What today’s young people don’t want to hear

Welcome, parents and grandparents of the Class of 2020. Hello also to their aunts, uncles and second cousins and the boyfriends of those cousins, to their mom’s friend Sheila from work and their dad’s friend Steve.

To all their teachers from kindergarten to high school to Hebrew school, to every parent of every one of their friends, to every random lady who waves to them at the hardware store, welcome. So glad to see that every adult that the Class of 2020 has ever met is here today.

(By “here,” of course, I mean “reading this,” since obviously many in person commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2020 have been cancelled or postponed because of COVID-19, and also you probably wouldn’t have been there anyway, Steve.)

Adults who know a member of the Class of 2020, this is a pivotal moment. The Class of 2020 has just graduated into a global pandemic, entering a world with record-high unemployment and few entry-level job opportunities. Many of them would have tried to get jobs as servers or baristas as they found their path—now many of those jobs are gone as well.

Which means you are at a crossroads. Either you will be an adult who helps them through this crisis with empathy and sensitivity, or you will be an adult cornering them at the supermarket, from a six-foot distance, saying, “So, what’s next?”

Let me answer this question for you: probably nothing. The Class of 2020 is entering a labor landscape where it will be extremely difficult for them to find work, and many of them are likely to be spending the summer stewing in existential anxiety.

So here’s some advice that applies to all college graduates, not just the ones entering this particularly horrible labor market: If they have found a job, they’re sick of talking about it. If they haven’t found a job, they’re sick of talking about it.

Most recent college graduates are already hearing “What’s next?” echoing through their minds every waking hour of their post-college life, like a yodel in the Grand Canyon. They don’t need to hear it again from you, the mom of their fifth-grade classmate.

Also: do you really care? Or is this just a question that people ask at a particular point in time, like asking single people, “Why are you single?” or long-term couples, “When’s the wedding?” Is it a point of genuine curiosity, or is it small talk? Are you asking because you care about them, because you want to add it to your mental roster of which-kid-is-doing-what, or because you don’t know what else to say?

If you just don’t know what else to say, I can sympathize. It’s hard to make small talk with your work friend’s daughter, or your girlfriend’s cousin, or your son’s classmate from the seventh grade, and sometimes the only thing you know about them is that they just graduated from college and they’re standing right in front of you.

If this is the case, just ask literally any other question: still playing soccer? Did you watch Tiger King? Reading any good books these days? Do you believe in ghosts? If you’re stuck, feel free to steal this line: “I’m so sorry to hear your commencement got disrupted, that sounds really hard, and I hope you’re able to catch up with your friends soon!”

If you urgently need this professional information to add it to your mental spreadsheet of which-kid-is-doing-what, I would suggest maybe reconsidering your priorities. At the very least, if you simply must know what’s happening in the professional lives of every young person you tangentially know, you can stalk them online like a normal person. When they get a job, they’ll post about it. This is how the Class of 2020 finds out information about people, and you can do it too.

And if you genuinely care about the Class of 2020, there are ways you can help. The first, and the easiest, is to spare them this small indignity: Each time a member of the Class of 2020 is asked, “What’s next?” by a well-meaning adult, it’s a small stone added to an already massive burden of uncertainty.

The most tangible way to help is to give them paid work, even if it’s just a few small tasks. Do you have reports that need to be summarized? Do you need help organizing your invoices? Is there anything in your professional life, no matter how small, that a young graduate could help you with? Offering even piecemeal work to a floundering new graduate gives them more than money — it gives them professional experience, a line on their resume and much-needed confidence at a time of uncertainty.

If you can’t offer work, you can offer sympathy rather than unsolicited advice. To a new graduate, your bootstrapping stories of reaching your own career summit offer little comfort: the narrative sounds easy and inevitable in retrospect. From their perspective, little is easy and nothing is inevitable, so the story of your own professional rise can sound more alienating than comforting.

Instead, consider sharing stories of your own stumbles and failures, of the moments when you were unsure or stalled. If you were ever unemployed or directionless, tell them about the time you spent loafing around. If you ever lost a job or flamed out, tell them what that felt like, and what you learned. Stories of struggle, rather than stories of triumph, will help the Class of 2020 feel a little less alone.

And if none of that works, you can always just look at your phone and pretend you don’t see them. That’s what they’re probably doing anyway.

 

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