A few months ago, the coronavirus outbreak was merely a lingering news story in the back of Elise JiYue Wolski’s mind. Never in a million years did the 23-year-old graphic designer and Greece native anticipate that the virus would alter her life and the world like never before.
“At first, I was comparing it to the swine flu I had back in 2009. I thought it wouldn’t be that bad. I thought it would all end in two weeks and not be a big deal,” Wolski says.
Like other young professionals around the world, Wolski quickly realized that would not be the case. Engaged in a society that values deep social interactions and gatherings, these young individuals have come to terms with being susceptible to the virus, and learned to cope with social isolation and emerging anxieties while embracing changes to daily routines and expectations.
As of June 26, Monroe County entered phase four of New York’s reopening plan, allowing the resumption of low-risk indoor and outdoor arts and entertainment, film and TV production, higher education and professional sports without fans. Still, social distancing has forced many twentysomethings to alter their daily lives and expectations.
“Opening up doesn’t mean we’re back to normal,” says Daniel Jablansky, 24, an airport and environmental planner. “It means we think we have the virus under control, so we want to keep it that way while allowing people to live their lives again. And our leaders must be able to pull the plug if we see cases rising.”
He plans to continue to be careful.
“I’m still nervous, so at first not much if anything is going to change with what I’m already doing. I’m not sure what to expect,” Jablansky says.
His apprehension is felt by many in his age group. A Pew Research survey in March found that adults 18 to 29 were more than twice as likely (33 percent) to suffer distress including anxiety, depression and loneliness compared with those 65 and older (15 percent). That trend hadn’t changed in April.
The United States has more than 2.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases—the highest number in the world. The rapid escalation, which began in March, resulted in paranoia and fear. Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued the New York State on PAUSE order effective March 22, closing all nonessential businesses.
“When colleges started to close, the students I lived with started freaking out … so I started freaking out,” Wolski says. “Once my friend was sent home from studying abroad and the shutdown of nonessential businesses happened, … I realized it was all way more serious than I thought.”
This panic became a source of stress and anxiety for many millennials—even those who may have previously identified as being calm under pressure. Family nurse practitioner Kelly Cumella notes how as a young medical professional, there’s no escaping the constant influx of news surrounding COVID-19.
“There’s constant emails, constant briefings. I see the news and compare it to what I’m hearing from a health care perspective,” says Cumella, 28. “I’m usually a very calm and collected person, … but I’ve never been so anxious in my life.
“I’m trying to keep things in perspective as much as possible,” she adds. “I’m concerned for those who battle mental health issues, especially with the closure of psychiatric offices and limited access to telehealth.”
For Jablansky, the news is his biggest mental stressor.
“There’s a lot of negative news even with some positives coming out. Every news station talks about it. At some point, all that information becomes stressful to hear. There’s only so much I can control right now,” he says. “Media outlets have tickers on the side of the screen reporting new deaths constantly; it doesn’t help me mentally.
“All I can do is take the best care of myself I can. I wash my hands. I don’t necessarily travel. If I go out, I have masks, gloves, and I stay away from people. As long as I play my part, I’ll get through it.”
Sara, a 24-year-old, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, turned to technology and nature as an outlet for her pandemic anxiety. Many online and mobile applications that usually require payment are being offered free or at a reduced price, which Sara finds valuable to keep herself stimulated.
“While I don’t have a Peloton bike, I’ve been using the Peloton app, which offer mediation, yoga, dance classes, running and more. It’s nice to get fresh air,” Sara says. “I also finally have the time to practice another language. Rosetta Stone and Duolingo are both stellar apps for this.”
Sara and many others like her in Rochester face uncertain futures, having lost their jobs as a result of the virus. She was laid off from a communications position, yet Sara feels lucky to have savings that she can fall back on while seeking new opportunities.
“I’m lucky to have been aggressive with saving and paying off all my debts,” she says. “I moved home to save money for an eventual move.”
Millennials tend to work in industries hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak, including information technology, hospitality and consulting. In Monroe County, where more than one-quarter of the population falls in the 20-39 age bracket, the overall jobless rate in April rose to 15 percent, up from 3.7 percent a year earlier.
A recent report from Data for Progress found that 52 percent of people under the age of 45 have lost a job, been furloughed, or had their hours reduced due to the pandemic, versus 26 percent of people over the age of 45.
According to some analyses, millennials since entering the workforce have experienced the slowest economic growth of any generation in U.S. history, and they are likely to bear economic scars such as lower earnings and wealth and delayed homeownership through the rest of their lives.
Searching for a job in a COVID-stricken economy is challenging. Many positions that Sara has applied for sent back automatic replies informing her that the roles have been placed on hold due to the pandemic.
“I’m in a hurry to get a job because I don’t want a big gap in my resumé, but I also know millions of other people are in the same boat,” she says. “At the same time, I don’t want to just take the first offer I get. I know some people have been accepted for a position and then the company takes back their offer because they ran out of funds or had to freeze the offer. I don’t want to go through that heartache.”
However, she feels hopeful that the pandemic will positively change perceptions of remote-work lifestyles and even hopes to work this way in the future.
“I’ve been thinking more about living a digital nomad lifestyle … or finding a location-independent job,” Sara says. “Most jobs right now that aren’t considered essential are operating this way. I think this pandemic has the potential to change how we work (and) live.”
Jablansky feels fortunate to still be employed and financially stable at a time when the world itself feels unstable.
“I think I’m young enough that I don’t have to worry too much about finances as a result of the pandemic,” he says. “Older people on the verge of retirement may have more worry. A silver lining (is) that I’m spending less per month.”
At the outset, the coronavirus was said to primarily affect older individuals and those with immunocompromised illnesses and underlying medical problems. More recently, reports have indicated that young people might be just as susceptible. Those who thought the virus wouldn’t affect their lives are quickly learning that they, too, are vulnerable.
“I’m equally as scared as other age groups now. I’ve seen videos and reports of people my age who have gotten it … and it’s bad,” Wolski says. “Many were perfectly healthy. An acquaintance’s baby has the virus. It’s hitting more home for me now. It’s not just my grandparents—it’s people my age.”
Adds Wolski: “I remember having conversations with coworkers a week before being sent home, where we said we’d be fine because we’re young and without preexisting conditions. Now I realize it could still really affect me. I might have higher chances of surviving, but now that resources are running low, it’s scarier.”
Cumella, who works at Rochester Regional Health, says medical professionals often are calmer that most people about illnesses, but notes COVID-19 is a different beast.
“I thought it was going to be mild like the flu and that we’d handle it like the flu. As soon as I saw the numbers coming out of Italy and how fast it was changing, my outlook changed,” she says. “I was cautious, but less cautious than maybe an older adult with comorbidities would be, knowing I’m young and healthy. I was more cautious regarding my family members. I have older family members; I wanted to educate them about how the virus is spread and make sure I don’t spread it to them.”
Jablansky, who was set to travel to San Diego with friends in mid-March, acknowledges that canceling his trip was a no-brainer.
“We didn’t want to bring the virus to the cities where we all live afterwards and get people sick,” he says. “We don’t know how it’s going to spread to other people. No one is invincible.”
For a demographic known to place high value on friendships and non-familial relationships, COVID brought unanticipated challenges. However, with challenges also comes introspection. Millennials are reflecting on what matters most to them.
“I didn’t realize how often I went out to see someone, even if it’s to just hang out for dinner. Or going to the grocery store,” Wolski says. “Those quick interactions. I still put makeup on to try to keep consistency in my life.”
Some like Jablansky, who are used to socializing regularly, have realized that they may have taken time for granted.
“Even though sometimes we can be busy with life, it’s a good kind of busy. Now that I have all this time, I’m struggling to figure out how to use it,” he says. “It’s funny how we complain when we don’t have time, and now that we do have time, we’re still complaining.”
On the other hand, Jablansky admits, he’s finally able to do things he always put off, like cleaning his apartment or organizing old clothes for donation.
While social interactions are resuming slowly, young people are resorting to what they know best: technology.
Work meetings, life events, family gatherings and even funerals are being converted into Zoom sessions. Real estate agents are livestreaming open houses to generate interest in their properties. Though the younger population is tech-savvy, incorporating digital technology into their lives at a heightened level feels anything but normal.
Wolski points to the hypocrisy surrounding the use of social media and digital technology.
“People were promoting unplugging and getting into nature before the pandemic. Now, everyone is telling us to do everything we can possibly do through technology,” she says. “I think the majority of people are using technology to stay connected, and it’s not seen as negative as it was before. We have to adjust, and I think technology is helping people adapt. It’s making this situation a lot easier. I can’t imagine what it was like during a time like the (1918) Spanish flu.”
For others, the shift to virtual life is merely a temporary mindset.
“I think it’s necessary but temporary,” Jablansky says. “Learning about the technology as we go is a good thing, especially if and when this happens next.”
With restaurants and retail opening up, things might change.
“I foresee a split of people who will try to go back out like ‘normal’ and those who will slowly come back to distance socializing,” Wolski says. “However, I think businesses are going to be what drives how we will interact. I hope some procedures continue such as contactless options but still have the option to dine in as usual.”
Businesses are taking it slow, and do have procedures in place, for now. Wolski supports a cautious reopening.
“I am worried about a second wave coming along,” she says. “I will be careful, but I can’t say (that’s true) for everyone else.”
Amid the fear, uncertainty and shifting values for Rochester’s young professionals lies hopefulness and positivity as well.
“I’m anxious … but hopeful and empowered. Interacting with people in the nursing and health care community is uplifting, because our focus is on bettering the community,” Cumella says.
Jablansky, who plans to remain cautious, is waiting for the day he can walk into a grocery store without a mask and hug a friend.
“We’re all going to get through this,” he says. “It will be temporary—longer than we hope, but at some point, we’ll get back to being social creatures again.”
Robert Mantell is a Rochester-area freelance writer. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.