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Young People Struggle To Keep Friends Close As Pandemic Pulls Them Apart

Maintaining friendships and social networks during the pandemic often takes effort.
Susan Haejin Lee for NPR
Maintaining friendships and social networks during the pandemic often takes effort.

Emma Fritschel, 25, and Evelyn Wang, 23, met on the first day of their freshman year as roommates almost six years ago and have been inseparable ever since.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic strained their relationship in ways they had never before experienced.

"Things were really tense between us for reasons that we both kind of came up with in our heads," Wang says. At the heart of it, they were both struggling with communication.


Brought together by a similar interest in visual art and fashion, they experienced many traditional milestones together, including graduation from college and beginning their professional careers.

Wang and Fritschel live in New York City and Cambridge, Mass., respectively. After graduation, they made a habit of visiting each other once a month to keep in contact until the pandemic slowed down travel and they were robbed of the short weekends they spent together. Their friendship, like many others, switched to purely virtual.

For Fritschel and Wang, a crucial part of their dynamic prior to the pandemic was being in each other's presence. When that element disappeared, both had to grapple with a question: What does their friendship mean now with barriers and pandemic restrictions limiting their ability to be in the same space?

"Vulnerable and upset"

"Postgrad," a transitional — and often challenging — period that recent college graduates encounter as they enter the workforce or move on to the next step of their lives, has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Many college graduates are struggling to find jobs in the worst economic recession in modern American history. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 46.7% of young people ages 16 to 24 were employed in July 2020, a decrease from 56.2% reported during the same time in 2019.


The prolonging of the transition amid a tough economy and shrinking of social interactions has its emotional toll. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention found that 46% of surveyed young people ages 18 to 24 reported feeling symptoms of anxiety and stressor-related disorders due to the pandemic. Out of all age groups, young people reported the highest percentage.

A report released by Making Caring Common, a Harvard Graduate School of Education Project, indicated that more than 1 in 3 Americans said they experienced "serious loneliness" during the pandemic, but young adults are feeling it the most at 61%.

During the pandemic, Wang moved out of her family home. She got a new job and adopted a dog as well. Fritschel felt left out of those life updates, and Wang, in return, was feeling conscious of the fact that they both have moved on in their lives, and seemingly without each other.

"These big moments were happening and they were passing us by and I wasn't a part of it," Fritschel says. "I think each of us and in our minds would be happy for the other person, but also vulnerable and upset."

As the pandemic's restrictions' stretched on, both Wang and Fritschel's insecurities about their relationship started to bubble. Even when they finally saw each other, months later, socially distanced in a park, it was not the same. Fritschel describes it as "damaging" to the friendship. Wang agrees, saying that she kept thinking about how to maintain boundaries and stay safe.

Eventually, they had a big argument discussing the insecurities that festered over the course of the last year, mainly about their friendship, but also about each other's artistic skills.

"It turns out that my insecurities that I thought were insane, were actually the exact same that Emma was feeling," Wang says. "That's crazy that we both feel this way," she reflects.

Fritschel contends that it was often hard to express negative feelings because it takes attention away from the other person.

Postgrad tensions "amplified"

Maya Lee, 24, from Indianapolis, Ind., had a similar experience. Although she has successfully kept in touch with her close-knit friends virtually, sometimes, she feels unsure about discussing certain topics in their limited phone time, like her recent transition to medical school.

"I have a lot of negative things to say as of late. That's just genuinely how I'm feeling. And I own that," Lee says. She does not want to bring herself or any of her friends down, even though she knows that would probably not be the case.

As a graduate of the class of 2019, she says that even before the pandemic, the year after graduation can be a somewhat hard experience to navigate for some.

Clare Mclnerney, 23, a 2020 graduate from Scarsdale, N.Y., who currently works as a first grade teacher intern, says that the pandemic amplified natural tensions between her recent college graduate circles during the post-graduation transition.

For Mclnerney, one of the main challenges to maintaining friendships right now, is navigating how each person is in a completely different-and-equally-valuable place.

"People are feeling insecure about where they are in terms of the job search, in terms of the housing search," Mclnerney says. "It all just really compounds when you add the pandemic."

She adds that the "tension of not knowing what to share and what people want to hear about and what's going to make them anxious" can be especially tricky to navigate. Therefore, she realized that connecting through games or watching movies can ease the impact of those stressors on friendships.

Mclnerney mentions that she sometimes feels guilty because she enjoys her job and is mostly doing well given the circumstances, which is perceived to be not very common among recent graduates at the moment.

Loss of prime time

Jonah Andreatta, 23, from Lexington, Ky., a middle school and high school band director, found ways to connect with friends virtually, but still feels a loss. The "romanticized" version of early 20s adulthood contradicts with life under the pandemic.

"Here we are at this young age wanting to start things, wanting to go out into the world and try everything and be young and travel and see each other," Andreatta says. "But we are stuck in our apartments."

For Wang and Fritschel, they knew that their friendship was too important to lose, and after their argument, the friendship rebounded stronger than ever.

They also found new ways to connect besides the occasional zoom chat and are currently working on an art project together.

"You can't just assume that things are good because you know that you love each other. That is not enough," Wang says, reflecting on the experience of maintaining a long-distance friendship during the pandemic.

"You still have to maintain the relationship. If you care about that person, you put in work."

Hadia Bakkar is an intern on NPR's National Desk.

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