It seems unbelievable that the millennial generation is now experiencing the second “once-in-a-lifetime” economic crash of our young careers, and the third major national crisis.
I was a sophomore in high school on September 11, 2001. That morning, after a test in Algebra during the first period of the day, I walked into my second period Electronics course to see the television news turned on.
As a high school student with little understanding of geopolitical history, and as someone who had not been to New York City, it was difficult to make sense of and process the situation. But it, along with the subsequent military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, defined the political debates of my high school and college years.
We learned to live with infringements of civil liberties, images of wartime chaos, and reports of someone trying to sneak an explosive onto an airplane in his shoes or underwear.
Then, in 2008, the financial crisis, caused by risky lending practices in the home mortgage industry, slammed the American economy. Millions of young people around my age have felt its lasting effects and have struggled to get careers started. With the economy more competitive than ever, students entered graduate programs and accrued educational debt, only to find that job prospects, salaries, and benefits were still stunted many years after 2008.
Now, the fallout from Covid-19 threatens to make the economic crisis of 2008 look tame by comparison. The economy already seems to be in recession, and a depression seems likely. Students graduating college this year, members of Generation Z, have seen job offers and internship opportunities evaporate in the past few weeks. They will be forced to move back into their parents’ homes, just as millennials did over a decade ago.
And it seems as if the economic impact will be with us for a long time to come, as it will be many months before Americans feel comfortable flying on planes, staying in hotels, or attending public events.
If nothing else, it seems that after seven or eight weeks of trying to cope with the pandemic, the cumulative impact of the rising death total, the economic crisis, and the social isolation is wearing on people.
One of my graduate school colleagues is currently teaching a course on women’s history and, like thousands of other university professors around the country, had to reconfigure her plans for the final examination.
She decided to create an essay assignment about the impact of Covid-19 on women, including issues related to pay, health benefits, parenting, gender role expectations, and other relevant topics. She posted the assignment on social media, and also noted that some of the students had emailed her to ask if they could write about something else.
Her first reaction was to say “no” and to make them answer the assigned question, but a respondent on social media pointed out that students might be feeling fatigued and overwhelmed by how the pandemic has overshadowed everything else going on in the world, and may not want to write yet another essay assignment about it. I think that my former colleague still plans to keep the original assignment, but it was a trenchant observation.
My freshman English composition course at the University of Tennessee in fall 2004 included a final essay assignment about terrorism, war, civil liberties, and other topics. By that point, it had been three years since September 11, and about a year and half since the U.S. invasion of Iraq began. The presidential campaign between George W. Bush and John Kerry was concluding, and terrorism and war had been the main issue in the campaign.
In preparation for the essay, the instructor tried to get the class to talk about some of the ideas we were considering writing about. However, the discussion was slow, and several attempts to get us excited fell flat.
It finally dawned on the instructor that after three years of non-stop news coverage and political debate about these weighty issues, we simply did not want to have yet another discussion about them in English class. Many of us had already spent hours in high school social studies and civics courses debating the topics, and the campaign of 2004 had gotten ugly, with the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” bringing John Kerry’s military service record into question.
Our English composition instructor kept the final assignment in place, but seemed to understand the mental and emotional fatigue involved with confronting these draining topics over and over again. Only weeks into the Covid-19 pandemic, its devastating impact seems likely to provoke similar reactions in the near and distant future.
[W. Michael Camp is Assistant Professor and Political Papers Archivist in the Ingram Library at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Ga.]