Getting out of the pandemic rut


In the spring of my sophomore year, I took a statistics course to fulfill my Lehigh math requirement. The class was held at 9:20 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday on Zoom, like nearly every course was in 2021. 

I distinctly remember waking up and logging on to my computer for that class each week. I’d roll out of bed at 9:15 a.m., wipe the sleep from my eyes, grab my laptop and open Zoom. On a good day I would sit at my desk, but usually my statistics classroom was my bed.

The class was lecture heavy with no camera requirement, and my mind often wandered elsewhere. I gleaned enough from the lectures to do well, but I didn’t retain most of what I learned past the final exam date. 

I was using rote memorization to pass the class and not learning for my personal edification. 

That was my modus operandi for most of the “pandemic semesters.” I drifted from obligation to obligation, doing just enough to get by. 

It was rinse and repeat, with not much thought given to “how” or “why.” The prevailing doom and gloom of online classes and curbside pickup, in addition to the university’s mandate preventing us from being with more than five people at once, made it hard to find motivation.

With day-to-day life in the palm of uncontrollable forces, my own agency and decision-making seemed inconsequential.

I wrote my first Brown and White edit desk around then, describing the general malaise of these Zoom semesters. I ended that piece looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, hopeful for a reinvigorating return to school in the fall of 2021. 

And that fall was rewarding. It was wonderful to return to the classroom and more traditional social settings, and exciting to enter the newsroom for the first time. 

But still, almost three years removed from the onset of the pandemic, it seems like something is different.

In 2021, the first full year after the pandemic’s initial outbreak, U.S. employee engagement decreased for the first time in a decade. Gallup defines unengaged employees as being “psychologically unattached from their work and company, and (putting) time, but not energy or passion, into their work.”

Only 34% of American employees reported being engaged in the workplace, and 16% said they were actively disengaged. 

The engagement rate decreased by another two points after the second quarter of 2022, while the percentage of actively disengaged employees simultaneously increased by two.

Young workers in particular saw an even more drastic drop in engagement levels. The percentage of Gen Z employees who reported being engaged dropped by six percentage points between 2019 and 2022, according to Gallup polling.

I couldn’t find data for college student engagement levels, but I’m willing to bet we’d see similar trends for students post-pandemic.

We seem to be at a crossroads in workplace culture now. 

On the one hand, there is the “work until you drop, fall asleep in the office” bravado at Elon Musk’s new “hardcore” Twitter. On the other hand, there are Gen Z who are “quiet quitting,” or doing just enough to maintain their jobs, but not going above and beyond, in an effort to separate personal identity from occupation.

I think young people who fall into the latter camp are there because of residual pandemic effects. Perhaps the drive that dissipated as we toiled away behind our computer screens for two years hasn’t completely returned. 

As my time in college winds down, it is becoming increasingly important to me to be engaged in whatever I pursue after graduation. I’m not saying I want to be sleeping on an office floor at the behest of a megalomaniac boss, but I don’t want to be quiet quitting, either. 

After spending countless hours in the newsroom this past year, I’ve learned that I feel fulfilled in collaborative and dynamic spaces. 

Being in the newsroom got me out of a pandemic rut and actively engaged again. For that I am thankful and know that I will be lucky to end up in a similar space after college.

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1 Comment

  1. Well said! It is refreshing to hear this perspective, as it was becoming increasingly rare to hear an interest in in-person engagement as an important value, especially to the young people whose educational experiences were so disrupted by COVID-19.

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