Class of COVID-19: Seniors commune around increasingly uncertain future

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 - 2:53pm

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Photo Courtesy of Verity Sturm

I skipped my first BlueJeans lecture to buy a pair of shoes.

The sole employee at the Ann Arbor Running Company looked surprised to see me. He kept pulling the wrong sizes and I kept feeling too socially anxious to correct him. It had been six days since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a state of emergency, and we were both a bit rusty on our interpersonal skills. He untied a size-too-small sneaker from a stool rolled six feet away and went through all the correct small-talk motions: How was my running going? Was I a student? What year? President Donald Trump was announcing new restrictions from the flat screen in the back of the store that usually played silent reruns of pixelated cross-country races. 

“This is a bad one,” Trump proclaimed from the store speakers. “This is a very bad one.”

“I’m a senior,” I replied to the salesman while tying up a size-too-large shoe, one eye on the screen.

“Neat,” the guy replied. “Got anything lined up?”

Before the COVID-19 outbreak defined our daily lives, my habitual reply to this dreaded question had been a good-natured “nahhhh,” friendly in its lingering “h,” or perhaps a more optimistic “not yet” if the questioner appeared genuinely concerned about my future or was related to me by blood. But in the Ann Arbor Running Company, while Trump announced we “may be” diving head-first into a recession (but will be “raring to go” by Easter), I began to feel uncertain in a way that resisted friendliness or optimism.

“I, uhh, I really don’t know,” I told him. And I realized, for what felt like the first time, I seriously believed it.

***

Last week the United States Labor Department released data indicating that, from March 7 to March 14, the rise in initial unemployment claims outnumbered that of any week during or since 2008. In a recent New York Times article analyzing this data, Justin Wolfers, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, pointed out that this is unlike a “normal” recession, which typically takes months of joblessness, two consecutive quarters of negative GDP and a bureaucratic declaration to be universally recognized as an “official” recession in every sense of the word. 

“The last recession began in December 2007, but even half a year later, some economists were still debating whether the economy had entered a recession,” Wolfers wrote. “This time, there’s no debate.” 

But other experts have scrapped that vernacular entirely, insisting that the dystopian extremities of the COVID-19 economy cannot be explained with normal jargon. We are living in the most intense bear market on record: unprecedented declines in stock and security due to widespread sentiments of fear and pessimism. 

“What is happening is a shock to the American economy more sudden and severe than anyone alive has ever experienced,” stated esteemed policy journalist Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic last week. “This is not a recession. This is an ice age.”

Right, wrong or indifferent, trauma has a history of changing the way we talk about things, each disaster with its own little vocabulary nebula. McCarthyism, Trumpism, Stalinism, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror — these phrases didn’t exist or matter before cluttering the national (or international) conversation with paranoid frequency during their respective moments. They carry their emotional history with them, grim little linguistic keepsakes fossilized into the way we speak. The alt-right. #MeToo. The dot-com bubble. Social distancing. Flatten the curve. No Record Covid. Economic ice age. 

Another term has squeaked into being amid this century of change: lost generation. Gertrude Stein is credited with coining the phrase, which Ernest Hemingway then popularized in the epigraph of “The Sun Also Rises” in 1926 — “you are all a lost generation.” Just peachy. Stein and Hemingway were originally referring to the generation of people coming-of-age during or after World War I — the first global conflict to trickle down into American daily life in a way that felt personal. 

Since 1926, though, the term “lost generation” has slowly become unstuck from the context of its inception alone. The long-revered Oxford English Dictionary clarifies that the largely historic phrase is “also used more generally of any generation judged to have ‘lost’ its values.” Lexico, a more colloquial collaboration between Dictionary.com and Oxford University Press, gives the term an additional entry below the definition of its literal origin. It reads:

“An unfulfilled generation coming to maturity during a period of instability.”

***

Maggie Li, an LSA senior studying biomolecular science, was breaking up with her boyfriend around the time the World Health Organization named the outbreak “COVID-19.” Li went home to weather the breakup with family, returned briefly to take her midterms and then flew right back home for spring break. She was recharging for the second half of the term, hopeful to return and end her final semester on a high she could ride into the start of her independent adult life. 

“And then right when I got back that Wednesday, they literally announced that all classes are going to be online for the rest of the semester. And I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Li said in a phone interview with The Daily.

“I was just ready to come back and swing into things and, like, get my life on track. And then now, nothing is normal.”

Instead, Li found herself back home in New York for the third time in three weeks, grappling with much more than her lingering breakup.

“I’m taking a gap year before med school, and I’m in touch with a lot of research labs. But I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life because all of the labs obviously are not focusing on hiring right now, which I completely understand. But now my life is on hold.”

Through the phone, Li paused to take a breath. Later in our conversation, she told me that she actually had had a lab contract lined up with Massachusetts General Hospital, but it happened to be in close proximity to her then-boyfriend. She turned the offer down when they broke up, to open her future to positions and opportunities elsewhere. And labs elsewhere — including Mount Sinai in New York — had been really receptive to her application. Things were looking good. Empowering, even. But that was before, as she put it, “this whole thing blew out.”

“Now the MCAT is canceled for quite some time … and if they’ve canceled school (through spring and summer terms), then they’ll probably cancel testing, and then when am I going to take it? Like, am I going to have to take another year off just because of a situation that’s kind of out of my control?”

Rachel Rudd, a senior in the School of Nursing, expressed similar uncertainty about the NCLEX, the nationwide exam for graduating nurses.

“We all have to take the NCLEX in order to get our RN licensure, and we don’t really know what’s going to happen with that, because usually, we take them in late May or June,” Rudd told The Daily in a recent phone interview (note: starting March 25, the NCSBN, which administers the NCLEX, has reduced testing to “a limited number of test centers” according to federal guidelines). “So, it may be over by then and it may not be. So, I think that’s just like a wait-and-see sort of thing.”

While some seniors are questioning the status of their already-scheduled exams, others have been freshly motivated to consider taking them in the first place — the binary tension indicative of a populace near-robotically uncertain about which way to turn. Public Policy senior Elise Rometsch expressed as such in a recent phone interview with The Daily.

“I don’t have anything lined up … and was looking for a job, but I also had plans of going to maybe grad school or potentially law school down the road, and I’m like, ‘Should I hurry those up?’ Because I know when the economy’s not doing well, that’s generally like, ‘Okay, time to go to grad school.’ ”

***

I eventually confessed to the man at the Ann Arbor Running Company that I was a size 8.5, that his 7s and 9s weren’t going to help me meet the sick mileage goals that had become increasingly integral to my sense of self-worth with every day and email since March 11. They had none in stock, which I refrained from reading symbolically. I ended up ordering a pair through the store, making some comment about how I’d rather give my money to them than a third party on the internet. “Thanks,” the man told me, unimpressed, gingerly holding out my receipt.

A week later, I called the Ann Arbor Running Company to check on my order. It was March 23, and when I woke up, Whitmer had issued her “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order, toppling a domino network of tense conversations and packed bags between friends, family and loved ones statewide. 

I too was throwing socks and books into my duffel, phone wedged between shoulder and ear, preparing to move to my boyfriend’s place a whopping block down the street. He and his housemates had decided to use the Whitmer’s order as grounds to self-quarantine their house for two weeks, legitimately, to ensure they didn’t have the virus before going home-home to more immunosuppressed or elderly familiars. I was invited, so long as I followed the sole Spartan rule: No one goes in or out. I was down to confidently delay my own seemingly inevitable breakup for two more weeks, so I agreed.

In or out. Together or not. Life had really gone binary.

Back on the phone, a non-identified male running voice spoke: “Sturm … I remember your name, let me check the book.” It didn’t sound like the guy I had talked to in the store from the week before, which relieved me. “Hmm. OK yeah, order placed, but not in yet. Soon, though. We’ll give you a call.”

“Okay,” I replied, dropping a pair of pink silk pants that I would never wear into my bag. “But I’m kind of moving to a sensitive household, we’re in town but I don’t think I can …”

“We’ll bring it to you,” this anonymous man said, cutting me off. “Of course.”

“Whoa. Like, to the door?” I asked. Mom-and-pop running shops don’t operate like Grubhub.

“Yes. We’ll bring them to you. Doorstep. Don’t worry about it. We’ll give you a call, and we’ll bring them.” 

***

At the time of my interview with Rometsch, my recent Google searches included “GRE,” “GRE when,” “how long writing sample English Ph.D.” and “LSAT casual.” Safe to say, my feet were firmly planted in the same tenuous camp as Rometsch re: continued education. And, as she pointed out, it was economic anxiety that sent me there, not my boundless zeal for specialized study. I went into this year tabling grad school because I didn’t want to waste my time diving so expensively into something I wasn’t 100 percent certain about. Now, I’m just seeking refuge.

Historical data, as usual, tells me this plan is unexceptional. In October 2009, the number of LSAT examinations administered reached an all-time high of 60,746, a 20 percent increase from the year prior — that is, before the 2008 financial crisis. Similarly, the number of Americans who took the GRE in 2009 rose 13 percent from the disastrous year prior, peaking at 670,000 test-takers. 

What that does to the selectivity of the applicant pool, I don’t even want to know. But Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby has studied the pattern and confirmed that interest in higher education has indeed increased during every recession since the 1960s. 

Who can blame us? On Monday, Vox published the “scariest unemployment chart ever,” depicting a projection from Goldman Sachs — 2.25 million new claims — that pushes the y-axis to a point where an illustration is moot. The labor market doesn’t even feel like an option. 

“Most people at our school usually get a job coming right out of college. That’s just, like, how that works. … But is anyone really even going to be hiring people right now?” Stephanie Stan said, an LSA senior studying biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience, in a recent phone interview with The Daily. “It’s not only the people who have a job lined up (who are impacted) or those that won’t make as much money as they would have coming right out. It’s now people who are still applying, or thinking about applying.”

And although Rudd is pretty confident that she’ll find employment upon her RN licensure, she’s wary about the larger labor pattern that will eventually cut into her industry as the pandemic naturally ebbs.

“A lot of people are talking about how there may be this surge in (health care) workers, but then when COVID-19 is over, what are we going to do with all the extra people? I’m not sure if that’s even going to affect me or what’s going to happen,” Rudd said.

The rules we’ve been raised on don’t seem to apply to the class of 2020. Stan is right, the University frequently tells us that most people at our school usually get a job coming right out of college. But that data doesn’t account for an economic ice age. Similarly, labor statistics tell us that nurses are projected to remain in high demand. But job security seems more complicated when entering an industry at a time when demand is so disproportionately inflated.

“Graduating generally is terrifying,” Rometsch told me. “And now, not only are we dealing with classes we’ve never had anything like (before), we have to deal with adapting to new situations. We have to deal with trying to find a job in an economy where no one knows what’s going on.”

***

Like most self-conscious writers, I began to gaslight the validity of my own piece about halfway through my research. What if this isn’t actually happening on an individual basis? Data can say most anything if you just zoom out enough. Am I misreading the signs? Am I going to publish something that stirs more panic for less reason?

As if on cue, I got an email from a publishing firm that I was prepping for a round two interview with, declaring “all summer internships canceled due to the ongoing health crisis.”

I dissociated momentarily before texting my mom “the thing I made second round for was canceled lol.”

She replied immediately: “That sucks. Andrew’s job postponed indefinitely, too.”

My brother Andrew graduated from a small liberal arts school with a degree in aquaculture this past May. He’s been living at home most of the past year, doggedly applying to jobs. He’s on the Asperger’s end of the Autism spectrum — more than capable of doing excellent work, but outside neurotypical. And, of course, job interviews are implicitly designed around (and evaluative of) neurotypicality. 

Andrew works three times as hard for an “average” degree of opportunity, at least according to University standards. He and I have never enjoyed the same amount of agency in this world, especially regarding academia and work.

In late February, Andrew finally got a job offer. Now?

“Oh shit,” I replied.

***

Aside from all the exams, jobs and future plans, graduating seniors are simply reeling at their psychological cores. Benjamin Moy, an LSA senior studying molecular, cellular and developmental biology, likens it to a torturous state of limbo.

“I’m home, or I’m not in the classroom, but I’m still doing school, and then school will sort of taper off,” Moy described in a recent phone interview with The Daily. “And I … don’t really have a ceremony that designates me as being complete. But I’ll be done in six weeks and it will all sort of vaporize. It’s basically moving to the next stage of life without recognizing a definitive end to your undergraduate career.”

Moy is right — the class of 2020 has lost its sense of an ending. With it, we’ve brushed up against the fact that, perhaps, that structure really mattered to us. That we were banking on that closure, that we’ve architected the imagined progression of our future lives around it. We’re realizing that, to some ever-nebulous extent, we’re coming to maturity during a period of instability.

“So, maybe I would say the best word to describe it is some sort of purgatory,” Moy concluded. “We’re just floating around, and you’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen, but you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”

A graduation ceremony, a working economy, any narrative of a tenable plan — we’re losing what we’ve been taught to value. At the very least, we’re drawing some line between what we’ve internalized and that which could now, potentially, apply to us. And the process of drawing that line — the circumscription of some new reality — is a reckoning.

“I feel like I’ve gotten advice about, like, you know, take risks and do something that interests you after college, maybe even go to grad school, and use that experience to figure out what you want to do,” said Rometsch.

“But now I feel like that’s all out the window. Like, no ones’ conventional advice really applies.”

***

I called my brother a couple of nights ago to commiserate about our current states which had, for what felt like the first time, aligned in their uncertainty. COVID-19 brought us down together — the ultimate equalizer. Killed two Sturms with one stone.

But Andrew wasn’t completely on board with my wry pessimism. Although worried about the status of his job, he had found unexpected relief in the recent normalization of social distancing.

“To be honest, Verity, this whole situation hasn’t been all that bad for someone who grew up with so much anxiety about all that,” he told me.

One of Andrew’s oldest and most intense tics is paranoia about hygiene: germs, where they are, contracting them, recovering from them. I began to imagine how much more at ease such a mind would feel in a world where people finally, utopically, maintained their proper distance from one another.

“I’m just trying to enjoy that part of it while it lasts,” he added, further blowing my mind. For a moment, there was just static on the line. Andrew didn’t notice it, one of my favorite things about him. No silence too awkward. 

“But to change the topic, I gave up alcohol for Lent and already lost 20 pounds!” he confessed excitedly. “And I mean, Verity, if I knew it would have been that simple, I would have done that years ago,” he added with a guffaw.

I smiled to myself. Laughing in a time like this.

***

On a recent socially-distanced walk, one of my friends expressed sadness about the lost opportunity to run into all their casual friends and acquaintances around graduation time; to have one final connection with this person they once knew while both of them were feeling so open and rosy about the time they spent here. 

I think the COVID-19 version of this quintessential senior experience must be calling up the classmates you’ve never met before, airing your anxieties to a near-perfect stranger for 40-odd minutes because the bond you share as members of “an unfulfilled generation coming to maturity during a period of instability” is that certain. It’s a social property we now share, something wholly singular about the way this class is exiting the already unusual cultural landscape of college. 

Toward the end of our interview, Rometsch began to sense it, too. “I actually feel like, because this happened, I feel more willing to talk about the anxiety,” she confessed. “Because it feels like people are more understanding and everyone’s going through crazy uncertainty right now.”

At a certain level of stress, we’re driven to candor. In radical stress, radical candor. Whatever it takes to find some purchase in the purgatory. And God bless whatever social survival mechanism it may be because every conversation I had in this piece made me feel a little bit better about being alive right now.

“I feel like this whole thing has definitely put all my recent life changes into perspective,” Li told me. “I’m trying to find the little positives, as cheesy as it sounds. Like the sun coming in on a cloudy day or something. Like the rainbow that comes after the rain.” She paused.

“You know, I was thinking of getting my grades processed, because I’m taking pretty, like, senior classes this semester. But then I also kind of want a memory thing on my transcript, like wow, I went to college during No Record Covid.”

I laughed along with her, amused and emboldened by this person I just met.

“You’re going to fail a class just to put a keepsake on your transcript? That’s a power move.” I replied. “You know what, I’ll do it too.”

“Yeah!” she agreed. “It’s a pact.”