No jobs, head empty.
Some testimonies from job-less young adults, and a Q&A on why Gen Z is on Facebook.
Somewhere in the recesses of my iPhone camera roll, there is a photo of my dad, scraggly and unshaven, with a thick mane of hair a Spanish conquistador would envy. I imagine he is no older than 25 here, on the verge of dropping out of community college to work full-time in a Chinese kitchen in Oklahoma. That’s the gist of his early life in America. But somehow in a decade, he would manage to save enough money to put down a payment for a house in Southern California — all without a college degree. The 1980s, man. What a time.
Weeks ago, while I was reporting a feature on unemployed graduates and the lasting generational impact of the Covid-19 recession, I tried to envision the odds of success for someone like my dad in today’s labor market. Even he thinks it’s impossible — or close to impossible — to achieve those material milestones nowadays. For that story, I managed to source over 200 testimonies from recent graduates of high school, trade school, undergraduate, and master’s programs, who held little to no full-time work experience. The responses, while overwhelming, stuck with me, and I want to share a few anonymized anecdotes and interviews that didn’t make the final cut into my piece.
And as distressing as these testimonies may be, I have a few final thoughts to share before I close out 2020. First, a Q&A with administrator Matt Duffy of Born Zillennial, a Facebook group (yes, the kids use Facebook!) with over 100,000 members born in the mid- to late-1990s. Then, some stray thoughts on the future, my favorite works of the year, and what I’m reading. This might not be my last newsletter of the year, dear reader, but in the spirit of honoring my personal commitments to self-care, I will treat it as such and not place undue burden on my brain.
A “failure to launch”: Young adults on how Covid-19 affected their job prospects and living circumstances
A 26-year-old trade school graduate from Nova Scotia: “Joining the military is not a simple thing, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. They’re the only people hiring right now where I am, and that’s a scary situation I’ve had to thrust myself into … I studied firefighting and took classes for marine industrial rigging but right now, neither of them are hiring. I can’t even get my foot in the door. My only option seems to be joining the military, and I can’t find job security or medical and dental healthcare anywhere else.”
A Class of 2020 college graduate: “I had a job offer (pending from a company where I interned) be rescinded on extremely short notice. Because I had almost been guaranteed that job up until about 10 days before I graduated, I really scrambled to find a job. I ended up unsuccessful, and tried to do some freelance work to make money in the meantime. I couldn’t make enough to keep my rent payments up for my room in Brooklyn, and had to move back in with my parents in upstate New York. Now, I’m working through a bootcamp in Product Design so that I’ll be better prepared for another job search around the end of January.”
A college graduate who studied communications: “I’ve been applying for everything under the sun and can’t even get an email back. Is serving going to be my only option? Oh shit, that’s right. Restaurants are closed again. I’ve come to a point that the stress has literally caused my hair to fall out and can’t panic anymore. With the little ounce of faith I have left, I’m putting everything I have out there to make sure I can pay my bills come January. “
A master’s graduate in higher education: “I work in higher education, so I graduated in May with no job in my field. Although I started applying and interviewing in February, pretty much every single university had gone on a hiring freeze. I had no job prospects once I graduated in May. My lease was up on May 31, so I lived with two different friends for a few weeks and then moved in with my brother for two months.”
A high school graduate: “I was going to test to be a Certified Medical Assistant, which is huge for someone to accomplish at my age. I had plans to work as a CMA as soon as I graduated high school and through college to start a career in healthcare. I am going to be a registered nurse so I felt like this was a perfect stepping stone to help me gain medical knowledge and to get my foot in the door in the medical field. I had it all planned out, and then everything went crazy. I walked out of the school and never went back. I never got to test.”
A 25-year-old EMT-in-training: “I already had an undergrad degree in anthropology, but that unfortunately didn’t land me a job either. I went back to school to get an EMT certificate … We were supposed to work in an emergency room for hands-on experience and do ride-alongs on the ambulance. I was pretty disappointed with the [one-year] program as a whole, and at one point, worried that we wouldn’t even finish. I didn’t have employment over the summer, and I guess my plan B would be to cry a little bit but I’m trying to ride this wave out.”
Q&A with Matt Duffy: On Facebook, what a “Zillennial” is, and going viral on TikTok
My former intern reporter friend Lily Jackson (hi Lily!) invited me to the Born Zillennial group on Facebook sometime in late October. At the time, the page had less than 50,000 members, and quickly ballooned to more than 100,000 in a matter of weeks. I spoke with administrator and creator Matt Duffy for my Vox.com story, and was intrigued by the zealous level of engagement within the group. So I followed up and Matt obliged. Our conversation has been condensed for clarity.
Terry: Why did you make this group?
Matt: One of my grad school classes this semester required us to create an online community, and at first, I felt a bit stuck. I think I saw a TikTok on Zillennials and I was like, oh that’s interesting. So I created the group and invited like 17 classmates and 5 good friends, but I needed more people to be a part of it. That’s when I went on TikTok and made a video talking about the group. I think I said something like, if you’re born between millennials and Gen Z and feel like you’re a bit of both, please join this group! It’s for a class, and I said I needed 100 members to get an A. I think it immediately got to 100 members in 20 minutes, and an hour later we were at 360. I manually approved everyone that day until we reached 5,000 members and we went from 22 people to 22,000 in just 12 hours.
Terry: Wow, the TikTok algorithm is so insane! Would you say you were TikTok famous before for your video to blow up?
Matt: That exact video helped me hit 1 million total likes, so I’ve had like 3 or 4 viral videos. I have like 20,000 followers there, so it’s not like I had never been on TikTok.
Terry: Did you have an idea for what you wanted the group to be?
Matt: Before the TikTok blew up, I honestly didn’t even like the idea until people started identifying with being a Zillennial. The page is overwhelmingly meme content because that’s what resonates with everyone. I think it’s very telling how we can meme-ify life experiences, but I personally love the long nostalgic text posts. In class, we learned that a community can take on a mind of its own. Yes I created it, but if people are creating memes, that’s what they’re liking and enjoying so I can’t gate-keep certain content. It’s an organic and fluid online community.
Terry: So, Zoomers are on Facebook. Was that a surprise to you? I always had a hunch that was the case.
Matt: I feel like there is a cusp. I don’t know if I can speak for younger members of Gen Z, but Born Zillennial is very telling of who we are. People were like, I’m pretty sure only Zillennials would join a Facebook group because of a TikTok they saw. I feel like there are so many layers to it. A lot of people like me made Facebook when we’re about 11 and that was our first introduction to the platform, which we used very heavily when we were younger. We participated in things like “tag your friend” memes and ultimate cringe. But we never deleted it, and it’s a place where you go to find your family and friends. I don’t know if people still post on it as much, but we mainly use it for classes or events or groups.
Is it future or is it past?
I have four tattoos on my right arm that solely exist for The Aesthetic and carry no underlying meaning. My latest tattoo, which is perhaps my most meaningful, is of a crystal ball. It’s my COVID ink, and the art reminds me of the classic Twin Peaks line, “Is it future or is it past?” This year, it was hard to tell the two apart.
So first, the future. I am spending most of winter in California and Arizona, where I hope to spend my days p̶e̶r̶f̶o̶r̶m̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶r̶a̶d̶w̶i̶f̶e̶ ̶d̶u̶t̶i̶e̶s̶ reading, cooking, suntanning, and writing. This past year, I’ve made intermittent progress on various short stories shelved away in my Google Drive, and my goal is to submit them for publication come January. Fiction writing — and my immersion into the literary world — was a much-needed refuge this year. The fast-paced nature of contemporary journalism, I realize, is often antithetical to the speed and consistency of my process as a writer. Looking ahead, there is so much more to read, write, understand, and dwell upon in literature. That might have an adverse affect on how frequently I publish gen yeet in 2021, but I promise you, this space is often the first reserve for my thoughts.
Onto the past. I’ve done some of my best work this year, which is partly a result of the cataclysmic world. I tend to downplay my accomplishments because, in my twisted mind, the act of reveling in personal satisfaction threatens my own ambitions. (I’m working on that!) But allow me briefly to brag about a few of my favorite works this year:
A semi-viral explainer on the Instagram slideshow phenomenon and how it’s used as an activist tool this summer.
A reported essay on why Vietnamese American voters prefer Trump over Biden, and how threads of this sentiment can be found among other Asian voters.
A deep-dive into how fake news and misinformation affect Asian American voters.
A review of HBO’s latest reality venture House of Ho. To be published very soon for a very cool magazine.
Final personal news: I’m doing some cross-platform promotion for USA Today’s This is America newsletter, a weekly newsletter on race and identity written by a rotating slate of reporters and editors. Their last issue was on the pervasiveness of anti-Semitic tropes in popular culture. I also enjoyed this newsletter written by a Black reporter on why she’s hesitant about having kids.
Some good stuff, according to me
2020 was the year that Substack became OnlyFans for writers. Here are my favorites: The Reading by Yanyi; Ask Molly by Heather Havrilesky; Medialyte by Mark Stenberg; Hip to Waste by Safy-Hallan Farah; Deez Links by Delia Cai; Culture Study by Anne Helen Peterson; Close but Not Quite by Mary Retta; Insight by Zeynep Tufecki.
I read a lot of oldies this year. The books that made me cry: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin; Fear of Flying by Erica Jong; The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. The most memorable books: The Passion According to GH by Claire Lispector; No-No Boy by John Okada; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; Freshwater by Aewaeke Emezi. The books that made me laugh out loud: The Sellout by Paul Beatty; The Man in Havana by Graham Greene; My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.
Finally, I leave you with a playlist full of holiday cheer.
If you’re feeling generous this holiday season and wish to support my free work, please consider paying me via Paypal or Venmo @nguyenterry. You’re welcome to spare me a follow on Instagram. As always, thank you for reading!