Mussab A

Opinion

Not A Meritocracy: The U.S. and Youth Employment During COVID-19

Mussab A.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the nation’s employment landscape, and young people are at particular risk. They’re often the first to be let go, the last to be hired, and major employers of young people—including the food service and hospitality industries—are significantly impacted by the pandemic. The YES Project has been speaking with young people representing various stages of education and employment to learn firsthand about their job experiences during COVID-19 and their advice for how decision makers can support them at this unprecedented time.

Here are highlights from our conversation with Mussab A., age 23, from Jersey City, New Jersey. Mussab is a recent graduate of Tsinghua University and will begin law school virtually at Harvard this fall. Mussab was a Truman Scholar in 2017 and a Schwarzman Scholar in 2020. He was elected to the Jersey City Board of Education in 2017 as the youngest Muslim elected official in the nation’s history.


As we look toward recovery from COVID-19 and what that means for employment, it’s important that we think intentionally about young people – particularly those who are marginalized and underrepresented. Decision-makers should utilize this moment to make our education and employment systems more equitable so that anyone who works hard can succeed.

As a young immigrant, I grew up hearing many adages about the value of hard work. The early bird gets the worm. If you work hard enough you can do anything. But the reality is that America is not a meritocracy. This isn’t to discredit the value of effort, but it’s important to acknowledge that hard work is not a panacea. Amidst the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narratives, what I didn’t hear was how to navigate education and employment when hard work alone isn’t enough.

By glancing at my resumé you would assume that I am among the hardest working individuals in the country. I have been the recipient of prestigious national and international awards and have the opportunity to attend one of the nation’s top law schools next year. But, I would argue, it was the good fortune of accessing various programs and opportunities that got me to where I am today.

When my family immigrated to America, my mother got a job as a teacher. This gave her the chance to provide an extra hour of teaching at home to her three children, which helped us get into the gifted and talented program at our public school. This program fed into a pipeline that led me to the top public high school in my city.

When I was a freshman at Rutgers-Newark University, an upstart nonprofit called Braven opened on my campus. Through this program, I was connected to a mentor who affirmed that I was good enough to apply for some of the most prestigious fellowships in the world, and guided me through the process. At that time my university didn’t have a fellowship office. Without this program, I wouldn’t have heard of some of these fellowships, let alone applied for them.

Then, in 2016, I ran for office on my local school board. As a political neophyte, I believed that hard work would help me win the election. My hard work helped, but it wasn’t enough—my campaign was outspent 50:1. The following year I ran again and, thanks to a talented campaign team of young millennials, I became the youngest—and first Muslim—elected official in Jersey City history.

Recently, when studying for the LSAT to gain admission to law school, I was dismayed by the cost of preparatory courses. However, the previous year, Khan Academy launched a partnership with LSAC to provide a free LSAT course. Without that course, I would’ve either had to spend thousands of dollars I didn’t have, or score significantly lower than I did.

Although I have worked hard, my story isn’t one of hard work granting me success. There are several opportunities I wouldn’t have accessed had it not been for people in my life who took a risk on me, and the good fortune of participating in programs that helped me along the way. And I know I’m not alone. Around 70-80% of jobs are not advertised publicly. This means that many young people who aren’t connected to the right program or the right person at the right time don’t have access to thousands of job opportunities for which they may be qualified.

As we look toward recovery from COVID-19 and what that means for employment, it’s important that we think intentionally about young people – particularly those who are marginalized and underrepresented. Decision-makers should utilize this moment to make our education and employment systems more equitable so that anyone who works hard can succeed.

Here are some ideas moving forward:

Implement strategic recovery programs for students from low-income backgrounds. Data show that about 14% of households with young children do not have internet at home. Given the level of school disruption that has taken place, we can and should be doing more for students who lack the necessary resources. Hard work will not be enough to close the gaps in learning loss—we need strategic implementation of recovery programs.

Invest in virtual professional development, like mentorship and internships. Our virtual environment and increased availability of leisure time provides a perfect opportunity to scale up mentorship programs and virtual internships. Although online opportunities present their challenges, we should recognize that these programs can still provide guidance, exposure, and skillsets that young people would not have otherwise.

Understand that young people can lead. It has been great to see so many people my age learn that their voices matter. To do their part, decision-makers should establish structures to ensure young people have the opportunity to impact their communities directly. For example, micro-grants to young people can encourage them to pioneer recovery initiatives in their own neighborhoods. While young people will continue to work hard, it is up to us to provide opportunities to help them succeed.