Job losses, quarantine, and the avoidance of most social interactions in the last two years have negatively impacted the mental health of most people, but especially the younger generations. Almost half of young adults now report "poor" or "very poor" mental health, while signs of psychological distress have increased by 10%. Symptoms such as lack of motivation, difficulty sleeping and loneliness are on the rise, and the same goes for diagnoses of depression and anxiety. Statistics and surveys paint a worrisome picture. But my question is another. Focusing on the frame, you can forget the details, the deeper perspective and the emotional impact. So simply, just how does it feel to be a young person during the pandemic?
The pandemic hit us during an already complex process of identity creation through which we were constructing our sense of 'self". During a transitional stage in which career choices, social relationships, and education combine to define ourselves: young people "were developing their own freedom and space, and during lockdown, they lost what they had just started to experience." To put it bluntly, the pandemic "froze" us for almost two years while exacerbating an already precarious socio-economic situation.
It feels like I wasted a year and a half of my life, - a crucial year and a half –, while the situation I will face at the end of my studies is becoming harsher and harsher.
Indeed, younger people have less economic stability. Most of us still study, and those who work have a less reliable income than older generations. Think about those family gatherings where your grandparents kept telling you that, at your age, they already had a stable job, a house and a family. Fair point, grandpa, but getting a job straight out of high school is far less probable, and most positions now require further education, which, regardless of sector, do not pay as much as they once did. And while property prices increase, the prospects of starting a family decrease. Supposing I want to get married and have a family, I live in a student house with three other people; how am I supposed to start a family with my partner? To make things worse, other forms of capital – for instance, social and cultural capital - are less available for young people today. Frequent moving between cities or countries to pursue professional or educational careers negatively impacts their ability to form friendly or romantic relationships as they are required to reshape their social landscape every few years, either partially or totally.
See grandpa? This is why I don't have a family, house and stable job at my age, and why I am not very hopeful about all this.
This is the landscape in which Covid-19 spread. The pandemic exacerbated the feelings of hopelessness younger people might have felt in the face of the delicate transitional period they were going through and the 'not rosy' environmental and socio-political situation we envisioned. Still, writing on a piece of paper the words' depression' or 'anxiety' does not fully grasp the emotional extension of the phenomenon. Diagnosis and incidence surveys are important parameters but often feel too general or too abstract to answer the question we pondered in the beginning: how does it feel?
Despite the "progress", our generation, whose reach spreads from London to New York all the way to Buenos Aires or Tokyo; who can form meaningful connections between countries or even continents; who is fluent in a 'global language' like English, and who seem to understand and master the landscapes of a global world the most, transcending national and cultural borders, is suffering the most. But why? The answer, I reckon, is 'uncertainty…'. I want to bring my personal experience to illustrate this point.
As a student, 'uncertainty' has accompanied me my whole academic career. First, when I moved from my hometown to a bigger city, secondly, when I moved to another country, and, thirdly, when I temporarily settled in Manchester. My university path has sometimes led me to struggle to build relationships due to these continuous and frequent relocations. I developed the feeling that these setbacks were the natural consequence of the times I am living in; that volatility and uncertainty were on the other side of the coin of necessary relocation because my passions and goals were not achievable as they were for my parents’ generation who had a stable and remunerative position in the country or region they grew up in.
The struggle to build a sense of community was the natural consequence of chasing my objectives. As an immigrant, I believed that building relationships was impossible for me, or at least not as easy as it had been in the past. The meaningful friendships I had built in my home town or in London are not significantly present in my life now, as my "community", and the resulting sense of belonging, is spread between different continents. And the more I moved the more spread it got. I felt that the necessity to emigrate necessarily complicated my ability to form a sense of community. In all honesty, I am forever grateful to my younger self for having decided to take this path, but living in five different cities - and three different countries - in eight years has not helped in making me feel a sense of belonging. Maybe, this is just my experience, or perhaps it is actually a familiar feeling nowadays. Nevertheless, the uncertainty is still there.
And from a career standpoint, uncertainty is still accompanying me… Where and in what position will I work in? This question is still pending for many of us, as often, passions and education do not dictate your career path. Many of us have no idea what we will do in the future, nor when and where we will find a sense of certainty and balance. It seems that our social, economic, and work position will be accompanied by a sense of precariousness. It is not clear where I will have to move to find a position that will sustain me while fitting my education and skills. Nor am I sure if I will find such a position in the future at all. Will l be required to jump through different employments? And for how long? Will I reach a sort of economic stability, one that will allow me to purchase a house, or a car, and, for those who want to, have a family? Such questions are just one aspect of my generation's condition.
In my case, Covid had a huge impact on my already stressful life plans. First, I had to interrupt the PhD research I was conducting in Cuba and go back to my hometown. And now I find myself having to change my PhD route within a scenario where employment opportunities are shrinking due to the pandemic. It feels like I wasted a year and a half of my life, - a crucial year and a half –, while the situation I will face at the end of my studies is becoming harsher and harsher. Hence the question, "what's the point"? In the last year and a half, I felt like I was floating in a never-ending limbo, unsure when and if I wanted to continue what I had already started. Will I have the energy to pursue what I started? This question was already in my mind before the pandemic, but it surely aggravated throughout almost two years in which all I could do was stare at the ceiling, metaphorically and non.
The meaning and 'texture' of my life and career are blurring to the point that they have lost consistency. Certainties crumble in the face of a psychological burden of this magnitude, and I feel like a sense of emptiness is devouring the pillars I enthusiastically built in my late adolescence. My career, education, work, home, life goals and future have slowly been emptied of their ontological consistency and now lie there as a vestigial casing of what they once were. They are still there, nominally at least, but empty, meaningless. Mirages, reflections, refractions, you shall call them the way you prefer. If I try to reach out with my hands to grasp them, they move away, and the further I try to reach them, the further they move away. An endless chase if you will, or disenchantment even. Once, they would stand there as parameters of my life trajectory, for better or worse. They gave coordinates, traced movement, provided a certain meaning, or at least they constructed the canvas through which we live. This is where, I believe, the pandemic became the most vicious. It reached my generation in a period of our lives in which we were - and still are - trying to juggle through these concepts to understand what they meant to us and how we wanted to shape them for ourselves. Exactly when we were trying to make some sense of all of this, the pandemic stuck everything in limbo.
In all honesty, these concepts were probably never solid in the first place, their meaning and position in our lives vary greatly, and we relied on them even if we realised they were relative and not absolute. Whether you want to settle down somewhere or you feel more nomadic, whether you want a marriage and children or not, whether you prefer a 9-to-5 job or a more fluid one, these factors do not define your worth or your achievements, and each of these options has value. Career, education, work, home, and life goals can take different forms for different people, they could be parameters to track your achievements but they do not necessarily have to. But even if I were perfectly aware of their contingent character all this time, I now perceive their emptiness not just logically but also emotionally. Covid made us not just think about uncertainty, it made us feel it. I learned those are two very different things.