These Young People Blew Up Their Lives in 2020

If you were lucky enough to find yourself in a place where you could drastically change your life, why wouldn’t you do that?

Photo: Solskin/Getty Images

Halfway through her freshman year, Elizabeth Olshanetsky had a road map for her life that stretched all the way to 2023: The self-described “traditionalist” would continue her education at Yale University, squeeze in a few venture capital internships, get a degree, then land a job. Then, Covid-19 hit and upended the entire world. The 19-year-old found herself back in her childhood bedroom in New Jersey, completing her first year of college through a computer screen, away from the life she had just started to build for herself.

The experience was fine — she wasn’t sick, and her immediate material needs were being met — but it didn’t feel great most of the time. “It was exhausting to stare at a computer all day, instead of being in a classroom with your professor and your classmates,” Olshanetsky said.

The dam broke in July, when Yale announced nearly all sophomores would receive their education remotely come fall. Olshanetsky struggled with imagining this new reality. What was the point of paying Yale’s $57,700 tuition for not even a fraction of the college experience? Thanks to a connection she made online, Olshanetsky was offered a three-month internship at Republic Labs, the venture arm of investment firm Republic Co., and she jumped at the opportunity — even though it meant skipping the fall semester.

And when she was offered a full-time position in October, she decided to skip the 2021 spring semester as well.

Olshanetsky never planned on taking a gap year in college. That’s just not something people in her world did or something she previously had the means to do. But the past nine months forced — and allowed — her to rethink her life. “If it wasn’t for Covid, this is not something I’d have done,” she said.

This year saw people around the world unmoored in new and startling ways as the pandemic, which has now killed more than 300,000 people in the United States, reshuffled every part of daily life. The economic fallout of the U.S. shutdowns has been felt by millions; four in 10 Americans live in a home where someone has lost their job or had to take a pay cut. The lives of young people were particularly upended, as nearly 52% of Americans under the age of 30 moved back home with their parents — a rate not seen since the Great Depression.

It has been a year that has forced people to reexamine their lives and what they want for themselves — to confront how they are living, and with whom. For young people especially, it has been a difficult, though necessary, awakening.

But Covid-19 wasn’t the only world-shattering event of the year. A wave of uncontrollable storms and wildfires reminded us of the cost of climate change. The most consequential election in recent U.S. history was contested, again and again, even weeks after the voting was done. And the police killings of Black Americans sparked mass protests against racism all over the country.

Danielle Brown began 2020 planning for their upcoming wedding to their partner of six years. The two had fallen in love in college and came of age together, and marriage seemed like the perfect next step in the life they had built together in Baltimore. Or at least, that was the case until George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis.

Brown is a Black, queer, nonbinary woman. Their fiancé is a white transgender man. And though they had made it work in their years as a couple, suddenly the pain of seeing yet another Black man killed by police became a looming presence in their relationship. “My partner’s response to the protests was very lukewarm, and it was very unsettling to me getting in constant arguments about his family’s response to the protests,” Brown, 24, said. “They were, I guess, racist? It was really hard for me to consider that they’d be my future family.” As anti-racism protesters rallied from coast to coast, it became clear that Brown’s partner was not in a place to understand their experiences as a Black person. “I would hope for you to understand how harmful racism is to Black people,” they said. “And I’d love for that to be the first thing on your mind, instead of minor concerns of ‘Would we be safe here?’ as Baltimore boarded up. The worry was about his own personal safety as opposed to why people were angry.” Heartbroken, Brown decided to end the engagement. “If any time was the time for this to happen, it was probably during Covid, while everyone is shifting around anyway,” they said.

Brown freaked out about suddenly finding themselves in a single-income household at a point where the economy was pretty much in tatters due to Covid-19. But then they were accepted to the University of Minnesota, where they had applied for an MFA in creative writing. Two weeks after the breakup, Brown packed their bags and dog to drive 18 hours to Minneapolis. Though graduate school has been brutal, it has also allowed them to explore a new chapter in their life. “These past months, it has been a realignment of my own values,” they said. “It has been me getting back in touch with what I want next for myself.”

For some, 2020 was the year to pursue dreams that had before felt unattainable. Paige Lyman, a 25-year-old in Florida, had long dreamed of becoming a full-time writer. When her social media job transitioned to remote working in the spring, Lyman found herself with additional time to freelance without having to worry about her commute hours. It was clear writing was the one thing she wanted to dedicate herself to, so she started planning how to quit her job. Lyman did a lot of research, reading through the stories of other freelance writers who had transitioned from a salaried position to freelancing, as well as looking at her savings and doing the math on how she could live through the first year without a steady paycheck. “Covid gave me the final kick. I told myself, ‘If you’re not going to do it now, when are you going to do it?’” Lyman said.

Amid everything, this year also gave many the courage to change. Melanie Lockert had spent the majority of her adult life in what she calls an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. The 36-year-old freelance writer and podcaster said she used drinking as a crutch for her anxiety and depression, which in turn made them worse, as alcohol counteracted the effects of her medication. While the rest of the nation aggressively restocked their wine cabinets, Lockert went the opposite direction over the summer: She stopped drinking entirely. “This year is so hard, I had to give myself a proper chance,” she said. Lockert is now four months sober. She said she’s been happier, and despite the challenges of the pandemic, her mental health is at a better place right now.

Without a doubt, 2020 has irrefutably changed us. And for people who took a leap of faith in a way they wouldn’t have before, reconfiguring their lives was as scary as it was rewarding. “In the beginning, I thought I was crazy for doing this during a pandemic,” Lyman, the freelancer, said. “But I’ve become a much happier person.”

Award-winning journalist covering politics, gender, race, activism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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