Covid-19 and ‘stolen futures’
In early October, 19-year-old Finn Kitson was found dead at his halls of residence at the University of Manchester. When a local radio news source tweeted that the student’s death was not Covid-related, his grieving father hit back. ‘This is untrue’, tweeted Michael Kitson, an academic at the University of Cambridge:
‘If you lock down young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety. The student referred to below is our son – and we love and miss him so much.’
Coming on the back of a string of stories about first-year students being locked down in their university halls of residence, being fed an expensive and poor-quality diet of bad food and online-only lectures, and issued with fines by both universities and the police for breaking myriad lockdown rules, Mr Kitson’s tweet became a national news story. It tapped into a fear that has been brewing since the early days of lockdown in the spring, but which, until recently, has had strikingly little impact on national debate: that in adopting these measures to contain Covid-19, we risk causing serious harm to our kids.
This was the question at the heart of the BBC Panorama episode ‘Has Covid Stolen My Future?’, aired on 26 October. This half-hour documentary flicked through the economic impact of the pandemic on young people’s employment prospects; the educational impact of exam cancellations and patchy educational provision; and the mental-health impact of the whole thing.
Panorama, like many other news sources over the past couple of months, suggested that the kind of mental-health problems that have been rising among young people for some time, such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, seem to be exploding in 2020. At the same time, support for young people experiencing these issues – in every sense, from that provided by professional services and schools to contact with each other and wider family members – is hobbled by social-distancing measures. If there was a mental-health crisis among young people before Covid, it seems that we ain’t seen nothing yet.
How worried should we be about our teenagers? On one hand, it is unhelpful now, when so much of the damage has been done, to torture ourselves with the fantasy that young people’s future has been ‘stolen’ by the pandemic. Adding graphs that show rocketing rates of mental illness to the grim charts of Covid-19 infection rates does not clarify the situation confronting the younger generation, and could easily make the problem worse.
As I have argued in my work on claims about generational inequality and conflict, the idea that young people’s futures have already been wrecked by the mistakes of the past encourages the sentiments of fatalism and insecurity that make young people feel bad about their lives, and powerless to do anything about it. These are big problems of the economy, politics and culture, yet they are too often framed individualistically, as the failure of older people to ‘help’ and the inability of young people to ‘cope’. Such a simplistic, divisive framing prevents us all from taking a step back and considering what we, as a society, can do to make things better.
On the other hand, when confronted with the particular dynamic of society’s response to Covid-19, we do need to be engaging with the ways in which young people are making sense of this crisis, and the impact on their sense of themselves and the world around them. It may be that their terrible freshers’ weeks, their inability to get a job or their feelings of anxiety and depression are not a direct result of Covid-19 and lockdown. But nor should we minimise this impact by presenting it simply as a continuation of what was going on before.
In our new book The Corona Generation, my teenage daughter Emma and I attempt to think through the symbolic impact of the social shock precipitated by the pandemic on those coming of age during this crisis. Our aim is not to argue that young people are doing more badly out of this moment than any other generation, or that all young people are experiencing it in the same way as each other. Rather, we suggest that the abrupt break in the sense of ‘normal’ that lockdown brought about is likely to have a formative impact on young people, as it comes at a point in their lives when they are already working through their own ideas about who they are and the society they live in.
With lockdown, all the things young people had been encouraged to aspire to – such as educational success, going to university, getting their first job, developing close personal and physical relationships with their peers – were abruptly put on hold, and continue to be held in question. The confusion and uncertainty generated by this moment has been magnified by the inability, or unwillingness, of adult society to demonstrate a sense of empathy with and responsibility towards the young. Prolonged school closures, public-health campaigns instructing ‘don’t kill granny’, fines being issued by the police and some universities treating students more as infectious troublemakers to be incarcerated than curious minds to be educated, all indicate the depth of this problem.
The crisis of adult authority is not new – and nor are the struggles that young people have growing up. The pandemic has accelerated and exposed a variety of destabilising social and cultural trends that were already afflicting young people’s ability to make sense of the world around them. But when the wheels come off ‘normality’ as quickly as they have done in 2020, it seems a pretty safe bet that there will be a crash.
The plight of first-year university students is an example of how these symbolic tensions play out. These teenagers were already discombobulated by the summer exams fiasco, and the preceding months of lockdown – unlike any other first-year cohort, they had not formally finished school, and the other ‘coming of age’ stuff associated with the pre-uni summer had been truncated. Those who decided not to defer their university place were told that they needed to come to campus to study, so they did – only to find, in some cases, that they were swiftly blamed for spreading Covid and locked down in their accommodation. Whatever they expected from their academic studies, the ‘online-only’ offer seemed to offer something inferior; whatever they expected from the ‘social side’ of student life was nixed by restrictions on socialising outside of the random ‘bubble’ of housemates to which they had been assigned.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to recognise that the effect is not going to be positive. The first few weeks of university are always tough, what with getting the hang of a new course, making (and getting rid of) new friends, working out how to handle your drink and keeping yourself clean and fed. Over the decades, these first tentative steps to independence – moving outside of the protective family circle – have become an important part of what university is considered to be for. When all that is replaced by a self-funded quarantine camp, it is hardly surprising that the students are miserable and their mums are up in arms.
But part of the problem here goes back way before Covid. Over the past couple of decades, universities have become progressively bigger, more impersonal, and oriented more around the ‘experience’ than the content of the academic course. ‘Going to uni’ is simultaneously framed as a consumer choice, where students are incited to believe that they can pick and choose the shiniest bits, and a compulsion – something that all aspirational young people are expected to do so that they can get a decent job. When they arrive, they are often brought up short by the contradictions between their expectations and their experience: academic work can be lonely and frustrating, the ‘social side’ can all be quite stressful, and they are not sure whether the purpose is to enjoy their studies or be focused on what they can get out of it, in terms of a high grade and a good job.
And so already, before Covid, students’ troubles were both described and experienced as a ‘mental-health crisis’. In a recent study, my colleagues and I sought to uncover the range of factors that lay behind what one of our interviewees described as ‘a terrifying increase in disclosed mental-health problems’, and concluded – unsurprisingly – that there was no one thing that could explain this.
It cannot be the case that today’s students are somehow so different from previous generations that they can’t cope with ‘normal’ university life, although many more are arriving with a pre-existing diagnosis of a mental-health problem. Nor is it plausible that the lack of awareness of mental-health problems, and services to engage with them, is the cause – ‘student support’ services are everywhere on campuses, as is mental-health talk. The fact that students are paying for their degrees does not inherently make them more stressful, though this might be a factor; the fact that the ‘student experience’ is not all that it is cracked up to be in the prospectuses is hardly a new, or insurmountable, issue.
In a general sense, we concluded that part of the mental-health crisis on campus relates to a wider crisis of meaning about the purpose of education, and the role of the university. For example, when the purpose of going to university is framed as getting a good job, students worry about the relevance of their degrees – especially when the graduate job market is highly competitive. If the point of university is to have the time of your life, students worry when it doesn’t come up to scratch, and feel under pressure to get more out of it. Particularly on large courses, students can feel distanced from academic staff and struggle to know who to turn to for adult guidance.
This does not explain everything, of course: mental illness cannot be reduced to a cultural response, and, indeed, part of the problem confronting student-support services is the extent to which students with serious psychiatric problems may become lost in the widening demand for help with more general feelings of distress. But beyond that, the way that young people have been socialised to perceive their problems as those of their own inability to manage, and to focus on developing internalised coping mechanisms rather than to absorb themselves in the educational pursuit that lies at the heart of any decent higher education, fuels the current sense of disorientation and isolation.
In displacing education as the core function of the university, and making it all about feeling ‘satisfied’ and having fun, the promotion of the ‘university experience’ cuts students adrift from their relationship with knowledge – the world outside themselves – and distorts their relationship with academic staff.
Now consider that confusion in the context of Covid. For many, the ‘university experience’ has now been reduced entirely to the course that they are studying, in the form of the disembodied, online presence of their lecturers. Not only has the ‘social side’ become limited and unpleasant – the academic side, when conducted in a bedroom over bad Wi-Fi, falls far short not only of students’ expectations, but also of the way things were last year. Although many academics are working extremely hard to provide good lectures and online tutorials, there is no way to compensate for the sense of academic community that develops through students being together in seminar rooms, hanging out in the library, and the other features of daily life that were previously taken for granted. The whole thing is fragmented and confused.
Will this make students ill? Not all of them, no. Many are pragmatic: they knew it would be a strange year but they wanted to leave home regardless; some are gaining a sense of solidarity and community precisely because they are living through this moment together. Some will have experienced mental-health problems regardless. But given the extent to which the contradictions of a ‘normal’ university experience were already being widely experienced as problems of mental ill-health, it seems very likely that these will be exacerbated by the current moment. And, unfortunately, there is no quick-fix intervention – of money, policy or professional support – that can put it right.
Acknowledging that the Covid-19 crisis is likely to impact negatively on young people’s education, employment and mental health does not mean simply accepting that this is how it has to be. As Emma and I note in our book, from the start of the pandemic there have been distasteful attempts by some commentators to overstate how this generation will have their entire lives determined by Covid, and to revel in the misery. This is a bad time for everybody – and for the young, at least, the future remains open.
But at the same time, to pretend that young people will somehow bounce back from all this evades the bigger problem – that when adult society fails to provide young people with a sense of stability and continuity during a time of crisis, this has consequences for how they are, and what they will become.