The Misfortune of Graduating in 2020

By JOE PINSKER

By the end of the current academic year, American schools will have conferred an estimated 3.7 million high-school diplomas, 1 million associate’s degrees, and 2 million bachelor’s degrees. Many of those 6-million-plus graduates will soon pursue another degree, but many others will enter a historically terrible labor market, and one that’s especially brutal for young workers. The class of 2020 has some extraordinarily rotten luck to graduate right now, and the unfortunate timing could set many of them back financially and professionally for years.

As of now, it’s not clear for just how long their progress will be stalled. “I would talk [in terms of] years,” Till von Wachter, an economist at UCLA who has studied how young workers fare during and after economic downturns, told me. “If [the economy] recovers in the first year, there’s some hope. If it’s bad into the spring of 2021”—an eventuality that seems more and more likely—“then these individuals should worry.”

The cause for worry is the record of previous graduates who stumbled into an inhospitable economic climate. Researchers have shown that the economic scars of graduating into a recession—sustained higher rates of unemployment (for high-school graduates) and lower earnings (for everyone) compared with peers graduating as little as a year or two earlier or later—can last for as long as 10 or 15 years. This bad luck may also be dangerous for people’s health: Workers who were launching their careers during the recession of the early 1980s were found to have a heightened risk of dying in middle age, often due to increased incidence of heart disease, lung cancer, or drug overdoses.