To The Class Of 2020, Who Deserves A F*king Parade
In defense of Gen Z during a global pandemic
My daughter is one of our nation’s high school seniors right now, the class of 2020. For all the ribbing my husband and I gave her last summer, speculating on which sappy, clichéd class motto might be chosen for them (I can see the future with 20/20 vision!) at this moment, things aren’t looking so clear. I guess that’s just par for the course, though, when you’re in the middle of a global pandemic and unprecedented national emergency.
Like so many other districts, our school system is closed through at least May 15th—a month later than we were originally told — but the school system’s language was carefully worded so that we might anticipate anything, like the possibility of an even longer closure. Like the possibility of not returning to campus at all this year, but instead, a possible shift to remote learning online, albeit without any new grades or standardized testing.
Earlier today, my daughter’s senior prom was officially cancelled. I shouldn’t have been surprised, yet still, that one hurt a little. She delivered the news with a stoic, if not steely “it is what it is” sentiment. But all I could think of was how excited she’d been just a few weeks ago when the gorgeous red dress arrived and fit her like a glove. A dress she bought with her own money, from the part-time job she’s been working to support herself for the past two years.
When the class of 2020 arrived to their high school campuses last fall, emotionally ready for their long-awaited, final year of public school, one thing not on their radars was any expectation of senior year disruptions. And most especially, the very specific blows that were standing in the way ahead, just beyond their range of vision.
They couldn’t have foreseen losing all their field trips, their extra-curricular activities, athletic events, or senior celebrations. They had no idea that their cherished social time—the last few months of being together physically, for many of them, before venturing into the abyss of adulthood — would be so abruptly jerked away.
They couldn’t have anticipated they’d suddenly find themselves missing the classroom, the science lab, the mundane hallway banter, their favorite teachers, or their daily routine… their “normal.” Most especially, I feel the burden of those students who depend on school for their daily meals, their physical safety, and/or their emotional safety.
With so much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, and no precedent for how to proceed in a global pandemic, my heart goes out to all the high school seniors right now. We are truly living in surreal times.
High school seniors, whose minds are preoccupied with thoughts of their futures under normal circumstances, are now forced to live in the moment only. Minute-by-minute, day-by-day. At this point, they don’t even know if their graduation ceremonies will be held. Turning their tassels is one of those symbolic crowning moments they’ve been waiting their whole lives for, and now we’re all just… in crisis mode.
The class of 2020 has been robbed of so much. So many moments this year that were going to be both firsts and lasts. Lasts that were already going to be hard enough as it was, and firsts that were already enough in their uncertainty, made only more uncertain now, because those things are either in limbo or outright cancelled.
I’m not gonna lie; it simply isn’t fair.
It also isn’t fair that most people can’t see the many, many dedicated and loving teachers and school staff who are working invisibly in the background. Working tirelessly to forge a new path forward, to create opportunities where none seem to exist, to engage in meaningful dialogue with their students in any way except in-person, to deliver hot meals, and to find creative ways for seniors, in particular, to have some semblance of their honor returned. This is truly an all-hands-on-deck situation.
And believe me, I know how privileged I am that my daughter’s senior year disappointments are my biggest concern right now. I’m intimately aware of how devastating this crisis is for so many who don’t have the option to “telework.” For those who will lose everything — whether that means what meager finances they have to begin with, or the life of a loved one, all due to this pandemic.
But still, I feel for the class of 2020. Maybe even more so because earlier this week, I saw quite a few memes and posts on social media bemoaning how “irresponsible” Gen Z is being on the whole — how the mess we now find ourselves in is, in large part, their fault… because they’re the ones purportedly “not practicing social distancing.” They’re the ones allegedly throwing “quarantine parties” and gathering en masse at the beach for spring break.
But if you’re someone who thinks these young folks are lazy, selfish, or irresponsible, I’d like to present a different picture for your consideration.
Who are Gen Z?
Sometimes known as “zoomers,” or post-millennials, Gen Z includes all the babies born in America between the years of 1997–2012. Some labels differ, placing Gen Z as those born between 1995–2010, or between 1995–2019. To clarify, I’m using the years designated by the latest Pew Research: 1997–2012. (Gen Alpha is the demographic cohort succeeding Gen Z.)
It has been said that generations are shaped by the social context in which they emerged. Gen Z emerged into the world, or grew up during the time when our country was deeply grieving, on a national scale. Like nothing my generation or others had ever experienced before. Particularly, most of the class of 2020 was born just before or after 9/11 happened.
I was pregnant with my daughter — at the end of my first trimester — when it happened. I’ll never forget that morning; it was the first time in three months that I awoke without morning sickness. I asked my husband to take our 14-month old son out so I could go back to sleep. I asked not to be woken for any reason. An hour later, my husband apologetically woke me up. He was in a state of disbelief that was uncharacteristic of him.
And then, life as we knew it was forever changed. An innocence was taken from us, one that would never return.
But then these precious babies were born. And every time, it felt as if our hope for America’s future was a little bit closer to being restored.
Gen Z are America’s true digital natives. From earliest youth, they have been exposed to the internet, social networks, and mobile systems. They grew up playing with their parents tablets, mobile phones or other digital devices, and grew up in a hyper-connected world in general.
In part because of this digital literacy and adaptability, it has been noted that Gen Z approaches decisions and relates to institutions in a highly analytical and pragmatic way.
Unfortunately, though, Gen Z has grown up in a world of turbulence, disruption, and instability — mixed, at times, with a beautiful ray of hope. In elementary school they saw the election of the nation’s first black president, who campaigned on the very premise of that hope. But just before that, the class of 2020 were entering kindergarten when the Great Recession got into full swing.
My daughter was only 8 when my husband and I had to close the doors of our beloved neighborhood cafe and declare bankruptcy from the financial crisis. It must have affected her on some profound level. She was still waiting for a short time in the future where she could earn the privilege, like her older brother had, of running the “dragon” (what we called the commercial dishwasher). She never got the chance.
Gen Z is a generation that’s never known their country to not be at some kind of war. They haven’t known life without the threat of terrorism, extremism, and mass gun violence. As they came of age, school shootings were a regular occurrence. As were the resulting lockdown drills within schools, to prepare for the unimaginable case that it might happen in our own community.
Despite all of this, Gen Z are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met in my life. My daughter went through unimaginable stress during her sophomore and junior year of high school — I don’t just mean difficulty in chemistry or APUSH (AP U.S. History), or friend group drama. I mean the type of horrors, mysteries, and tragedies you only see playing out on movie screens or in novels, not in your own neighborhood, let alone, under your own roof. Three separate ones, each worse than the one before.
Mentally, she somehow pushed through, and triumphantly, in spite of the circumstances. But months later, she paid for it physically. She got bronchitis, which quickly turned into pneumonia, and had just recovered when she fell deathly ill with mono. Yet through it all, she only missed a total of one week, from both school and work. My husband and I begged her to stay home, take a “mental health day” at the very least, but she was determined to push on, and we knew better than to stand in her way.
Gen Zers are also really super cool. They don’t want to merely fit in, as my generation, Gen X did — with clothing and other popular labels that meant status, or that we’d “made it.” Gen Z wants to be their own individual in every way. They want to blaze their own pathways.
Gen Z is also radically inclusive. They don’t merely ‘tolerate’ diversity; they expect it. They’re genuinely passionate about racial, gender, and income equality, as well as the protection of human rights for minority and marginalized groups. Additionally, they’re deeply invested in environmental issues like protecting our oceans and marine life, and climate change/global warming.
Climate change only seemed to hasten as this group became young teens. In part because of their natural ability to connect through various forms of social media, and because of their global interests that surpass geographical boundaries, the class of 2020 has been heavily influenced by people like Greta Thunberg, the young climate change activist. Always ahead of the curve, Gen Zers were already telling us about Greta months before we’d ever heard her name spoken on the news.
Similarly, they are heavily influenced by bands and musical groups that have something meaningful to say, rather than just the ones serving up catchy tunes. My daughter (and many in her age group) are especially fond of British rock/alt-pop band, The 1975, whose lyrics often speak to the political saturation of the day.
The 1975’s lead singer, Matty Healy, managed to capture the turbulent-yet-hopeful attitude of Gen Z during a 2018 NPR interview, where he discussed the song “Love It If We Made It”:
“We’re in this culture of just so much information that we don’t have time to be offended by it, or upset about it. The Trump administration is a perfect example: If Trump had done half the bad things… he’d be perceived as twice as bad. But because we don’t have time to deal with everything as it is, we kind of let it slide. Then another thing happens.
…So every time I got really, really angry about something, I added another line.
I’m saying, ‘This is a bit of a nightmare, and it is a crazy time, but it would just be amazing if we sort it out, wouldn’t it?’ What a naive sentiment to write a song about — but I think that’s what artists are about. We’re not diplomats. We’re supposed to signpost towards Utopian ideas, I think.” — Matty Healy, The 1975
Gen Z regularly stands up for their values, and, like their Gen X parents, they don’t shy away from using their voices to ensure their values are honored.
But there are stark differences as well. Whereas my generation was all about materialism, Gen Z is all about realism. From watching my own three kids — all Gen Zers — I can personally attest to their financially savvy minds and strong-like-an-ox work ethics.
Beyond my own family, most Gen Zers grew up in an environment where, often, they saw the financial struggles of their parents. So Gen Z are hyper-aware of money and financial situations in general. Certainly, growing up during the great recession must’ve affected them in this way. They also don’t want the student debt of their older millennial friends and family members, and they don’t want to have to watch every nickle and dime like their parents did.
All of this leads them to be somewhat risk-averse, and therefore, Gen Z lives practically, and well-within their means. I sort of stood on the sidelines, in awe, as my older two actively looked for college scholarship opportunities and every other possible bit of financial aid, taking full control and ownership of what they inherently viewed as their own responsibility in the first place.
At that age, I was still a self-absorbed social butterfly who didn’t give a flip about my grades, half-assed my way through a part-time job (but only because my parents made me), and expected things to magically fall into my lap — like college tuition. My husband (also Gen X) admits to being largely the same. How we managed to raise such self-aware and responsible young people is entirely beyond me.
Gen Z left the safety of their mothers’ wombs to enter a post-9/11 world that was suddenly paranoid, confused, dismal, and forever changed. And now, they’re preparing to leave the safety of their parents’ homes under similar circumstances — inside of another tragedy, unlike any tragedy we’ve ever known before.
I will not offer the class of 2020 platitudes about how life isn’t fair, or how this will one day make a great story for the grandkids. I cannot dishonor them in that way. Their pain is real. And they’re living it right now.
Instead, I would tell them to not to hold it all in, to not stuff it down. That it’s okay to be sad or even heartbroken. It’s okay to be irked or even stark raving mad. It’s perfectly okay to be selfish right now. We understand. Take care of you. But do write about it. Journal. I can’t stress the importance of that enough. This isn’t fun at all, but it is history in the making, and your story matters — no matter how insignificant you might think it is. Your. Story. Matters.
You entered school this year at the top rung of the formal schooling ladder. At a time when you should be focused on nothing but coasting through, finishing out the year, so you can pursue your dreams and start managing a new independence that will come all too soon, you are instead made to feel like you should somehow stifle yourselves. You’re unfairly given the brunt of guilt for something you’re in no way responsible for. If you’ve seen those memes and posts degrading you in this way, I’m so sorry. We don’t all think that way.
We grieve with you, and we don’t want any of this for you. Especially right now. Like any parent, I wish I could take all the pain away — not just for my own graduating senior, but for all of you. I wish I could speak comforting words, but I feel at a loss for the right words. The words don’t come. I could never even pretend to understand all the feelings you must be experiencing, juggling, right now. You’re ending your highly-anticipated celebratory year in the coldest of unceremonious ways.
You may indeed be lucky that you’re not older, or in a higher-risk group who might be facing major complications or even death from the coronavirus right now; God willing, your community won’t be affected at all. But that in no way makes your senior bereavement any less valid. Please don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. A freak event, an unwelcome anomaly, has entirely hijacked your senior year.
I don’t know how or when it will end.
But I do know a few other things:
First, this cloud of uncertainty looming over you will eventually pass. Think of this social distancing time as merely a pause button on the normally fast pace of life. But take all the time you want during this pause period to read books for leisure, binge on Netflix, and importantly, to stay in touch with your friends — though virtually (as you’ve always done and know how to do well).
Create ridiculous TikToks and continue your SnapChat streaks. Find some inspirational people to follow on Twitter. Get creative with your Instagram feed, maybe even check out Facebook (I know you don’t like it because your parents are all there), but maybe just pop in for a second and say “hi.” My point here is, even though we’re maintaining social distance, don’t lose touch with people altogether. Come join your parents and younger siblings in a family game night. Humor us occasionally, if you don’t mind.
Second, a global pandemic has robbed you of much. Far beyond a case of ‘senioritis.’ You have every right to be angry and upset and everything else in between. After all you’ve been through, you deserve a f*king parade, at the very least. What’s definite here is that a global pandemic is delaying your graduation — but not your life. And the world can’t wait to see what you do with yours.
And lastly, I want your class to know that when you come out on the other side, you’ll forever be remembered — not so much as the class of 2020, who “can see the future with 20/20 vision!” — but rather, as the class of hope, the class of resilience. The class who graduated. After all.