Time of their lives or 'Good Riddance?' Big challenges lie ahead for Class of 2020

They were born into an America that hadn't existed before. The good old days for them are what older Americans dubbed the “new normal.”

Most of the high school students graduating from suburban schools were born after the shocking terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that toppled the World Trade Centers in New York, killed 3,000 innocent people and changed the way we live. Today's graduates have never lived in a year when our nation didn't mourn the deaths of our soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. They've never walked to the airport gate with a handmade sign to welcome a loved one flying home from vacation. Walking through a metal detector to get into a ballgame, a concert or even a school doesn't seem weird to them.

They can't remember a world without selfie sticks, “American Idol,” ride-sharing or Kardashians. They never had to punch a number on their cellphone three times to get the letter they wanted. They grew up knowing about peanut allergies, gluten-free pasta and vegan options.

Barack Obama was the president for nearly half of their lives. Active shooter drills were just another part of school activities. Weed was more common than cigarettes.

They've known the Chicago Cubs as the 2016 World Champs and a team with stars who are fun to watch. They only know the once-great Chicago Bulls franchise as an inept collection of players who aren't accustomed to playoff basketball. The 1985 Chicago Bears are something their grandparents talk about. Today's graduates probably don't remember when the White Sox won the 2005 World Series, but they should remember the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup-winning teams of 2010, 2013 and 2015.

And now they are blazing new paths with social distancing, e-learning and virtual proms dominating their memories of their disjointed senior year of high school in the midst of COVID-19. They can't celebrate their accomplishments with germ-spreading high-fives.

  Masks, protests and civil unrest will be some of the lasting memories for the Class of 2020 when they look back at the final days of their high school lives. Rick West/

Being a graduate in the Class of 2020 is like having a birthday on Sept. 11. It's a happy occasion for you, but everyone is going to associate the time as a bad chapter in American history.

More than 100 years ago, the Class of 1918 had a rocky graduation, too. Not only was a pandemic killing people across the nation, but young Americans were fighting a bloody World War I. Alcohol was banned starting on Jan. 17, 1920, just as women earned the right to vote.

Young people were awash in new technologies, such as radios, telephones, refrigerators, Model A cars, and movie theaters.

There also was a growing anti-immigration movement and swelling membership in hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

By the end of the decade, the Great Depression was upon those young adults, and many of them lost their jobs, and saw their families fall apart.

Graduating high school during a depression, or even a recession, can impact the future for life.

“A temporarily higher state unemployment rate at the age of labor market entry leads to precisely estimated increases in mortality that appear in the late thirties and increase until age 50,” concludes a 2019 academic study titled, “Socioeconomic Decline and Death: Midlife Impacts of Graduating in a Recession,” by Hannes Schwandt at Northwestern University and Till von Wachter of the University of California, Los Angeles. “These increases in mortality are driven to an important extent by a rise in both disease-related and 'external' causes, including lung cancer, liver disease, and drug poisoning. We also find entering the labor market during a recession has a substantial impact on a broad range of measures of socioeconomic status in middle age, including a decline in marriage rates, a rise in divorce rates, and a decline in family size.”

The 1930s were a bleak time for young adults a century ago. Young adults who lived through the AIDS crisis and the recession of the 1980s also had struggles. That doesn't mean the 2030s will follow suit. But there is work to be done. And there is no sense pretending everything is great. Nobody will be singing Green Day's classic ballad known as “Time of our Lives” for their 2020 graduations. But everybody can appreciate that the real title of that song is “Good Riddance.”

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