The Youth Lab


“You’re going to have to grow up faster than some generations.”

- Former US President Barack Obama addressing the Class of 2020.

This 52INSIGHTS explores the experiences of the Covid ‘Class of 2020’ - students around the world who have finished high school or university in recent days and weeks, from a distance.


Speaking with young people about finishing up school or university over the past few weeks, there is an overwhelming sense that it’s been a bumpy experience, filled with contrasting waves of emotion. Drama and theatre student, Sally (22), describes finishing her degree while in Covid lockdown as a 'bizarre experience’:

"I had never finished an essay in my entire college career anywhere but my college library, so trying to work from home surrounded by distractions was difficult. Online video assessments felt surreal and distant. I got there in the end anyways, and it was anticlimactic to say the least.”

The ‘solo’ aspect of the final few weeks that stands out as a surreal contrast to the collective learning experience.

“College is a collective experience - you do it with other people. The last 10 weeks I’ve been all alone in my room. It’s been a bit of a bleak finish. You don’t realise how much you need people. The class of 2020 is a funny one to be a part of.” Charlie, 22, Ireland

While uncertainty somewhat defines the class of 2020’s current reality, there is a sense of camaraderie among young people in similar situations:

"It was disappointing not to have a graduation. But there's going to be this strange camaraderie between all the classes of 2020... The future is so unknown right now, which is a bit scary. If I had to choose a word to describe my generation it would be unstable... It's kinda like this whole generation is just on a rollercoaster." Meg, 24, Chicago

The pandemic class is united in this shared experience.

Many recognise there is cause to celebrate - lamenting missed traditions and experiences that would have happened if Covid-19 didn’t get in the way but finding their own way to mark the occasion. Virtual high school yearbook Instagram pages like @stogaclassof2020 and @broadneck2020, for example, are a brilliant & creative way the class of 2020 in the US are keeping up graduation traditions.


From Jane Goodall and Tom Hanks to LeBron James and Matthew McConaughey a host of incredible well known names are virtually addressing the class of 2020 to mark their graduation. The trend seems to have been sparked somewhat by one senior’s Twitter request to Barack Obama for a virtual speech - inspiring a host of others to come together to share thoughts and words of support and encouragement to the students.

What advice has been thoughtfully dished out?

  • Uncertainty is a constant no matter what.
  • Embrace discomfort and the unknown.
  • Decide what's important.
  • Think about others.
  • Influence the changes happening right now.
  • Recognise the opportunity to define the path the world takes from here.

At the ‘Graduate Together’ special virtual commencement speech, former US president Barack Obama told graduating seniors to "set the world on a different path" while being "alive to one another's struggles" as they navigate through the coronavirus pandemic.

“Never has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion, and energy, and hope,” Oprah told the class of 2020 in Facebook’s #Graduation2020 event - before pulling out the big questions... “What will your essential service be? What really matters to you? The fact that you’re alive means you’ve been given a reprieve to think deeply about that question. How will you use what matters in service to yourself, your community, and the world?”

Inspired by how the pandemic experience has awoken the world up to its flawed systems, 'Covid-class' graduates are being advised by cultural and political icons to take charge and inspire the change that is needed. Perhaps the most striking remarks were made by human rights activist Malala Yousafzai - a final year university student (also missing her graduation ceremony!):

“The class of 2020 won’t be defined by what we lost to this virus but by how we responded to it.”

There’s still plenty of advice and celebration for young graduates to come. Teen Vogue is hosting a virtual commencement on May 31st - also inviting graduating students to submit speeches as part of the live stream event. Also keep an eye out for YouTube’s ‘Dear Class of 2020’ event on June 6th, hosting the likes of BTS, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Lizzo and the Obamas.


For high school/secondary school graduates, many are rethinking what the university experience will be like for them in the Autumn. According to a recent survey by London Economics, 20% of students applying for university undergraduate places are willing to delay starting their courses if universities are not operating as normal due to Covid-19. The Guardian reports on why some students are considering these tough choices:

"Many are worried about the quality of education they will receive, and have concerns about starting life away from home under a raft of regulations aimed at reducing the spread of coronavirus. For those studying more practical, hands-on degrees, there are questions about whether these courses can be effectively transferred online."

University graduates completing their degrees are facing a whole different kind of uncertainty.

“It’s extremely daunting entering into unemployment with a degree in drama during a recession, but hopefully when this pandemic is over drama will return to its rightful place - the stage!" Sally, 22

The Resolution Foundation in the UK has highlighted the risk of long term damage to young people's career and pay prospects. The “corona class of 2020” - 800,000 college and school grads - is the most exposed age group to the likely unemployment surge caused by the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. This means that without action youth unemployment (under 25s) in Britain will reach the 1 million mark over the coming year. Looking further ahead, employment rates of grads entering the labour market during this crisis are projected to be 13% lower in three years’ time than they would have been had the crisis never happened.

The pressure on youth economic and education progress is a rising global issue.

“Across the world, Covid-19 has forced more than one billion students out of school. For most of us this is temporary. We’ll continue our education and follow our dreams. But many girls especially in developing countries will never return to the classroom.” Activist Malala Yousafzai explains.

A recent report by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) notes that due to Covid-19, human development is on course to decline this year for the first time since 1990 - declines are being felt across countries rich and poor - in every region. From a youth education perspective UNDP estimates that, with school closures, the “effective out-of-school rate”—the percentage of primary school-age children, adjusted to reflect those without internet access—indicate that 60% of children are not getting an education, leading to global levels not seen since the 1980s.


A refreshed sense of agency and opportunity is in the air. The class of 2020 has become a symbol of hope for the future in a time where the need for collective healing has never been felt so prominently. How could you inspire younger generations to share and engage with this vision?

The experience of (and sentiment around) the class of 2020 is an inspiring and energizing reminder of how we are all taking a step forward toward something new and unknown. Brands and businesses have the opportunity in this Covid moment, just like recent graduates, to redefine who you are and what is important. If you were just graduating high school or university - about to embark on a whole new adventure - what is the advice you’d want to heed, or share with peers? Finding personal meaning and defining success on your own terms is a timeless worthy pursuit.

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