Covid’s long tail

Expecting young people to just get ‘back to normal’ is unrealistic after the last three years – and normal didn’t work for many anyway.


Young people have had a rough time in the last few years and yet, like everyone, they are expected to go ‘back to normal’ just like that. We all know that their education was disrupted during the lockdowns, but even though, superficially, things seem to be normal now – in that school is generally happening in person every day [apart from the strikes] – things under the surface are often far from okay.

As a parent you can see it every day. Friendships are fragile and the dominance of social media – young people’s main form of communication during lockdowns – seems to have affected how they interact. There seems, from my observation – which may be limited – to be a lot of confrontation going on. Sometimes when I listen to what has happened in a day it sounds as if people are living their lives as if they were on reality tv. “So and so said they wanted to pull me for a chat”, “x said that they wanted to tell me how they feel about how I make them feel”, etc, etc. It seems to be very in your face – all about x or y telling you what they think in the most direct way possible, maximum drama, minimum empathy. It’s exhausting to listen to, especially if you’re not a confrontational person.

You might say that teenagers have ever been thus, but I think it’s something more than that. It seems that we talk a lot about communication, but a lot of it is performing communication rather than actually doing it, at least at any deeper level. We also talk a lot about authenticity, yet so much of our communication relies on cliches taken from somewhere else – life as a journey, learning opportunities, even ‘being your authentic self’ – all of it feels more like marketing than real communication. Maybe we’ve never been good at communication, but the difference now is the gap between the marketing and the reality at a time when we really need to listen to each other.

We have in theory never had so many channels through which to communicate, but it often feels like teenagers are not present in their face to face lives.

Maybe it’s just something about modern life. Everyone seems to have earpods these days. It drives me mad. I’m in the middle of a passionate talk about something or other, imparting pearls of parental wisdom, only to notice that the person I was talking to, who is a few feet away from me, has not heard a single thing I’ve said because they are tuned into Radiohead. Sometimes it feels like communicating is too much of an effort. And who knows what they’re listening to. It may be Radiohead; it may be something much darker. It may be that even if they are listening to Wham! they are interpreting it in dark ways. I well remember the trauma cause by Spooky Spoon and the Number Catcher.

I was talking to a lecturer the other day and he said they have a real problem with undergraduates turning up for classes – this is for a very practical-based course. I’ve heard it from the student perspective too. People are working while studying – that has been true for many years, more so now due to the cost of living crisis and the huge cost of housing, but this is more than that – it feels like some sense of disconnect with the outside world. Current undergraduates have experienced lots of Covid-related disruption. They may have experienced family loss or at least fear of family loss. Mental health problems are high. Isolation is not just about being physically locked down.

A Level students this year have not sat any public exams before. Yet they are expected to slot back into the target system and attain. These are the people who will be starting work in the next years. What will the implications be?

Seeing the world turned upside down has shaken people to the core, although some have enjoyed the time to be with family [even if it’s usually parents who say this] and the slowing down of the world. It’s not as if the world before Covid didn’t have multiple problems after all.

Different people respond in different ways too, but Covid’s tail will be a long one and normal, which didn’t work for a lot of people anyway, will be hard to get back to, both in our external lives and in our heads.

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