May 5, 2024 - Politics & Policy

The bummer generation

Illustration of a gold 2024 charm on a mortar board tassel with a frowning face in the zero

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The class of 2024 has suffered through one of the most disruptive and unconventional college experiences in modern history.

Why it matters: The most formative four years of their young lives began with the chaos of COVID. It's ending with pro-Palestinian protests bringing news cameras, lawmakers and riot police onto campus — and threatening graduation for the second time.

“What has been resonating with me has been the consistent history-making experiences we’ve had since graduating high school,” says JoJo Holm, a senior at Northwestern University.

Zoom in: This is the same class of kids whose high school experience was cut short by the cancellation of proms and graduations in 2020.

  • Joyful, sunny ceremonies were swapped out for masked and distanced parking-lot commencements. Students collected diplomas through car windows.
  • Starting college in 2020 also meant many students kicked off freshman year remotely. And when they eventually made it to campus, they lined up for weekly COVID tests — and missed out on parties and seminars due to social distancing guidelines.

The big picture: First-year college students across America reported a stunning deterioration in mental health in 2020 and 2021.

  • More than 80% said the pandemic increased their feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety, per one study.

"We definitely missed out on some of the big traditions," says Charlotte Shapiro, a senior at Middlebury College in Vermont. "But there's that shared experience. I really did get so close with some friends really fast."

The latest: Now, just as that class gets a second shot at celebrating the graduation milestone, an emotionally charged protest movement with national political implications has spread from coast to coast.

  • "I'm really desensitized to it," says Chloe Paravicini, a senior at Vanderbilt University. "It feels like every year has not been a normal year since 2020."
  • The University of Southern California has canceled its commencement altogether. The University of Michigan's commencement was interrupted by protests, and other universities are bracing for demonstrations. Many campuses have encampments on the same lawns where they typically set up graduation tents and stages.

"Right now is an important time for thesis writing and just those last moments of college, but it doesn’t quite feel like that," says Holm from Northwestern.

  • But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, she told Axios. "It feels special for students to be able to use our voices in this kind of way. It’s bigger than graduating college."

What’s next: Unlike the students who graduated a couple years before them, the class of 2024 won’t be able to take advantage of a white-hot post-pandemic job market, says Nick Bunker, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab.

  • "Unemployment is still low, and workers can still find job opportunities, but new graduates will find the competition with other job seekers more fierce,” he notes.
  • And many of them will be competing with recently laid-off young workers in tech and finance who’ve already got a couple years of experience.

One part of the job search most soon-to-be grads agree on: They don’t want to relive 2020 in a remote job.

  • “Everyone was sure to look for an in-person job,” Shapiro says of her group of friends at Middebury. “My whole grade is definitely over Zoom.”

The bottom line: "If you’re a member of this class, your memories are going to be of instability,” says John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, which runs the nation’s largest youth poll.

  • Many members of the class of 2024 grew up with financial instability at home during the Great Recession. They had active shooter drills as often as fire drills. And they’ve seen America at its most divided in decades.

"What they’re yearning for is stability in housing and in work," Volpe says. "The simple things is what this class wants."

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