Graduating from high school or college awakens young people the excitement – and the anxiety – of moving through one of the major “passages” of life. President Obama acknowledged my concept in his commencement speech, describing the “passage to adulthood.” Graduation is merely symbolic of the longer transition where young people leave behind most of the restrictions of family and anticipate the new freedoms of being on their own.
Ordinarily, 18-year-olds would be running from prom to commencement to college orientation right now. And 22-year-olds would be hopping from bar to quad to job search in the ultimate celebrations of entry into the “real world.” The giant ceremony that is commencement officially marks their entrance into the early steps away from the confinement – and comfort – of their family home.
Graduation is a passage that shouldn’t be missed
Graduation is a push-pull passage — and it’s one you can’t skip. Missing this transition would mean moving right on to the “Tryout Twenties,” when all things seem possible. But being chased by a wily global pandemic, all things are not possible.
The majority of young people I’ve talked to between 17 and 23 are feeling an anxiety much different than the usual nervousness felt at graduation time. These young people either wake up in the morning wondering if they can invent a motivation for today, or they decide to pull the covers over their head for the next six months.
As a writer who has studied generational passages for years, I can safely say that the kids will be all right. But they will also be impacted long-term. The passage into adulthood has never been easy, but the 2020 version is unprecedented in being totally unpredictable. It is a liminal space. Liminal spaces are transformative. They are like waiting for a train that takes so long, it feels like it will take us through time and space to another platform altogether. Yet we have the feeling of being on the verge of something.
Gen Z has not been set up for success
Those at the bow of Gen Z (people 23 and younger) haven’t exactly been set up for success. Born into the shadow of 9/11, raised during the dark age of school shootings, and graduating into a global pandemic and a hovering Depression, Gen Z, our youngest generation, has been through hell and back in just two decades.
Chances are, they’ve watched their older siblings fall behind, or fail to move out of the family home, or give up hope of finding a job. In the generation that preceded them — millennials — one third, mostly men, are continuing to live at home in their late 20s, often into their mid- 30s. And one quarter of that huge portion of the generation is idle, neither working or in school, according to the Labor Department. This has held back essential passages to the next stage of development. As a result, many millennials are delayed in forming clear goals or being able even to think about home-buying, career security, affording marriage, or socking away any money for the future.
Gen Z cannot afford to repeat this laid-back timetable. Unless they force openings to admit them into the real world, they are likely to feel motivation ebbing away. The coronavirus is creating the condition known as “learned helplessness” in far too many of our young people. This can be the aftereffect of a traumatic event or the persistent failure to succeed.
Already, members of Gen Z have been reported by American Psychological Association as having the worst mental health of any generation. Three-fourths of those in Gen Z named mass shootings and school shootings as the major source of stress. (One stressor we don’t have to worry about as long as we’re confined to home.)
When I first met Kendall Rivera in 2018, he was a shaken 17-year-old who had just survived Parkland High School’s mass shooting weeks earlier. My recent phone call to the young songwriter interrupted him composing a new tune in his head while his hands went through the motions of dish-washing. You wouldn’t peg this young Puerto Rican- American musician for an aerospace engineer. It’s music that has always been his first love, especially since surviving the tragic shooting, But like most young people his age, he is frantically reaching for a backup plan.
Last week, I asked him if he has prospects for a job when he graduates. “Not sure what or if I can find. Anything essential. I’ll take what I can get.”
This is the sad truth, even for those fortunate enough to be looking ahead to college graduation.
There is an upside for Gen Z
Here’s the upside. Gen Z pioneers, absent the constant pressure to turn in assignments on time and cram for dreaded final exams, are being forced to learn something totally new for their age group – how to motivate themselves! Believe it or not, this is an unforeseen benefit.
When I visited my family recently on FaceTime, I worried that I didn’t see my 19-year-old grandson, Declan Sheehy Moss, in the picture. He’s been forcibly returned home after two years of college in New England, and now, sleeping on a daybed in the living room, he’s on the pathway of his sisters’ visits to the bathroom. Such ignominy! It’s like all of the sudden your facial hair stops growing.
Like many young people his age, Declan is living in contradiction. He has spent the last few months of the semester living at home and guiltily enjoying it.
It’s way less stressful because I don’t have to do laundry or cook for myself. I have my own little area in our apartment…But” — he interrupts himself –”it’s way harder to get work done. Because there’s no motivation. When you wake up and have a million things to do, you’re excited to get going. When you wake up and have nothing planned for the next six months, like, where do you start?
He tries to reassure himself that he’s just stuck in this moment of time. It won’t go on. It won’t be forever. But it does feel like an era.
Even the difficult lessons of college — drinking double shots the night before a biology exam or getting your heart broken in the dining hall — are essential education. There are penalties, and you learn to be more cautious. At home, you can mess up making banana bread and your mom will still praise it.
But what if you can’t go back to college? The Tryout Twenties, which I’ve described as the first stage of adult learning, normally teaches you how to compete and cooperate on teams and in job environments of all kinds. Hard to do when jobs are scarce and collaboration is awkward. Even more awkward is trying to pursue a first love when you are separated from your inamorata by a plane ride or worried about a close encounter with a Covid-positive untouchable.
But here’s the good news: these young people will be stronger for it. While they may not be able to enjoy the usual tangibles like a crowded bar or a movie date, the intangibles like caring, daring, and growing have always been more important. The keys to surviving and succeeding beyond the absence of this important passage are motivation and compassion — two things we’ve been learning all along, even outside of the classroom and outside of Zoom.
We would not have advanced beyond the stone age if we weren’t social animals who have survived as a species because we have cared for one another. Darwin taught us about our unique ability to read each other’s facial expressions. He concluded that all human beings share a set of universal facial expressions which allow us to feel each other’s fright or pain or sadness.
These expressions of caring are at the core of empathy and compassion.
The outbreak of caring that sets us apart as humans
I see the outbreak of caring as more than a match for the voracious appetite of evil that is this virus. We see caring in countless stories of American nurses who keep leaving their husbands and little children to risk flying to the next hot spot — many of them fresh out of college! One 20-something admitted to me: “I don’t know if I”ll ever get home again.” It’s not a complaint, simply a statement of fact.
In my decades of study on the human journey, I have learned it is essential to mourn your losses. And missing graduation is a loss, and a passage all it’s own. So many of today’s graduates have lost friends to gun violence. They have no memory of a pre-9/11 America. Let that sink in. As we celebrate 2020’s graduates, let’s remember to care for them, too. They are stronger than we think. Congratulations, Class of 2020.
Today, we may also celebrate what sets us apart as humans:
“I care, therefore I am.”
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Gail Sheehy is an icon of American journalism, the author of 17 books, and a groundbreaking pioneer for women. Her landmark work, Passages, was named by the Library of Congress “one of the ten most influential books of our time.” She has appeared four times on the NYTimes bestseller list. After writing about adult life cycles for over 50 years, she is currently working on a book about Millennials and Gen Z.