To find reliable cellphone service for his job interviews, 24-year-old Jule Brown often sits in his Hyundai Santa Fe next to the athletic fields at his old high school in Lower Merion Township, Pa.

Mr. Brown, who graduated from New York University in May, was all set for a career in sports marketing. A forward and guard on the NYU basketball team, he completed three marketing internships and earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences. But after the pandemic forced much of the sports world to cancel or scale back operations, Mr. Brown saw his job prospects vanish. “Agencies, brands, pretty much everyone is on a hiring freeze right now,” he says.

He’s been living at home with his mother and grandmother, babysitting and doing a series of odd jobs while he looks for a full-time job. Interviewing for jobs in his car outside his old high school, where he was a basketball star, helps him remember his past athletic success and focus on his future aspirations. “That’s my place of solace,” says Mr. Brown. “It’s my good luck.”

Jule Brown has been living at home with his grandmother and mother after graduating from New York University in May.

The Class of 2020 was primed to enter one of the most robust job markets in history: In the fall of 2019, the U.S. unemployment rate was at a 50-year low of 3.5%.

Instead, they face one of the most challenging job markets for young people in decades. This spring, when many were graduating from college, unemployment for 20- to 24-year-olds was above 20%, according to the Labor Department, compared with the low teens for all age groups. About 25% of employers said they closed their open positions or rescinded offers made in the spring to graduating students because of Covid-19, according to a September survey of 2,408 employers conducted by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. “The hammer came down very suddenly,” says Philip Gardner, director of the institute and author of the study.

The delay in a series of life milestones, from landing an entry-level job to moving away from home and achieving financial independence, is likely to have profound effects on this generation for years to come. A record number of young people are living at home with their parents and saddled with huge student-loan debt. Compounding all this is the social isolation and emotional strain that the pandemic has caused for most Americans. Some are postponing their job searches by going to graduate school, while others are making adjustments to align their career choices with their values—and some are seeking any job at all.

Coding in the family basement

Not since the Great Depression have so many young adults lived with their parents. In July, 52% of young adults ages 18 to 29 years old resided with one or both of their parents, surpassing the previous peak in 1940, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. Accelerating a decadeslong trend, the number and share of young adults living with their parents grew sharply from February to July across all major racial and ethnic groups, men and women, metropolitan and rural residents and in all four main U.S. census regions, Pew says.

De Andre King, 22, spent the summer interviewing for computer-programming jobs from his family’s basement in Queens, N.Y. Since graduating from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., last spring, he has been living at home with his parents; two older brothers, who also work from home; and a younger sister who started her first college semester online, also at home.

After a monthslong search, De Andre King landed a software-engineering job with Bloomberg in October.

Mr. King estimates he has applied for about 200 positions related to his computer-science degree, spending an average 40 hours a week interviewing, networking and learning new computer skills. For online job interviews, Mr. King would wear an ironed, button-down shirt and tie and angle the camera so the water meter on the wall behind him wouldn’t show.

In October, he was thrilled and relieved to land a job as a software engineer at Bloomberg LP in Princeton, N.J. The company’s offices aren’t open for now, so Mr. King is still living and working from home. Just before the job began, his 26-year-old brother agreed to swap his workspace in the bedroom they shared for the basement. Mr. King was happy to make the switch, craving a change of scenery after the months spent working downstairs. A new pair of headphones, and closing the bedroom door, also help drown out his family, he says. “We’re going on eight months of this,” Mr. King says. “It’s definitely a mixed bag.”

To unwind, Mr. King has started running a few miles around his neighborhood every day and going for long drives outside the city. He dreams of his company’s office reopening and accruing some savings. “I’m definitely thinking about getting my own place,” he says.

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