Saturday, July 4, 2020
July 4, 2020

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Jayne: Gen Z graduates into new world

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Advice, like youth, is probably wasted on the young.

OK, OK, I’m not the first person to write those words. In fact, it was the headline on a famous 1997 Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich. A column so famous that it became a hit song, with Schmich’s advice to graduates placed over a low-key backing track. The gist of that advice: Wear sunscreen.

Words of wisdom indeed — more simple, direct and insightful than anything I could come up with.

And while the sunscreen suggestion has become the column’s signature, the article is filled with gems: “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.”

We could go on about Schmich’s column (the Chicago Tribune has it behind a paywall), because Pulitzer Prize winners tend to be better writers than I am. But we probably should move ahead. Besides, I already have buried the lead to this column: My daughter is a college graduate.

Emily received a degree in political science last week from Washington University in St. Louis. Next up is a year of graduate work at WashU for a Master’s in Public Health — a particularly prescient field of study at this point in human history.

This might not sound like a big deal to you; that’s understandable. But, obviously, it is a big deal to my wife and I. And to our daughter. And to our financial adviser. And even if the commencement ceremony was virtual, the pride is authentic.

The process of watching Emily finish up the final weeks of her senior year and go through graduation from home, 2,045 miles from campus, has provided yet another example of just how bizarre and unfathomable and incomprehensible 2020 has been. In some ways, because I have been going into the office on most days and had some sense of normalcy, the graduation-that-wasn’t provided the biggest things-aren’t-normal moment to this point.

Be it missing out on a commencement or a prom or a piano lesson or a soccer practice or — sigh! — a haircut, life has been upended. That’s what COVID-19 has done to us. And that’s not even mentioning those who have been thrust into unemployment or had their work hours reduced or are trying to enter the job market at the worst possible time.

For Generation Z, which apparently is what they call the demographic cohort that includes my daughter, it all seems particularly unfair. The older members of that generation were preschoolers when 9/11 altered the world; they were pre-teens when the Great Recession hit; they are young adults in the time of COVID-19, with no telling how the pandemic will affect their futures. Along the way, they have been impacted by school shootings and climate change and an irresponsible government intent on ignoring both.

And now, this generation’s views — and opportunities — relating to employment, dating, entertainment, dining and every other aspect of life will be influenced by the pandemic. As Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center told The Washington Post: Millennials “came into adulthood in a really difficult economic time, and they really struggled to get their footing. We thought it was going to be different for Gen Z. But now this sort of turns that all upside down.”

Every generation has its burdens, of course. And as The Greatest Generation was steeled by the Great Depression and World War II, Generation Z will emerge stronger because of their struggles. It also will emerge with much different opinions about the role of government and the need for a social safety net.

None of that constitutes advice for the Class of 2020, but it reflects what sociologists will be studying for the next several decades. If newly minted graduates want advice, that part’s easy: Wear sunscreen.

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