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An anxious Generation Z looking to adulthood faces an uncertain future

The disruptions keep piling up.

Economic hardships have worsened for many Americans in recent years. Unabated climate change is threatening to transform the world physically, economically and politically.

Add to that worsening political partisanship, and now the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest.

It’s enough to cause a college student, standing on the starting line of adulthood, some serious anxiety.

Just to get this far likely meant incurring some school debt and making decisions about career paths that may or may not prove wise.

Is it still possible to pursue "the American Dream"? What does a “normal” American life look like these days? How are young people preparing to address the challenges and injustices of the world, problems that seem especially acute right now?

Alexandrea Hammersley, 21, is a dancer and a pragmatist. She majored in international business at the College of Charleston and graduated a year ago. Today, she’s unemployed and a little nervous.

Sanchez Goodjoin, 21, is a musician and a pragmatist. He is a rising senior at the University of South Carolina where he’s majoring in public health and minoring in anthropology. He’s struggling to be true to himself, and he’s worried about the future.

Caroline Hamrick, 19, is burdened by a feeling of helplessness. She attended Boston University on a scholarship for a semester but hated that she felt ill-prepared for the academic and social rigors. Now she’s back in Charleston, working in a downtown restaurant and planning to move again in the fall, this time to New York City, where she might, or might not, enroll in school.

Isaiah Allen, 21, is a rising senior at S.C. State University and an optimist. He wants to be a sports broadcaster. Either that or maybe a music therapy specialist. But he’s anxious about the upcoming school year and whether the pandemic will continue to cause disruptions.

Caroline Greenblatt, 23, is a new college graduate who finds it hard to navigate truth in a divided society. She was hoping to take a working gap year before continuing her education but can’t land a job. So she’ll move back home for a while.

They are all part of Generation Z, born after 1996. Roughly 24 million in this generation will be eligible to vote in November, according to the Pew Research Center. And they have plenty of reasons to do so.

Gen Z has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. In March, half of those ages 18 to 23 “reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a cut in pay because of the outbreak,” according to a Pew survey.

Young people are especially vulnerable to job loss, and they are disproportionately represented in high-risk service sectors, analyses show.

Gen Z has more racial and ethnic diversity than previous generations, and a huge majority that does not object to gay marriage. And it’s tracking to be the most educated, too.

About 22 percent of Gen Z members have at least one immigrant parent, compared with 14 percent of millennials.

Young people also are more likely to expect government to solve big social and economic problems. And they are worried about climate change, with 54 percent acknowledging that global warming is due to human activities.

Among conservative members of Gen Z, 43 percent say African Americans are not treated fairly, a significantly bigger number than Republicans of older generations. A little more than half of young conservatives want government to do more to address the country’s problems.

'It's pretty alarming'

Alexandrea Hammersley graduated from the College of Charleston a year ago. She majored in international business and minored in Italian. She got a job as a marketing coordinator for a startup software company but was laid off after COVID-19 hit.

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Alexandrea Hammersley studied international business at the College of Charleston. Provided

She grew up in central Ohio, but her family moved to Summerville, where Hammersley attended high school. She wasn’t sure about a career path, so she leaned toward international business in college, thinking that maybe she’d get a job with a large transnational company.

“I definitely didn’t think I would end up with a local startup firm,” she said.

Now, she’s on the hunt again, and worried that the country’s antagonistic politics will have a corrosive effect on her future.

“I’m very concerned,” Hammersley said. “Partisanship ... is bleeding into every aspect of life. It’s pretty alarming.”

She’s also questioning the value of her college degree, she said.

“When I was in school, adults would ask what I’m studying, and love the answer. Now I find myself jobless. I’m on unemployment at the age of 21. Things are changing very quickly.”

Somehow, she will need to pay off $21,000 in student loan debt. Hammersley said she’s still hopeful, though.

“I would love to find a job that is more flexible than my last job,” she said. “I want to find a career that still allows me to live my life and be who I am. I don’t want my career to define me.”

She’s considering a return to school to get an MBA. She’s thinking about moving to California. But what will be the cost?

Sanchez Goodjoin, a Simpsonville native, is a rising senior at USC majoring in public health and minoring in anthropology, though he harbors several interests, including music and social justice activism. He has joined recent protests decrying police violence after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.

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Sanchez Goodjoin hopes to find a career in public health. Provided

“I hope, within the next 15 years of my life, that every year of my life I am somehow trying to improve a community I’m living in, or some community in the world,” he said.

At the moment, he’s intrigued by the international development work of the United Nations and is considering the possibility of living abroad.

But who knows. His artistic tendencies might divert him from that course. Right now, he said, he’s teetering between the idea of pursuing individualistic goals (acting, music) and the impulse to serve others (public health). He will be one of few in his family to get a college degree, and that comes with a sense of obligation, he said.

And that obligation has caused Goodjoin to scrutinize the world around him. He doesn’t like what he sees: climate change, dysfunctional politics, police brutality, the manipulative effects of social media.

“There’s a lot of bad happening, and it’s getting worse, but if I try to help small amounts of people, but in a really, really strong way — getting water systems fixed, touching people with art, going to communities to teach kids to speak Spanish — if I go around the world doing good things, maybe more communities will spread that.”

Though he worries that such grassroots efforts are insufficient and thinks large-scale demands for wholesale change also are required.

“The right people are not doing the right things,” he said. “The wrong people are in charge.”

Sometimes he feels desolate, "as if nothing really matters,” he said, admitting to bouts of depression, noting that Gen Z seems to be more susceptible to mental illness than previous generations.

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Sanchez Goodjoin, a student at the University of South Carolina, pursues many interests. Provided

Jordan Ragusa, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said young people’s angst is justified.

“They see the political world for what it is: two political parties that just cannot agree on anything these days,” he said. “They see they don’t have the same job prospects as their parents and grandparents. For some, their freshman or sophomore year at college was ruined by this pandemic that was hard to avoid, though the government could have done more to make things easier.”

Ragusa said social media has its faults, but it’s not true that Gen Z members are “brainwashed by social media and can’t be trusted.” The data show that it’s older users who are more likely to be swayed by what they see online. Young people generally have a better grip on what’s going on in the world, he said.

“They are certainly anxious, but I get a sense that there’s a fair amount of hope that they can change things,” Ragusa said.

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The intense partisanship in the U.S. Congress is a cause of distress among members of Generation Z. File/Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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They’re mad at their parents’ generation for failing to make the world more accommodating. They are saddled with debt, faced with a seemingly intractable political crisis, threatened by climate change and subject to growing wealth iniquities.

Yet “there’s some reason to think that they could have the effect they desire,” Ragusa said. “In 2020, millennials will be the largest voting bloc, surpassing baby boomers.” But to push the needle, they would need to vote in large numbers. They’re influence will be lasting, he added.

Gen Z is more liberal than previous generations, more willing to discuss issues of race and identity, and more likely to embrace diversity. The politics one assumes during early formative years tends to be the politics one expresses over a lifetime.

“If we look 20 years into the future, I think we’ll see that young voters will continue to be a powerful force even into their 50s and 60s,” Ragusa said.

'It's going to be rough'

Caroline Hamrick graduated from Charleston County School of the Arts in 2017. She was a timpanist in the orchestra and now dreams of banging the drums professionally, though she is pragmatic enough to appreciate the significant obstacles.

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Caroline Hamrick is undecided about whether to continue with college studies. Provided

In Boston, Hamrick discovered her good grades from high school were no indication of how she would manage the demands of a university education. She realized she was ill-prepared. She was also uncomfortable socially. Too many of her fellow students were privileged and wealthy, and some seemed to like to boast about it, she said. Racism bubbled to the surface regularly.

“It was really apparent, that’s really what struck me about it,” she said.

After a semester, she was back in Charleston, working part-time jobs and reassessing her future. Hamrick said she’s anxious all the time, thinking about the state of the world.

“I feel we’ve regressed a lot,” she said.

The haphazard response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the large numbers of people who do not wear masks, and the recent protests against police brutality have added to her frustrations and insecurity.

“I can get caught up thinking about all the social injustices, even those that I can’t relate to directly,” she said. “I feel helpless. Even if I vote or protest, nothing will change. That’s what freaks me out the most, that I feel that I can’t do anything about it.”

And now climate change is adding to the pressure, she said.

“What is the point of making long-term plans if I can’t be sure I’ll be here long enough to experience them fully?”

Isaiah Allen, 21, is hoping he can benefit from regular, in-person learning during his final year at S.C. State University in Orangeburg. The Mount Pleasant resident has been focused on sports and sports broadcasting, but the novel coronavirus disrupted everything.

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Isaiah Allen worries about the potential for additional school disruptions because of the pandemic. Provided

Games have been canceled and classes conducted online. The fall semester remains uncertain. Even the famous HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) homecoming celebration in October is up in the air.

“I don’t know what to expect anymore,” Allen said.

What he knows, though, is that people are more likely to act when they are directly impacted by the effects of climate change, police brutality, economic injustice and other social ills, he said.

The uncertainty has inspired a bit of prudence.

“I figure since I spent most of my life in chorus, I could always go back to school and get an advanced degree in music education,” he said.

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Isaiah Allen, a student at S.C. State University, hopes to find a career in sports broadcasting. Provided

Calvin Blackwell, a professor of economics at the College of Charleston, said young people who graduate during a recession and struggle to find a job often must cope with long-term financial repercussions.

“If it takes an extra year (to find work), that lost year stays with you throughout your career,” he said. And that can put a dent in one’s ability to advance professionally and accrue wealth.

The pandemic has added a big dollop of unpredictability, Blackwell said. It could change education outcomes, and it could impact the job market. Already, young people are more likely to move from job to job (and sometimes state to state) in a volatile labor market than previous generations.

“That would give me angst,” Blackwell said.

On the other hand, the U.S. economy is dynamic and generally good at creating jobs, he said. Industries in decline are clearly visible; emerging industries are not always easy to detect.

“If you’re a young person, ambitious and smart, there are still good prospects.”

The cost of a college education has increased substantially, and the return on that investment is questionable, but the advantages of obtaining a bachelor’s degree still are considerable, Blackwell said. A high school diploma alone simply will not suffice if the goal is to secure substantial remuneration.

The long-term trend is clear, Blackwell said: “The more education the better.”

But it’s no guarantee. More and more competition in the labor market, because of population growth, increases in the number of college graduates, global trends and more has exacerbated economic inequality within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries, Blackwell said.

Young people today, therefore, must also work to differentiate themselves from others, to assert their unique value.

“In the short term, it’s going to be rough,” Blackwell said.

'Out of my control'

Caroline Greenblatt, 23, just graduated from the College of Charleston, where she concentrated in creative writing and minored in sociology.

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Caroline Greenblatt will join her parents in Dallas while determining her next steps. Provided

She figured she’d take a gap year to work in publishing, then get a master's degree. She applied to more than 50 companies, she said. Most are not hiring right now. So Greenblatt will move back to Dallas and live with her parents until she can proceed with her plans. She hopes eventually to teach in high school or college, she said.

“America is very much at a turning point,” Greenblatt said, citing climate change and other challenges. “It’s hard to be a young adult and be completely (in control of) your choices.”

She tries to stay informed by reading a variety of news sources, some with a conservative bent, some with liberal leanings, she said.

“I have to read news from four different sources in order to find my own opinion somewhere in the middle,” Greenblatt said. “It’s hard to navigate truth.”

Despite the many landmines scattered in her path, she remains an optimist, Greenblatt said.

“There are so many people, seniors, graduating in the exact same situation that I’m in, trying to get a job, but can’t, or people whose jobs were pushed back to 2021, so there’s some weird comfort knowing that I’m not alone.”

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

Adam Parker has covered many beats and topics for The Post and Courier, including race in America, religion, and the arts. He is the author of "Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.," published by Hub City Press.

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