Many young Americans have fled coastal cities and returned to their family homes (around 420,000 people left New York City alone since the start of the pandemic). Though they tepidly reassured friends that they’d be “back soon”, they were secretly contemplating whether or not “home“ would be an adequate descriptor for where they’d promised to return to. Others have stayed put in New York and LA, out of necessity or steadfastness, but that is rapidly changing all the same.
Plenty of companies have abandoned open plan offices in favor of the once-desired and now apocalyptic-seeming work-from-home model. Employees no longer have to contend with debilitating commutes to their offices. Those fortunate enough to have kept their jobs might have only had to pay a small sacrifice – for example, the posters above their beds – so as to curate a professional atmosphere for their daily Zoom call. Now, completely devoid of personality, their bedrooms have turned into makeshift at-home offices, as though they’ve always held this functionality.
Working from home may seem like a small blessing, but that’s only if you’re already on your desired career path. Or if you have any work at all. (At last check, over 7.7 million people under the age of 30 filed for unemployment in the US.) Now that the dust has settled, and with additional benefits for unemployed Americans ending this week, many young people have left the shattered pieces of their pre-pandemic life behind, opting instead to start anew.
For some, like 33-year-old gallery owner Becky, Covid-19 has been a fortuitous clarion call to seek a career change. For others like Taylor, a New York-based film gaffer, the virus has laid bare the extreme lack of opportunity in her previously chosen field. Here’s how five Americans have come to the decision that it’s time for a radical switch-up.
Katytarika, Boston, 25
Prior to Covid-19, I had just quit my full-time job as a programme coordinator at a nonprofit community centre to officially become a full-time freelancer in my teaching, photography, film, and poetry work. I had tried freelancing a few years ago and quickly discovered how difficult it was to get a firm understanding of everything from paying quarterly contractor taxes to becoming an LLC and establishing your company. Last fall, I started out with an art residency in downtown Boston, which provided me with a huge photo studio for two months. It was “the dream” and really validated my work as an artist. Alongside my freelance work teaching high school aged young people through various museums and nonprofits around the city, I was doing really well for myself financially. I saved up enough to get my own studio, and signed the lease for it on 1st March. Obviously nothing could have prepared me for what the next four months would entail.
Within the span of two weeks of Covid-19 [spreading throughout] the U.S., and schools closing, my freelance teaching contracts with Boston Public Schools and the museum I had been part-time employed at were terminated without notice or severance pay. I had all of my photography gigs for the next two months canceled in a span of days – ranging from large corporate clients to individual portrait shoots. It was devastating and incredibly scary, and a reminder of how unstable this career path is for so many of us. I had no benefits or severance package to protect me. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me, and I blamed myself for not being prepared for it. All in all, I lost about $9,000 in projected income, and I found myself not knowing what to do next.
I feel very fortunate that a development firm I had temped at just after undergrad reached out to me looking for an office manager: a full-time gig with a salary and benefits. I immediately accepted, and it felt like the life-float I needed at that moment. I now find myself a few months into this job working a nine to five and doing administrative work for a high-end real estate development firm. It’s so outside of anything I’ve ever done before.
I still teach public art (virtually) to high school aged youth at a nonprofit community art center. I feel grateful that I’ve been able to make do, when I know so many artists in my community – specifically artists of colour – who continue to be faced with these challenges. For the first time in my life I have a steady income, and it’s something that’s so foreign to me, but I’ve been trying to donate as much as I can to the Black Lives Matter movement and to BIPOC people and artists who are really being affected right now. This pandemic is highlighting the systemic injustices that are present in every part of our structure. BIPOC artists shouldn’t be struggling while the companies who have profited off of Black and Brown cultures stay turning a profit. It’s frustrating. And I hope that we come out on the other side of this not with “returning to normal” at all, but rather ready to make major changes and shifts in our systems and how they function.
Taylor, NYC, 26
I’ve worked in the film industry as an electric/gaffer for the past five or six years. I’d been working in New York for about the past year and a half before the pandemic hit. At first, work became slower, and then around 13th March all the work seemingly dried up overnight. As a result, I’ve been on unemployment since that date.
I had been heavily considering changing career paths previous to the pandemic, reasons being the infrequent work and lack of benefits. But the pandemic has been the final nail in the coffin for me in the sense of staying in the film industry. In the industry, work is always going to be scattered – you can still have dry spells that can last months with no work. There is always the option to join a union, but even then there’s not necessarily a guarantee of work. The pandemic highlighted to me how flimsy my career path proved to be. I’m 26-years-old, and I didn’t want to be struggling to find work for the rest of my life.
I moved out of New York this weekend, and this is partially because once the additional pandemic relief [government assistance] stops being added to the unemployment benefits, I cannot afford to live there. There is still no work in the film industry in New York, and it’s likely that this will be the case for quite a bit longer. The industry will have to change drastically, and I’m honestly not sure it’s even ready to. With hundreds of people working in close quarters with long hours, and where sickness cycling around the set is often seen as the cost of doing business, it no longer seems healthy and safe to continue entering this type of environment.
I am now looking to go back to school for a career that is likely to have more steady work and flexibility as to what array of jobs I can get within the field. Right now, that’s looking to be biology, though I am still in the process of researching all the job prospects and possibilities with such a degree.
Ian, Los Angeles, 25
Prior to Covid-19, I was working in animal care. I would go to people’s houses to take care of their pets while they were at work, and was also doing overnight jobs when people would go out of town. With Covid-19, it’s no longer safe for me to enter people’s homes. Additionally, many people are staying home so my services aren’t needed.
I was working on pursuing a career in professional animal training and was in the midst of talking to my boss about training certification when the pandemic hit. I was researching programs and definitely would have continued on that path if it weren’t for Covid-19. Covid-19 came and we got no assistance or honesty or support [from the government], and we still haven’t. Black people were and continue to be murdered by cops and there is no semblance of justice being served. It became as clear as ever that communities support each other, especially those who are marginalised, and there are a lot of ways to participate in community support.
[Additionally], going to therapy and being able to access mental health support has helped me immensely, especially in my ability to show up for others. I am now going to grad school in the fall to pursue my Master’s in Clinical Psychology, which will provide me with the education to do things like become a therapist or develop community programmes. Mental illness is weaponised against many communities. I dream of a world where de-escalation and safety for everyone is prioritised.
Becky, NYC, 33
My gallery, Larrie, opened in 2017 as a space of presentation for visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians to present for the first time, or with work atypical of what they would normally present. A lot of the creative spaces in New York provided just one thing – either a gallery, a performing space or a residency space where strict business models and consignment agreements and large overheads were prohibitive to the creativity I saw that needed a space for expression.
During Covid-19, I’ve been able to take stock of the evolution of Larrie. Overhead costs and the lockdown gave us a “silver-lining“ type of opportunity to re-evaluate. For the time being, I knew that the space itself needed to close, so I am taking the summer to recalibrate, to see how to adapt to how New York is changing and how to shift our model to best serve our mission. This likely means a bigger space and shifting towards a non-profit structure so that we can support residencies and grants and engage philanthropic partners.
I’d like to join the dots of advocacy in the work that Larrie does. I’ve thought about law school in the past and see an interesting avenue of opportunity in the community structure of Larrie’s future where a law degree could be really helpful.
Ari, Los Angeles, 25
I was in the hospitality industry before Covid-19. Come March, everything shut down and will hopefully stay shut for at least the rest of 2020. I’m still unemployed, but have decided to pivot into web design.
I realised once everything closed how fragile in-person service really is. Maybe this type of disaster is once in a lifetime, but I was stunned at how quickly and radically everything changed. Bars I had been going to for years closed in a matter of months, and I was like, “Wow, is this all it takes to wipe us out?“
Quarantine got me thinking about how much we already stay home – so I decided to shift paths in order to accommodate a trend I’m already seeing. What appealed to me about web design was that it has a lot in common with event planning. You’re bringing people to a space, and you want them to feel a type of way because of that space and ambience, and you want them to ultimately perform an action, whether that’s buying drinks and making friends “irl“ or purchasing a product and connecting with other users online. And I definitely see a bigger need! I’m looking into taking classes to learn how to code websites and start freelancing. Maybe I’ll end up with an agency down the line, but I’m focusing on developing my skills right now.