she finished her service.
In mid-March, 22 months into her 27-month mission, Feagley was notified that she and more than 7,000 other volunteers around the world were being evacuated and brought back to the United States with only two days to pack, say their goodbyes, and figure out what they’d be doing back in the US once they landed.
Members of her family are immunocompromised, so she had to self-quarantine.
She spent her first two weeks — and her 24th birthday — alone in a half-furnished apartment figuring out her next moves.
Would she have health insurance after the three months that Peace Corps volunteers are typically offered when completing their service? Would she even qualify for the government’s stimulus package? (As of now, she won’t be able to file for unemployment because people who serve in the Peace Corps are considered volunteers, not employees.)
“I feel very alone and very unsure, and that’s not a great combination for trying to reenter a country that you don’t know,” Feagley said. “This isn’t the United States that I left two years ago. I feel so out of touch with what’s happening here.”
She’s spent her time thinking about where she might be able to eventually find work. That’s also caused problems. She’s trying to get a car so she can get a job — but dealerships are mostly shut down, and she’s struggled to find a notary for a private sale.
“I’m essentially stuck in my town that has a grocery store and a few pharmacies right now and they pay maybe 10 or 13 dollars right now,” Feagley explained. “I don’t know what’s coming next and the future seems very bleak right now. I’m not seeing that ending soon and it only adds to my hopelessness.”
“I’m 24, you know, I had dreams bigger than where I grew up,” Feagley said looking back at the reality of the past month. “When I finally got a taste for them … now I’m back. My biggest fear right now is getting stuck in a job to get by and taking a while to get out of it.”
Two years ago, my former colleague Ben Smith wrote a story reflecting on his experience coming of age as a young reporter in a changing Eastern Europe in the early ’00s. The “brutal human consequences of politics felt foreign to someone raised on the verities of the American 1990s, the minor dramas and major victories of the Clinton presidency,” he wrote about the assumed repercussions of a line of reporting he’d chased down.
It’s a sentence that captivated me and that has lingered in the back of my mind as I’ve talked to young people across the country who feel like they’ve always been experiencing the human consequences of politics and government inaction in the 2000s and 2010s.
One of my earliest memories of America is from September 2001. I was one of the first students dismissed from my first-grade classroom in Queens, where I saw the frantic look in a group of parents’ eyes staring up at me through the bright, red mesh stairs. I had that panicked feeling a second time in 2004, when my family lost our first home in South Carolina to a subprime mortgage, and again in 2005, while I watched footage of New Orleanians standing on their roofs waving for help, and again in 2007 when the housing bubble burst, and again when my parents lost jobs and worried about money throughout the financial crisis.
I felt it again in 2012, when I saw the first reports of the Sandy Hook school shooting, and in 2014 when photos of Michael Brown lying in the street started appearing on Twitter, and in 2015 when Dylann Roof walked into a church in Charleston, and murdered nine parishioners. Onward and onward from that summer: police shootings, increasingly dire warnings about climate change, the mass shootings, and the public displays of white nationalism. After graduating from college and getting a job in the field I’d dreamed about, the sinking feeling went away.
The stability was short-lived.
But as I was talking to students and other twentysomethings, I realized my own experience isn’t very different from most of theirs.
That widely felt experience also explains the political situation happening in the US, or at least part of it: Nearly all of the young Americans I’ve spoken with said they were pushed leftward politically by the circumstances they saw people endure over the course of their lives and the harshness of the future that they were going to inherit from older generations.
Gia — whose job interview got cut short by a building closure — supported Sen. Bernie Sanders during this year’s Democratic primary. She said she was radicalized politically by her upbringing in Detroit during the financial crisis, which took a severe toll on the city’s auto industry workers. She said that her neighborhood became a wasteland of empty homes and “for sale” signs.
“I saw so many people whose only options were to abandon their homes and leave and run — and these were full families who had no safety net, no one to take care of them, nothing to fall back on and their only option left was to abandon their lives,” she said.
Her patriotism was severely diminished. “It just seemed like such an illusion. I don’t see how older generations can be so patriotic, because when you’re in a time of need, your government has not been there for you.”
Gia sees parallels to 2008–09 now as she watches the country respond to the growing crisis around the pandemic and the dire economic downturn affecting millions of American families.
“We can see that now more than ever with no one having access to health care and they’re pulling out all of these socialist measures to take care of people because capitalism is having a meltdown right now,” she said. “It’s similar to what happened in 2008 with all of the bailouts, and I feel like we shouldn’t have to rely on capitalism and business to take care of us.”
Somewhat at odds, the people I spoke with are both tired of waiting on politicians to figure things out after the fact and want a vastly more robust government.
“It feels like there are so many things that are out of our control in this current political moment and that we as a generation are constantly being shaped by these forces that don’t understand us and don’t want to understand us,” Jennifer West, a senior at Dartmouth University, told me.
West, a history major, had planned to take a year off after graduating to work before applying to graduate school or law school. She’s heard from friends who have been through monthslong recruitment processes for jobs that have now been postponed or outright canceled. She’s increasingly worried that graduates, like herself, who haven’t started that search will find few to no job opportunities to apply for — especially for those who won’t qualify for stimulus benefits or those whose parents lose their jobs, and what that might mean for their health insurance.
“This has brought to light a lot of the issues that people have known about for a very long time but that haven’t always been visible. Things like rampant inequality, things like a need for everyone in the country to have health insurance, things like the impossible demand of paying rent while having a minimum wage job,” West said.
“It’s not necessarily that we want to place our trust in government,” she added. “It’s that we’re starting to demand a higher standard than what we’re getting right now.”
Hailey Modi, a 21-year-old biomedical engineering student at UT Austin, agrees. Modi told me that after the 2016 election — the first event that had genuinely shocked her — she turned to leftist theory to figure out what had gone wrong. It was the only political outlook that had made sense to her as she tried to figure out how the country should address disparities.
“Our whole lives, these structures have failed us and we are looking for political stances outside the mainstream — because we feel like we don’t have time to solve these issues like income inequality and climate change. Incremental change isn’t going to get us there in time to prevent — this is dramatic, but it feels like a societal collapse,” Modi said.
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard across races, states, and socioeconomic status — like Bernie Sanders said recently, his movement was winning “ideologically” and “generationally.”
“The future of our country rests with young people,” he said. “The future of the country is with our ideas.”
The widespread support for Sanders also intermingles the humor and nihilism of a generation of Americans who want to push the government to do more but have no hope in their politicians to push society forward.
“There are times where I’m like, well, no matter what we do things are never going to get better,” Franco, the college senior in South Carolina, told me. “I was kind of feeling that way a couple weeks ago when Bernie Sanders started losing a bunch of the primary elections and it was clear that Joe Biden was going to be the nominee. That was a point where I was like, ‘Well, we can vote, we can go out and canvass and make phone calls and protest, and nothing will really change.”
“My mind goes there sometimes,” she added. “But then I look back at past revolutions and how long they took and how many people had to get together and agree on something over and over and over again and how resilient and persistent they had to be to get there.”
Look around the internet and you’ll find signs of a generation fed up with the circumstances of their lives. You’ll find viral tweets about ’90s babies whose “teenage years” were “defined by economic recession” and whose young adulthoods are being defined by “reactionary global fascism and then ultimately cut short by a global pandemic.”
You’ll come across bits and pieces of videos of Greta Thunberg, a 17-year-old international climate activist, objectively dragging adults for their inaction on climate change; or a clip of Paul Rudd emphatically saying “Hey! Look at us! Who woulda thought? Not me!” under a caption about experiencing two “once in a generation” economic collapses.
You might stumble on a clip of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Instagram Live telling people to message their elected officials' offices while casually giving out tips for making margaritas. “They want to continue to get away with doing far too little, and in this moment there is no such thing as doing too much,” she says as she casually pours triple sec and lime juice into a NutriBullet blender. “I mean, honestly, have you ever had a point in your life when the federal government did too much for you? Where they gave you too much? Never happened to me! I’ve never seen that in my life.”
The generation of Americans who have come of age in the shadow of 9/11 and spent their formative years watching their parents, relatives, and friends’ parents suffer during the economic crisis have long felt that the government isn’t doing enough to help citizens. In a recent Pew research study, 70% of Gen Z’ers and 64% of millennials surveyed in 2018 said they felt that the government should do more to solve problems.
“It feels like something honestly happens every five years or so that negatively affects this generation and millennials who remember 9/11 a lot better,” Gia W. told me. “School shootings, financial meltdowns, crises — all of those things have impacted the way I think about [how] life is going to work out for me.”
“I think it’s affected the way that most of our generation thinks about their lives,” she said. “Gen Z is not very future-oriented, and I think a lot of it has to do with going through these detrimental situations like the environment and the last election. Our generation feels like we’re not being taken care of and that nobody really cares about what happens to us, and we’ve kind of just come to terms with the fact that we probably won’t have a good outlook for the future.”
Modi also believes that younger Americans, like Generation Z, have grown up in a society that always feels like it's in some form of crisis. It’s pushed them further left as they try to find solutions to make society equitable.
“I’ve noticed that in slightly older generations like millennials that there was some hope, but that was taken away through 9/11 and throughout the 2008 recession,” Modi said. “For Gen Z, that hope was never there.
“We grew up in a world where things have already gone terribly wrong and our lives are just preparing for the worst. It’s so hard for me to believe in candidates because I’ve grown up in this world where everything is going wrong all of the time.” ●