The Class of 2020

by Renae Barber

You don’t have to look hard to find a student who can testify to the sheer chaos the pandemic has unleashed on their education.

From classrooms to class “Zooms”, from hope to uncertainty and from togetherness to separation, those going through the education system right now have seen it all. But there’s a particular group of people who’ve lost more than meets the eye – it’s that “once-in-a-lifetime” feeling of liberation and opportunity that comes with finishing high school.

The graduates of 2020 are facing uncharted territory. They’re entering the “real world” in a recession, an ongoing pandemic and an unstable global political environment exacerbated by the darkest recesses of the Internet. These “digital natives” are at the forefront of the technological revolution – the guinea pigs for our new ways of working and living post-COVID-19.

As they transition into this new phase of life, they fear they’ll miss out on the chance to establish a career in their field, to travel overseas or to even make new friends. Things that may have been taken for granted by those just a year ahead.

These are the stories of those who’ll be known for some time to come as the “graduates of COVID-19”.

If you thought finishing school in 2020 would be hard for HSC students, spare a thought for those in Victoria.

Sam Howlett, an 18-year-old Year 12 student who was the captain of her Victorian school, is also graduating from one of Australia’s toughest lockdowns. Not only has she spent one of her most important school years separated from her classmates, she’s also lost the chance to experience the rites of passage she’s looked forward to her whole life.

Sam is among the thousands of school leavers who are now having to decide what they’ll do next.

Some will never return. They might take up an apprenticeship, start their career, or take time off to travel.

For Sam, her choice was already clear.

“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do until Year 7 when we did our school play and I was Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz,” Sam says. “After I did that, I thought; ‘this is it. This is the feeling I want forever’.”

In the following years she took singing, dance and drama lessons in the hope she could train in musical theatre after finishing school. But there was no way she could have foreseen the government’s decision to hike the fees of arts and humanities degrees by up to 113 per cent – an act she describes as a “slap in the face”.

“So many people work their whole lives to be in [the Arts]. The fact that they’re making it even more difficult than it already is is astounding to me. The fact that people think it’s not valuable to society makes me so angry because I’m thinking, ‘what have you been doing in isolation? Watching movies, listening to music, reading books? Who do you think made that?’ Those are the people who have no money.”

Sam is just the kind of person the Government wants to reconsider careers in a post-COVID economy. But she’s not budging.

“You wouldn’t want me working in STEM… I’d hurt more than I’d help.”

These changing pathways to work are being walked by many graduates.

But employers are less willing to take chances during the pandemic, so it’s harder to get a foot in the door.

22-year-old Lindsay Riley says finishing a Bachelor of Communications in 2020 has been anti-climactic.


“I would honestly say it’s like a constant disillusionment.

At no point have I been hopeful. I feel like if I get a job it’ll be luck, like it will be at the right point in that moment at the right time.”

No two people have had the same experience at university during COVID-19. That’s what became clear after speaking to students across different courses, faculties and cities.

Sarah, a 25-year-old Digital and Social Media student at UTS, and Grace, a 20-year-old Media Arts student at the University of Newcastle, couldn’t have had a more different final year. Both wanted to spend 2020 making more social connections; branching out and networking with their cohort before entering the real world next year. Each had varying degrees of success.

You just don’t make friends through Zoom.

Sarah Willing

I actually owe a lot to COVID-19 for my social life.

Grace Thompson

Grace is one of the many young people affected by cuts to government financial support during the coronavirus pandemic.

She travelled from Newcastle to work in Sydney on weekends, as a means of supporting herself and gaining work experience in the live music industry.

She lost her job after rules to access the JobKeeper wage subsidy changed on the 28th of September. Her employer could no longer afford to pay her wages.

Alison Pennington, Senior Economist at the Centre for Future Work, says young women workers in insecure, customer-facing roles were disadvantaged from Day One.

“If you look at the way they crafted JobKeeper, they cut out over a million short-term casual workers … the people who most needed support,” she said. “[JobKeeper] will be cut by $300 a fortnight, and that’s been shown to plunge directly over 400,000 people into poverty”.

This is bad news for university students, many who are engaged in insecure work to both support themselves and to gain work experience. Ms Pennington says the pathway to entry level work is becoming narrower and narrower.

“When you hit a recession, employers are looking to cut costs immediately, so they’re definitely not taking on more workers. It looks like people in jobs now are going backwards, but it also looks like people who don’t have a foot yet in the labour market [are] not ever getting that foot [in].”

Daniel Snell left an independent life and a burgeoning career in content creation behind to pursue an exchange year in Vietnam, before graduating from UTS with a Bachelor of Communications in Media Arts and Production.

But after two months his plans had gone awry: he was forced to return to Australia, where he would complete his subjects remotely and with no job for support.

“When I’m applying for jobs there are just no jobs in content production,” he said. “I applied for a job that was very entry-level, and they told me they had over 250 applications in under 24 hours.”

While losing his footing was a big blow, Daniel says he feels more of a loss over what “could have been” in his graduate year.

A loss of independence manifests in many ways. Daniel is one of those still living with his parents, and it’s feared more will have to do so for financial reasons.


Aussies living with parents in 1981


Aussies lived with their parents in 2016


Americans live with their parents in July 2020

Figures from the Australian Institute of Family Studies show the number of dependent young Australians has been increasing over the last 35 years while a Pew Research study shows the highest number of young Americans living at home, since the Great Depression.

Students like 22-year-old Sam Lovibond, who finished their studies last year, narrowly dodged some of the disruption, but what they did experience first-hand were the impacts of job cuts and travel restrictions.

“I had this idea in my mind of how everything would play out, and I can tell you, it was so far from that picture.”

In the final year of her Biomechanics Degree , Sam spent a semester on exchange in the United States, where she met her partner and developed a strong professional and social network. But she was forced to return once the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. She was being denied entry to hospitals to look for work, and many of her friends had caught the disease.

Her search for a graduate job continued when she returned to Australia, but she couldn’t find a single role in her industry. She says her only other option is to undertake an Honours project at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

“I feel like we’re going to be coming into a period of greater levels of social justice because there’s materially nothing being given to young people from the government’s economic agenda”

– Alison Pennington, Centre for Future Work.


There are two common misconceptions: that there’s an undersupply of people qualified in STEM, and that further study will deliver better work outcomes for graduates.

That’s according to a report from the Centre for Future Work, which shows qualification attainment has skyrocketed in the past 35 years, alongside demand for cognitive and non-routine skills.

“I think there are huge benefits in undertaking Postgraduate qualifications, but at this point in time we’ve got baristas with PhD’s,” says Alison Pennington, the report’s co-author. “We’ve got thousands and thousands of people with high levels of qualifications that don’t actually translate into a job in the real world. All you’re doing is taking on more debt … so you can angle yourself into a job that should be available to anyone with a degree.”

Despite what appears to be a bleak outlook, Ms Pennington says young people have a unique opportunity on their hands.

“Young people have historic high levels of education. They’re smart and they’re not going to sit around and let this whole fight burn to the ground. I feel like we’re going to be coming into a period of greater levels of social justice because there’s materially nothing being given to young people from the government’s economic agenda in a time of very deep recession.”

— Story, Renae Barber renaessance_,  Photos, Renae Barber and interviewees own.