Young Woman at Silent Disco
Credit: iStock

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, few images have been as maddening as those of masses of young people partying on beaches in blatant defiance of public health officials’ pleas to “social distance.” “This is so unintelligent and reckless,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “I can’t even begin to express it.”

Needless to say, by ignoring directives to stay home, young adults endanger the health of their parents and grandparents, who are at higher risk of serious illness. And far from invincible themselves, younger people now account for as much as 40 percent of patients hospitalized for COVID-19.

But if their own health and safety aren’t reason enough for young Americans to stay put, they should consider their economic self-interest as well. Young people will be bear the brunt of the coronavirus recession. The longer the crisis continues, the more painful the economic fallout will be, as businesses stay shuttered and the economy risks plunging into a depression. Helping to “flatten the curve,” in other words, will not only save lives. It will help mitigate the economic shock of the crisis, and improve future economic prospects for the younger generation.

The restaurant, retail, and hotel industries are all reeling from the pandemic. Marriott, for instance, has furloughed tens of thousands of employees. So, too, have Hilton and Hyatt. Many small businesses are forced to close shop or lay off most of their workforce. Young workers are among the first to feel the pain.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers between the ages of 20 and 24 account for nearly one-third of restaurant waitstaff, one-fourth of all retail cashiers, and one-fifth of all retail salesclerks. Young workers also occupy a large share of other entry-level service jobs in entertainment and hospitality, such as hotel and motel desk clerks (one-third), ushers and ticket-takers (one-fifth) and baggage handlers (one-sixth).

That’s just in those industries. Young people make up a disproportionate share of the low-wage workforce hardest hit by the pandemic, period, according to new research from the Brookings Institution. Scholars Martha Ross, Nicole Bateman, and Alec Friedhoff find that workers ages 18 to 24 comprise nearly one in four low-wage workers, with the most common occupations being retail, food service, and lower-level administrative support. Many of these young workers can ill afford any loss of income: Among the 13 percent who lack a college degree, the median hourly wage is just $8.55. Worse yet, one in five of these workers is the sole earner in their family; 14 percent are also caring for children.

But it’s not just low-income young adults who will suffer from a prolonged economic crisis; an entire cohort of prospective college graduates—many with large student debt burdens—also suddenly find their plans in limbo. “Job fairs and internships have been called off, as have debating competitions, graduate school admission tests and conferences that are essential opportunities to network and get jobs,” writes The Hechinger Report. Students who graduated during the Great Recession a decade ago might consider themselves lucky by comparison to what this year’s graduates are facing.

Many young people were already in dire economic circumstances even before the current crisis. According to the Social Science Research Council, as many as 4.5 million young adults ages 16 to 24 were not in school nor working in 2017, the latest year for which data are available. No doubt this figure has already skyrocketed, putting an entire generation at risk of severe, long-term economic disadvantage.

Some recent polling suggests that many young Americans do, in fact, grasp the personal economic implications of the COVID-19 epidemic. They may actually internalize the economic consequences more than the health risks. A new survey by the youth-focused public opinion firm College Reaction finds that just 50 percent of college students are concerned about contracting COVID-19 themselves. But 91 percent are concerned about “the U.S. economy and the job market.”

That’s a good start, but it’s not enough. Young people need to understand the connection that their behavior has on the severity—and duration—of the pandemic, both for public health and for the economy. Young people already go out the most, so they can do the most to stop the spread of the virus. That means staying home and adhering to social distancing guidelines. If they do, they will not only help to flatten the curve of the epidemic. They will lessen the depth of the nation’s economic crisis. And the generation they will ultimately save is their own.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.