COVID Graduates: “The Pandemic Only Makes Us Stronger”

Photo: Chien-tong Wang

By Chiayi Lin and Li Hsun Tsai, Commonwealth Magazine

Taiwan’s COVID-19 generation, entering the employment market amid a severe pandemic, has not become a lost generation – instead, they are getting one step ahead. Rather than giving up on their dreams, they are pursuing them with pragmatism and flexibility.

Zhu Rui-xiang, a recent Master of Business Administration (MBA) graduate from National Taiwan University (NTU), could never have imagined that he would not land a single interview for overseas job positions. From his first year of graduate school, Zhu accumulated internship experience at top-line companies like Shopee and IBM. Dreaming of a career in internet technology, he focused his job search on Southeast Asian e-commerce giants and unicorns, sending out resumes to 10 companies in a flurry, only to be told that new overseas hires had been frozen in his target countries due to tightened pandemic visa policies.

Since the onset of the pandemic, graduates have faced a withering employment market. Last year, many of Zhu’s classmates at NTU progressed to the final round of interviews with foreign enterprises, only for the companies to suddenly suspend all job openings.

After lockdowns across Europe and North America were lifted this year, Taiwan experienced its own outbreak in May, causing the domestic employment market to decline rapidly.

According to June employment statistics from 104 Job Bank, around 387,000 available full-time jobs were designated “open to new graduates.” This figure represents a decline of 14% since the pandemic situation worsened in April, as 60,000 entry-level jobs vanished, and hospitality and retail industry job openings shrunk a further 20%.

But even before the coronavirus pandemic, this generation grew up in an age of fear and uncertainty. Last year, TIME magazine published an exposé on U.S. college graduates in 2020, noting that the term “pandemic generation” belongs to Generation Z (broadly defined as the cohort born between 1995 and 2009). In the U.S., Generation Z’s formative experiences include climate disasters, terrorist attacks, and school shootings.

Photo: Chien-tong Wang

For Taiwan’s COVID-19 generation, the keywords describing their formative years include low salaries, economic stagnation, and natural and man-made disasters.

The majority of this year’s graduating college class was born in 1999. On September 21 of that year, Taiwan was hit with a devastating earthquake. The SARS outbreak took place when they were four, and in the late 2000s they endured Typhoon Morakot and the global financial crisis.

The internet bubble burst in 2000, and in 2003 Taiwan entered a prolonged 16-year period of negative wage growth. For the past 20 years, Taiwan’s middle- and lower-class wages and assets stagnated and shrunk as the wealth gap continued to expand with every disaster.

Upon graduation from college, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Would it prove to be the fatal blow, turning them into a lost generation?

The situation is not necessarily that dire – living through hardship cultivates resilience, and this year’s “COVID graduates” possess various resilient qualities that separate them from previous generations. A survey of Generation Z by global consultancy Kantar Consulting noted that slow economic growth, resource scarcity, and a volatile environment caused them to cultivate the three core values of “vigilance, self-reliance, and openness.” The report further suggested that members of Generation Z are often “aware that they must be shrewder, and plan strategically for the future.”

CommonWealth interviewed several dozen recent graduates from various academic departments, discovering that the COVID generation is more resilient than some might have imagined. Having endured numerous disasters while growing up and witnessing the widening wealth gap, they have cultivated a sensitivity toward social equity, are more resilient and pragmatic, and are resourceful when planning for the future.

After her graduation, Liu Jia-xiu, a former student of culinary arts at Trans-World University in Yunlin County, was offered a position at a buffet restaurant chain where she previously interned. She was to report to work in August.

But due to the pandemic outbreak, the company delayed her onboarding date. Not wanting to stay at home, in late June Liu started working part-time at a gas station, a job completely unrelated to the profession she had trained for. Still, she thought she should “first take care of securing some income” and that once the pandemic was over, the food industry would bounce back.

Having encountered obstacles to his overseas job search, NTU business school graduate Zhu Rui-xiang responded by focusing on open positions at foreign internet tech companies in Taiwan. His strategy was to find work opportunities that could take him abroad in the future. Zhu found a job as a management trainee in Taiwan with a Singapore-based gaming giant that provided opportunities for future overseas assignments.

Making arrangements in advance is a tactic these graduates have honed during uncertain times. Professor Lee Chien-hung of the Department of Labor and Human Resources at Chinese Culture University relates that despite the employment market’s freeze, current graduates are making “advance arrangements” in their search for employment. Ministry of Labor statistics for the past five years show that more than 30% of graduating students started their job searches in February and March, meaning many of this year’s graduates dodged the brunt of the mid-May COVID outbreak.

As it turns out, observing generational injustice from a young age has fostered both passion and idealism in them.

Lin Yong-yu is a member of this year’s graduating class at Mackay Junior College of Medicine, Nursing, and Management. As a young girl, she often accompanied her mother, a nurse, during hospital rounds and grew accustomed to the lack of respect accorded to nursing staff. Lin, now 20, has followed in her mother’s footsteps. “I aim to become a professional nurse, with an eye toward entering the public realm in the future to help improve the status of nursing staff in society,” she says.

New age of prosperity

Photo: Chien-tong Wang

In some respects, Generation Z could also be the luckiest generation, as Taiwan has already climbed out from its lowest point and entered a new era of prosperity. Various figures indicate that Taiwan has emerged from 16 years of negative salary growth as tangible wages in 2020 surpassed 2003 levels.

Taiwan’s economic growth is accelerating in line with global changes. The Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics has forecast that Taiwan’s economy will grow by 5.88% this year, despite the local outbreak. Consequently, Bloomberg reckons that Taiwan’s economy is currently experiencing its most robust growth since 1989 and is formally entering a period of prosperity.

A short-term challenge for this year’s graduates is the continuous pressure they face. Lin Zong-hong stresses that moving forward, close attention must be paid to whether efforts to contain the pandemic yield results over the next quarter and whether the economic turnaround can ease youth unemployment.

If that is not the case, he says, the government must come up with a stimulus program for the younger generation “to ensure that those young people that fell to the secondary market are supported.”

However, Professor Lee Chien-hung notes that the unemployment rate among young people dropped during the first wave of the pandemic last year. In addition to the rapid rebound of the economy in the second half of the year, the government rolled out youth employment incentives, encouraging young people to find work to avoid sitting idle at home.

The issue over the medium and long term is inequitable distribution of generational wealth, from which young people are likely to suffer. “Now is an important time to increase the intensity of investment in the younger generation,” says Lin Zong-hong. Taiwan’s wealth is currently concentrated among baby boomers born in the 1940s and ’50s, and the government should consider driving them to inject capital into the younger generation.

For Taiwan to fully advance toward a new prosperity, it must overcome climate change, energy sustainability, an aging population, and industrial transformation. Succeeding will require that industry and government provide the young generation with greater support and let them put their creativity and ingenuity to work.

“This pandemic has proven that Taiwanese society is more resilient than we could’ve imagined,” remarks Lin Zong-hong. Similarly, it seems the pandemic will not bring down members of Taiwan’s Generation Z. On the contrary, they can be expected to emerge stronger.

This article is reprinted, with editing and updating, with permission from the publisher. Translation from the original Chinese was done for CommonWealth by David Toman.