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4 ways that young people are thriving despite the trauma of 2020

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Moving forward requires focus. Mashable’s Social Good Series is dedicated to exploring pathways to a greater good, spotlighting issues that are essential to making the world a better place.

Back in March, Joshua Rivera had just finished planning his post-graduation life. 

By summer, after earning his associate’s degree in photography from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, he’d land in Los Angeles. Rivera, 20, found an apartment and roommate. He’d lined up an internship and freelance gigs. He envisioned breaking into fashion and lifestyle photography. 

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Then the coronavirus pandemic struck and his carefully laid plans swiftly fell apart. Stimulating classes went virtual and Rivera felt less inspired. He lost his job as a hair salon receptionist. Sweatpants replaced the stylish outfits he once took pride in wearing. He began going to sleep at 3 a.m. and waking up late in the afternoon. Normally cheerful and motivated, Rivera felt increasingly anxious and depressed. 

Rivera’s experience is familiar to anyone who’s felt unmoored by the pandemic, but there’s been particular concern over how teens and young adults like him will cope with unprecedented social, economic, and political upheaval just as they’re learning to navigate the world independently from their parents and caregivers. 

Rivera’s demographic cohort — those born after 1996 and known as Generation Z — is already at-risk of increased mental health issues for reasons that aren’t entirely understood. The suicide rate amongst 10 to 24-year-olds has risen at a frightening pace over the last decade, and preliminary data suggest there’s reason to fear for their emotional and psychological well-being during the pandemic. A survey conducted in July by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a quarter of respondents between 18 and 24 seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days. Amongst respondents of all ages, 11 percent reported suicidal thinking. 

Such findings are alarming and demand increased funding and resources to address youth mental health issues, yet they obscure another important trend: Members of Generation Z are also demonstrating impressive resilience in response to unthinkable life changes. While often ridiculed for being overly sensitive and entitled, teens and young adults are turning to self-care, creative expression, service to others, inventive problem-solving, and other forms of personal growth to chart a path through what may ultimately be one of the most difficult times in their lives. 

“I need to do better for myself. I’m not just going to sit here and do nothing.” 

Rivera says the first few months of the pandemic felt as if a curtain had closed on his life, much like it sweeps across a theater stage. Then in mid-June, he realized the pandemic wouldn’t change, so he had to instead. 

“COVID isn’t going away anytime soon,” he thought. “I need to do better for myself. I’m not just going to sit here and do nothing.” 

The revelation prompted Rivera to offer friends free socially distanced photo shoots so he could continue to make art. That turned into a few paying freelance shoots, which “sparked” his drive to do more. He decided to enroll in FIT’s one-year program for fashion business management. Rivera says the virtual courses aren’t easy, especially without access to speciality equipment that the school would loan to students during a typical school year, but the program has revived his faith in pursuing a career in his field. 

“I’m thankful I was able to have a fallback…,” he says. “I now feel like I have a purpose.” 

The importance of taking control 

Dr. Nicole Brown knows Rivera’s story well since he’s a patient at Strong Children Wellness, a medical practice in New York City that predominantly serves Black and brown youth, many of whom are on Medicaid. Dr. Brown, a pediatrician and chief health officer of the practice, has seen a similar trajectory amongst some of her young patients. She was particularly worried about a high school senior with a history of anxiety, whose symptoms spiked at the beginning of the pandemic. Shortly after George Floyd‘s death, however, the young woman said she felt transformed by attending a local protest against police violence. 

“You could see the change,” says Dr. Brown. “She lit up when speaking about it.” 

The experience didn’t fundamentally change her diagnosis, but Dr. Brown says it gave the teen an opportunity to fight for an important cause while connecting her to a larger community of activists and peers. She wasn’t the only patient of Dr. Brown’s who began the pandemic with high-risk mental health conditions and found a new outlet in learning about and advocating for racial justice. 

“When young adults have this sense of agency, when they’re the ones determining their destiny and future, it’s a really important part of how they adapt to an adverse circumstance,” she says. 

In general, Dr. Brown says youth who are experiencing adversity and emotional or psychological distress are best positioned to thrive when supported by caring, nonjudgmental adults who are open to talking about mental health issues and seeking treatment, if necessary. Youth without such support might continue to struggle, no matter how hard they try to find contentment. Regardless of the circumstances, teens and young adults shouldn’t feel they’ve failed if resilience doesn’t come easily or with consistency, says Dr. Brown.

Prioritizing self-care and problem-solving skills

A year before the pandemic, Abby Sanchez was a high school junior in Berkeley, California, feeling overwhelmed by rigorous schoolwork. She adopted an “A or nothing” approach to school and her singular focus on studying meant she ate poorly, which ultimately contributed to developing appendicitis. The strain on her physical and mental health led her to see a therapist, where she learned how to manage anxiety with basic organizational skills, journaling, and taking time to recharge. 

“I never knew I needed to take care of myself just as a concept,” says Sanchez. 

“I don’t think I was the same person I was at the beginning of quarantine.”

That lesson became invaluable this spring. Stuck at home, Sanchez, 18, spent time making friendship bracelets, painting, watching Netflix, and practicing gratitude, even as that last habit became harder to repeat in the wake of skyrocketing fatalities related to COVID-19, Floyd’s death, and the civil unrest that followed. Sanchez also simply sat with her thoughts and feelings, something that felt impossible to do pre-coronavirus because of her demanding social and academic commitments. Instead of plunging her deep into anxious rumination, that solitary time helped Sanchez better know herself. 

She also tried to make the best of many disappointments. When graduation came, she posed for photos next to her computer as the virtual ceremony unfolded. To mark that milestone, Sanchez and a friend drove in separate cars to a Bay Area beach and watched the sun rise. They tried to find the silver lining in a senior year cut short.

“I don’t think I was the same person I was at the beginning of quarantine,” she says. 

Supporting others 

Self-care was indeed one of the major themes that emerged from a new mental health guide produced by DoSomething.org, a community for young people interested in social change, and the BlueSky Initiative, a program to increase mental health access in California schools. The joint project set out to survey teens about their mental health experiences along with tips for coping. More than 50,000 teens participated, and the guide reflects nearly 75,000 tips submitted through the survey. 

In addition to self-care, the report found remote learning and helping loved ones were two other major themes for youth. Bryce Williams, vice president of MindBody Medicine at Blue Shield of California, the nonprofit insurance company that runs the BlueSky Initiative, says being of service to others showed up time and again as a coping skill in the survey results. Teens wanted to support family and friends while contributing to their communities by delivering food to older neighbors, sewing masks, volunteering at food banks, or starting their own service projects to help people in need.

“It wasn’t just about, ‘What am I doing to help me?” says Williams. 

Survey participants seemed to step in where they felt adults had failed in handling a public health emergency, economic collapse, and civil unrest. This led to feelings of anxiousness but also helped teens develop a greater sense of agency over unpredictable circumstances. Williams says the respondents simultaneously held complex feelings like sadness, anger, confusion, and the desire to make a difference. Williams suggests they acted out of frustration, despair, and determination as if to say to the adults in charge, “Come on, guys, get your act together…we’re not just going to complain…we’ll start to do something about it in the arenas we can control.” 

For Rivera, who did not participate in the survey, aiding someone else meant supporting his grandparents, with whom he lives, when they both contracted COVID-19. When his grandmother was hospitalized, he brought her toiletries and clothes. At home, he did his grandfather’s chores, taking out the trash and walking the dog. His grandparents are well now, but tending to their needs made Rivera feel accomplished: “I can take care of myself as well as others.” 

Finding creative outlets 

Like Rivera, who knew photography was critical to his resilience, countless other teens have turned to creative expression as a way to cope with the pandemic and other traumatic events. In the responses collected by DoSomething.Org and the BlueSky Initiative, teens reported engaging in a wide range of artistic expression, including dance, music, and writing. 

Mina Aslan, youth program coordinator at Headstream, an initiative that supports youth well-being through technology, says that teens and young adults are eager to not just consume creative content but to make their own, particularly on Instagram and TikTok. In Headstream’s program for youth innovators, the 20 participants have spent the past few months building digital spaces to support teen wellness. That includes peer-to-peer mental health platforms, social media advocacy campaigns, documentaries about social issues, and artistic zines. 

Aslan says teens in the Headstream program have used creativity to combat feelings of helplessness. “Their resiliency comes from a desire to transform the societies in which they live in,” she wrote in an email. 

 “A lot of young people are meeting deep challenges for the first time and they’re finding themselves up for it.”

Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell University Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery and a senior advisor to the JED Foundation, a youth emotional health and suicide prevention organization, says the impulse to express themselves makes sense because teens and young adults are “really driven” to create at this stage in their lives.

To find or sustain such momentum, Whitlock recommends that young people develop and stick to a plan that helps them cope with quickly changing circumstances. As the pandemic becomes more challenging during the fall and winter months, along with the uncertainty surrounding the presidential election and the ongoing fight for racial justice, Whitlock urges young people — and their families — to prepare for life to get even harder. That means having a “repertoire” of skills and practices to rely on and staying connected to loved ones and engaged in fulfilling activities.

“People don’t know they’re resilient until they meet a challenge that requires them to be resilient,” says Whitlock.A lot of young people are meeting deep challenges for the first time and they’re finding themselves up for it.”

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. ET, or email info@nami.org. Here is a list of international resources. 

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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