Photograph by Christian K. Lee
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In Killeen, Texas, relatives surround Demareyo Tittle, 19, who wears part of the outfit he’d planned for his high school’s prom last May. It was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.
Photograph by Christian K. Lee
MagazineFrom the Editor

As we’ve reported on the pandemic this year, one thing stood out

COVID-19 has shaken life’s foundations—especially for young people. They're determined to make their choices matter.

This story appears in the November 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Since the beginning of the year, this novel coronavirus has altered life as we know it. Worldwide a staggering number of people have contracted COVID-19, and a still growing number have died. No part of life is untouched: Work. School. Family life. Traditions such as graduations and, sadly, funerals, are changed nearly beyond recognition.

This special issue focuses on how the pandemic has remade our world—and how it might change our thinking and our actions even more in the future.

I think a lot about how this will affect kids. During video meetings we’ve held since we began working from home in March, I see colleagues’ young children in the background (and occasionally in the foreground). I worry about how being thrust into remote learning will affect them academically.

But I worry more about youngsters I don’t see on these calls: kids for whom schools provided decent computers and internet access, and one meal (or more) a day. I pray that aid will continue even if schools stay closed, and hope those kids are resilient enough to bounce back.

I think too about the young people who were just coming into their own when the pandemic landed, upending so many dreams. These 18- to 25-year-olds have weathered challenges from the start, growing up in the shadow of 9/11 and practicing active-shooter drills from elementary school onward. The Great Recession hit many families hard, so the students shouldered mountains of debt to pay for college. And now they see internships canceled, job offers rescinded, an unintended “gap year.” It’s a rotten hand to be dealt. “Generation Screwed,” some call them.

Not so fast. Recently I read an essay about 2020 by Cate Engles, who graduated in May from a private high school in Ohio. Like senior classes across the United States, hers “was immediately thrust into a world that didn’t care about senior traditions, cumulative GPAs, and college plans,” she wrote. There was no pomp, only unexpected circumstance. (A high school yearbook editor reflects on the tumultuous year she had to document.)

She has delayed going to college for a year and aims to make the best of it, as her class did when its senior celebrations were canceled. “Instead of worrying over dresses and dates and corsages,” she wrote, “our high school generation dedicated their weekends to fight for justice where it is long overdue.” (A generation discovers the silver linings.)

She hopes the result of that will be “newspaper articles about the impact this generation had on the world, rather than on the dance floor.”

I surely didn’t have that kind of grace or wisdom when I was 18. You’ll find the same determination reflected by other young people in an essay in this issue. Here’s how writer Jordan Salama, himself just 23, describes this moment in history: “For those of us at the beginning of our adult lives, the faltering start caused by the pandemic means that our choices will matter even more.”

Thank you for reading National Geographic.