Generation CUB – how the events of Covid, Ukraine and Brexit will shape our teenagers’ lives

Our children have grown up in a febrile state of emergency. How will they deal with a changed state of mind in years to come?

In 1993, I turned 18. The Cold War had ended, ushering in the centrist Third Way, and the political scientist Francis Fukuyama had famously proclaimed that we had reached the “end of history”. This was the era of Generation X – wanderers through a cultural landscape that seemed both safe and strangely empty, where Friends captured the zeitgeist and wars were something that happened ‘over there’ or in the past.

Now my children are coming of age, history seems to be crashing back. Generation CUB is a label that has been given to the four million British teenagers aged 14-19, who have lived through Covid, Ukraine and Brexit – three of the most disruptive events in modern Britain. Their formative years have been spent watching their families fracture over the shape of UK politics, before the world descended into Covid lockdowns and school closures.

Then along came war in Ukraine – now dominating the news as the ultimate existential threat. This is on top of the ‘climate emergency’ which, back in November, provoked Boris Johnson to warn that we were “one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock”. For adults, this is all confusing and exhausting enough. So what must it be like for the CUBs, growing up in a febrile state of emergency and to whom everything is happening for the first time?

As a sociologist, I have written about the dangers of over-generalising around young people’s experiences – particularly when based on our own preoccupations and anxieties. This concern is shared by Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy at King’s College London and former managing director of Ipsos Mori’s Social Research Institute. His recent book, Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are?, analyses hundreds of studies about generational attitudes, finding that people rarely fit the stereotypes.

This is particularly true of the young. In a 2018 Ipsos Mori report on Generation Z (those born between 1996 and 2010), he concluded: “Putting a whole generation into a box is never smart, but it’s particularly unhelpful with this varied and fluid generation.”

But while generational location doesn’t determine who you are or what you think, social events do have an impact. Think about those growing up through the World Wars, the 1960s or 9/11 – moments when the world seemed to shift on its axis, plunging the young into an existence that was markedly different to the one in which their parents grew up. Few would deny that such experiences affect young people. The more difficult question is: how?

Pandemic restrictions had a huge impact on young people’s lives, destabilising everything they took for granted. And the effect on their mental health during this period makes for sobering reading. NHS statistics published in 2020 found that over half of young people with a probable mental disorder were likely to say that lockdown had made their life worse. For young people with diagnosed mental health problems, the pandemic exacerbated these conditions, particularly given the difficulties accessing specialist services.

But not all of the problems facing young people during the pandemic can be explained in terms of mental health impacts – or assumed to have uniform or long-term consequences. Researchers at University College London followed families with children across the UK during the first and second lockdowns.

“Young people did show a great deal of resilience, but at the same time, they told us that the biggest challenge they faced was learning to try to cope with huge amounts of uncertainty in different parts of their lives,” explains Dr Humera Iqbal, associate professor of social and cultural psychology. “This was everything from levels of uncertainty around education, their own and family’s health, the future, for many their parents and family finances and even their friendships.”

Sarah Standish, a school counsellor in Harrow, north west London, has perceived a big improvement since regular service resumed. And as kids have regained their lives, they have been experiencing more of the ‘normal’ problems of growing up.

“I’m not seeing the numbers I saw a year ago; the anxiety presentations, the tics and so on,” she says. “Now I’m talking to them about relationship break-ups and parents getting divorced.”

Both Standish and Iqbal draw attention to the anxieties experienced by young people with regard to job losses and financial hardship: something that has gained relatively little attention. “The stress issues now are more about the economic crisis,” says Standish, citing “huge issues” with parental employment, and worries about how to pay for heating and petrol.

To the extent that wider social events affect young people, we should be wary about scripting a response that is driven by our own anxieties, not theirs.

In an astute commentary published in spring 2020, right at the start of the pandemic, politics professor Matthew Flinders noted that for young people, “the notion of crisis has simply become the new normal.

“They absorb doom-laden narratives about globalisation and suffer from the growth of economic precarity,” he wrote. “They hear about the ‘death’ or ‘end’ of democracy and catastrophic climate change. Is it any wonder that mental health and wellbeing services are generally discussed in crisis-laden terms?”

In attempting to predict how young people will respond to social shocks, commentators tend to fall into three camps: those who argue that teenagers suffering from ‘crisis fatigue’ will merely shrug off disasters; those who fear they will be overwhelmed; and those who hope the young people will be a newly radicalised force for progressive social change. Yet many young people express a more mediated and, dare I say, mature response than those pontificating about them.

Annabel, 19, is a university student. “The sense of crisis all the time feels like quite a lot to deal with as a teenager,” she says. Many of her peers “feel quite crushed by the weight of the world” and disconnected from wider events. “While people are upset about Ukraine, this tends to manifest itself on social media rather than real life,” she adds. “The sense that we’re going through these really dramatic catastrophic events has intensified, but it’s hard to know if this coincides with us becoming more aware of the world.”

This burgeoning awareness is the key point. Young people are coming of age trying to work out what it all means. And this is where the adults in the room need to take a long hard look at themselves. It is true that we are living through uncertain times. But our own complacency about the ‘end of history’ has driven us to engage with life as a constant state of emergency, absolving ourselves of the responsibility to help young people make sense of the world by indulging in our own fear.

For all the destructive effects of the pandemic, it has had one potentially positive effect. Many parents, grandparents and young people told Iqbal that their relationships with each other had strengthened. Standish has noticed that young people have “grown in their appreciation of things they previously took for granted”, such as the importance of the school community and the value of social interaction with peers.

Ultimately, it is teenagers’ sense of what is important to their own lives that gives them a resilience to events in the world out there – and what could mean the CUBs don’t become Generation Crisis after all.

First published by the Daily Telegraph, 10 March 2022.

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