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Young people have shown courage and selflessness in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic: here's how we can pay them back
In his song “Not Perfect”, Tim Minchin conjures up a mood that I think a lot of people can relate to at this stage of the pandemic. It is one of sadness and resignation, but also of wonder, curiosity, yearning and hope. Despite the easing up of restrictions, much about our lives remains on a spectrum ranging from sub-optimal (i.e. “a bit rubbish”) to plain impossible (i.e. “not gonna happen”). And yet there is still some pleasure – some triumph even – in creating at least an approximation of the events, rituals and fun things we used to take for granted.
How soon we “get back to normal” – and whether that is even a desirable objective – has become a politically loaded issue. For the younger generation, “normal” is a place that is getting harder and harder to even remember. They are so used to having their lives turned upside down – educations disrupted, important milestones and rites of passage unmarked, sports events, holidays and celebrations summarily cancelled – they hardly dare hope for anything else. Those just embarking on adult life have had careers derailed, earnings curtailed and, as the group most likely to work in people-facing occupations, have disproportionately placed themselves in harm's way as lockdowns slowly begin to ease.
Yet while some politicians (particularly from the right) have bemoaned and bewailed the loss of many freedoms, from young people there has been barely a murmur of complaint. (Yes, university students have been vocal at times but this has been mostly about the unfairness of charging them large amounts of money for pared back or non-existent amenities, rather than a challenge to the need for restrictions per se).
On one view this is an extraordinary level of sacrifice by one generation for the safety of (for the most part) another. However, it would be wrong to assume, from the lack of visible opposition thus far, that young people are happy with how it's all going. In the UK, where I live, under 18s do not have the right to vote in national elections (and so are represented in Parliament by people chosen by their elders) and news narratives (at least as far as the print and TV outlets are concerned) reflect the worldview and priorities of the middle-aged to elderly. Here, young people's views are too often presented as the butt of jokes – as part of the “war on woke” – or dismissed patronisingly as “naïve” or “student politics”.
This attitude is more than merely cruel and insulting. It is grossly unjust. And especially now, with the very habitability of our precious planet at stake.
But maybe – just maybe – growing awareness of scale of the economic, social and environmental damage wrought by the pandemic, alongside recognition of the sacrifices that young people have already made, have begun to alter these traditional, less than productive, inter-generational dynamics. Surely, young people, as the constituency likely to be hardest hit (including economically), deserve a seat at the table when it comes to working out what “Building Back Better” is going to mean in practice?
So it's gratifying that there are slight signs of a kinder, less dismissive attitude to young people taking hold. The UK Prime Minister, despite his obvious enthusiasm for culture wars, has recently offered an olive branch of sorts to younger UK citizens (albeit only a rhetorical one for the time being). In his address to the nation to mark the passing of one year since the UK government's first “stay at home” order, Prime Minister Johnson remarked that he would likely be dealing with the consequences of the pandemic “for as long as I live”. Acknowledging the sacrifices and struggles of young people who have had their education severely disrupted for months on end in order to keep other people safe, Mr Johnson then added that "the future of the country depends on us now repaying that generation".
Well he's right about that much, at least. So how do we repay them? How can we best support that generation of young people who, for far longer than you, me or Mr Johnson for that matter, will be bearing the heavy burden of putting things back together? That is a massive question, of course. But, for me, the fundamentals are all there in Tim Minchin's gorgeous and bittersweet musical offering (a YouTube link is provided at the end). So I hope Mr Minchin will not mind me borrowing the structure of his song to help me to organise what I have to say.
By way of further explanation: Under the heading “Maybe give these a rest…” I've included a few examples of responses and comments that are often used to dismiss and delegitimise young people's concerns and maintain the status quo. Far be it from me to dictate what anyone can and can't say – the ability to express one's self freely is a human right after all. But if we want to support young people – and maybe even express our thanks and appreciation – we might want to think twice before reaching for these and comments like them, and come up with something a bit more imaginative and constructive instead.
When I ask young people what they want from us the most, the answer is always the same. They would like us to please leave them a habitable planet on which to live, thrive and bring up future generations of human beings.
We should be able to deliver on this one. It is, after all, the most basic and fundamental inter-generational responsibility there is. And if we fail in this we may as well kiss goodbye to everything else.
It is going to be hard of course. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has rightly described the transition to a net-zero carbon economy as “the most difficult global collective action problem the world has ever had to face” and our lack of action thus far as “the biggest market failure in history”. There's no time and space to dwell here on why it is difficult (for a lively account of some of the political ups and downs, see chapter 4 of Mr Brown's book ). Here is just a very quick round up of what facing up to our responsibilities might look like in practice.
COP26 is coming . To limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, we need to almost halve carbon emissions over the next decade and reach net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century . From every country in the world in the run-up to COP26 we need ambitious national action plans (called “Nationally Determined Contributions” in the Paris agreement) aligned with the goal of ensuring a global temperature rise of no more than 1.5 degrees. In those NDCs we need to see time limited actions and clarity about how impact will be measured – and from here on there needs to be some robust system of decision-making, monitoring and accountability attached.
At COP26 there needs to be agreed a massive green stimulus plan under which wealthier countries provide a realistic amount of funding to support the transition of less well-off countries to net-zero. There needs to be international agreement on carbon pricing – that reflects the true costs to society of carbon emissions – as a basis for carbon taxes to incentivise companies correctly, for credible and impactful carbon emissions trading systems and for border carbon adjustments for imports.
Domestically, we need to phase out coal-fired power stations and extraction and use of fossil fuels. We need to go all in with renewables of course. But we also need massive investment in the new infrastructure, carbon sinks and early warning systems needed for us to be able to continue to live with the changes to our climate which our actions as human beings have already wrought and which cannot be turned around. Again, this is another area in which richer countries will need to help the less well-off.
In wealthy countries (like the one I am fortunate to live in) we need to see rapid installation of the infrastructure and systems needed to make zero-carbon road transport an attractive and realistic option for families and businesses. While we are talking about businesses, every single one of them – large and small – needs to change. They need to take a serious look at energy sourcing, efficiency and business travel. More than that, they need to draw up ambitious targets and plans that show how each of them will get to net-zero by 2050 at the very latest, but preferably much earlier. Governments can help with regulations that require transparency from companies on this. We need new accounting standards that clearly show each enterprise's contribution to environmental damage and we need these globally applied and enforced. Banks and investors clearly have a huge role to play – stopping investments in fossil fuel projects is just the start. Business actors of all kinds need to work constructively with governments on the delivery of new infrastructure and zero carbon transition.
Finally, at COP26 we need to lay down some proper foundations for future cooperation – which will include adjustments to our international trading rules to ensure a level playing field for manufacturers that are taking the necessary steps towards net-zero.
There are many ways, no doubt, that we can all live much greener lives. But governments need to drop the pretence that these small individual adjustments will make any material difference while their own efforts have been so piecemeal and pathetic. We know from the impact of lockdowns on carbon emissions during the pandemic that simply asking people to fly and drive less is not going to cut it. Yes, there is a lot to do, and yes it asks a lot of all of us (and especially of our political leaders). But compared to the cost of carrying on as we are, it is nothing.
Maybe give these a rest….
“Climate change has been with us forever. What's happening now is nothing new.”
“There's no point putting our own economy at risk while other countries just keep burning more and more coal and fossil fuels.”
“Protecting the environment is all well and good but people still need jobs”.
“We'll just have to learn to live with it”.
In the UK, where I live, interesting evidence of a huge ideological gulf between generations can be found in attitudes to Brexit; with a whopping 82% of 18 to 24 year-olds saying (in a 2018 poll that pre-dated the legal formalisation of Brexit) that they would vote against the UK leaving the EU if they had the chance, but with two thirds of over 65s confident that the UK leaving the EU was the correct decision. If you ask older people why this is you may hear (as I have done) that the difference is down to young people being naïve, gullible or lily-livered – conditions that would naturally be corrected as these people gain more experience of the world.
Young people, though, have a different explanation. Brought up in the age of the internet, with perhaps more opportunities to travel and interact with other cultures than their parents and grandparents, they tend to be more global, outward-looking and curious and thus more inclined to see mobility of people as a right and an opportunity than a problem. People are just people, after all.
But it is not just a question of ideology. Practicalities come into it too. Given the nature and scale of the challenges that face this generation in particular (see “Planet” above) they are more inclined to prioritise cooperation over competition and abstract notions of “sovereignty”, and seem to feel instinctive unease about triumphalist narratives about their countries and the past.
In the UK, this shift is observable in the demands by young people for a re-evaluation of received historical “facts” in a way that fully acknowledges the realities and influences of the different kinds of power relationships in play – between men and women, industrialists and workers, colonialists and the colonised, slavers and enslaved people, for example. They seek an analysis that sheds more light on the lives of marginalised and oppressed people, and the continuing legacies of different forms of historical marginalisation and oppression in daily life. (I will come back to the theme of empathy in “Mind” below).
Inevitably this has raised some hackles among conservatives and traditionalists, who have zeroed in on campaigns to remove certain statues in public squares and at educational establishments. To some, this amounts to “cancelling history”; to others, it is yet another example of how “woke” people are intent upon “doing our country down”. Various politicians and political commentators have eagerly jumped on this bandwagon, perhaps not appreciating that, for many young people, the narrow and unchanging notions of “patriotism” and “history” on which these comments are based only serve to make the case for a historical re-evaluation stronger and more urgent.
The short-termism in the way politics is conducted is, of course, a huge structural obstacle to getting the needs of future generations even recognised, let alone addressed, in the here and now. And for those under voting age – who may have to live with the consequences of governmental decisions far off into the future (including decisions to do little or nothing) – the frustrations can be even more intense. In countries fortunate enough to have functioning democracies, there are conversations presently underway about how to make democracy better – enhancing voting rights, remote voting systems to improve accessibility of ballots, proportional representation, alternative or preferential voting systems, devolution, citizen's assemblies, public representation on consultative and advisory committees, lowering voting ages, to name just a few. Only the last of these is specifically aimed at strengthening the voice of young people in particular, although some of these other possibilities, such as citizen assemblies, could potentially be designed in such a way as to elicit the views of young people on key issues of the day.
Maybe we could take this even further. What if, instead of trusting to luck, governments were legally obliged to seek the views of representatives of future generations on issues of consequence for them and on which they are likely to offer interesting and important perspectives, such as education, health and social care (see “Body” and “Mind” below), local planning and amenities, crime (see “Community and Home” below), environment (see “Planet” above), and on protection of privacy and other human rights in the digital age.
Sounds crazy? Well, don't dismiss it out of hand. In 2015, the Welsh government passed a “Well-being of Future Generations Act”. This legislation “requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.” The Act creates a “Commissioner for Future Generations” whose role is “to be the guardian of future generations”. This means (according to the Welsh government web-site) “helping public bodies and those who make policy in Wales to think about the long-term impact their decisions have.” Of course, there are debates about the amount of impact this office has in reality – the subject of a recent discussion on BBC Radio . But there are likely to be plenty of ways – legally, structurally and practically – that the impact and inclusivity of initiatives like this could be enhanced. Perhaps there is at least a germ of an idea there on which to build.
Maybe give these a rest…
“Young people don't respect our history and traditions”.
“They don't appreciate the historical context. It's just not fair to judge events and historical figures by the standards of today”.
“I'm sure they mean well, but they are going about it in the wrong way”.
“They are just young and impressionable – they'll learn as time goes on”.
Community and home
We've spent a lot of time at home lately. Home is meant to be a place of sanctuary and safety, but for many young people the confinements made necessary by the pandemic have been dangerous and debilitating. I will come back to this in the sections on “Body” and “Mind” below.
The inability of young people to get on the property ladder is the cause of significant economic difference – and some rancour – between generations. In the UK there has been, over the past 20 years or so, a substantial decline in rates of home ownership by young adults. For young people on low to middling wages, even decent rented accommodation is often out of reach. Economists point to two key developments – rapidly rising house prices and stagnation of wages. Building or creating more affordable green homes (see “Planet” above) may help with one side of the equation. But the problem of wage stagnation needs addressing too.
The pandemic has done nothing to move things in young people's favour. If anything, the economic fallout seems to be exacerbating already existing inequalities between young people with more resources and those with less. As things reopen, present dynamics of supply and demand mean that many young people are at serious risk of exploitation by employers.
Greater unionisation could help. Governments need to ensure robust legal protections of employment rights, including of the rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining. Unions, for their part, could usefully reflect on how well their governance, decision-making and outreach arrangements work for younger members, and whether they could be more welcoming and inclusive. In addition to the most basic requirements to pay young people fairly and respect their rights to unionize, businesses also need to make special efforts to seek their views about workplace issues and proposals that affect them disproportionately, or which could pose particular risks or difficulties for some groups (lack of private spaces for working from home arrangements would be one example).
If we didn't know it already, the pandemic has taught us a great deal about the importance of strong communities, as a source of social interaction and practical and emotional support. We have relied on our green spaces as never before. So, in addition to finding ways to improve the availability of decent housing to young people, it is necessary to give some attention, too, to the communities in which they are set.
There is no denying that austerity programmes have hammered, and in some cases destroyed, the local amenities that are particularly important to young people – job advisory services, sports facilities, social services, community centres, parenting and early childhood support groups, healthcare centres (including mental health support, see “Mind” below), and educational hubs such as local libraries.
Getting these back up and running – and improving on what was there before – will take time, effort and large amounts of cash. Taxes will need to be raised to pay for it. Whatever funding model is eventually arrived at, financial and other resources need to be shared out according to actual need (rather than, as happens too often here in the UK, as a way of bolstering political support). Devolving greater powers to local and regional governments should (with proper accountability and oversight) help to ensure that precious resources are used in the most effective and impactful ways.
And while we are at it, let's make sure that there is meaningful consultation with trusted youth representatives on all aspects of town planning and development. We can't be sure of what the outcomes will be, but my confident expectation, based on everything I have heard from younger members of my own community over the past year, is that vanity projects, gimmicks and rent-seeking ruses would get short shrift, in favour of initiatives that prioritise sustainability, health and wellbeing (we will come back to this in “Body” and “Mind” below).
Maybe give these a rest…
“Young people are so spoiled.”
“They want everything now.”
“They have everything handed to them on a plate.”
“When I was young I had to work for things.”
What do campaigns for reproductive rights, access to period products, disability rights, rights of elderly people, workplace health and safety, gender equality, racial justice, indigenous people's rights, access to live-saving drugs and vaccines – and against sexual violence, racism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, discrimination and environmental degradation – have in common? While this may have many older people scratching their heads, younger people tend not to have to think too long. They are all linked at a fairly fundamental level by the concept of bodily autonomy – the principle (which has its roots in the idea of “dignity” ) that all people have the right to make decisions about their own bodies. While traditionally associated particularly with reproductive rights (older feminists like me will remember rallying under banners saying “Our Bodies, Our Choice”), younger leaders and activists have seen its power as normative and organising principle in a whole range of contexts, to the extent that the concept of bodily autonomy can no longer be said to be solely about the “personal”. It also helps to shine a light on the many challenges that shape who gets to occupy space in the world, and on what terms.
The different ways in which our bodily autonomy can be enhanced and undermined are so numerous, wide-ranging and complex that I won't be able to do them justice here. I will just confine myself to a few areas of concern where I live, in the relatively well-off UK.
For starters (and very obviously if we are talking about “bodily autonomy”), young women are sick of being harassed and physically threatened at work and in public spaces. Abusers need to stop acting dumb and pretending they don't understand where “the line” between acceptable and unacceptable conduct is being drawn. They have been told often enough. Legal protections need to be strengthened, with new offences placed on the statute books if need be, and law enforcement needs to be massively stepped up. Better policing of on-line communities is needed to identify threats to the physical safety of women and other targeted groups, and then serious efforts need to be made to mitigate them. People spouting or endorsing perverted “incel” ideologies need to be put on watchlists. While some employers may be able to claim that progress is indeed being made in addressing sexist, homophobic and transphobic harassment, bullying and assaults at work, there is still much more that can be done to address “toxic” work spaces and to ensure that people complaining of abuse receive proper help and protection, rather than further mistreatment and victimisation.
Looking at young people's needs more broadly, there is no question that austerity programmes have harmed their physical health, and depleted their options to seek help for themselves, in multiple, often inter-linking, ways. In the UK, spending on youth services has been slashed in the past decade, with cuts of up to 70-80% in real terms in some regions. These cuts have been felt in the loss of sporting facilities and activities (due in part to closures or scaling back of work of youth centres), as well as services aimed specifically at helping vulnerable young people, such as teenage pregnancy advice and drug and alcohol misuse services. Very worryingly, some youth workers draw a direct link between youth centre closures and rising levels of violent crime (particularly knife crime).
As we move to the next stages of “living with Covid”, there is a pressing need to understand and address the myriad ways in which the pandemic has exacerbated yawning inequalities between different regions and communities, and the impact on the health of children and young people in particular. Rising levels of poverty and food bank use give rise to obvious concerns about nutrition. Many areas of the country I live in are recording poor levels of physical fitness and rising levels of obesity among young people. And now we have the spectre of “Long Covid”, with fallout from the Delta variant observed to be hitting children and young people particularly hard.
It is not all that difficult to work out what needs to be done here. Thinking twice before belittling young people's concerns and needs would be a good start. Then, in addition to reversing cuts to amenities and services that benefit their physical safety and health, and putting in new and better resources, we could usefully reflect on the different ways in which certain kinds of received wisdom, preconceptions and prejudices might undermine the ability of young people from different backgrounds, and with different needs, to access and benefit from them. New and more effective ways need to be found to engage with young people on these issues (see “Country” above) so that the physical health and safety of the next generation – and their right to a say about decisions that affect them – become central considerations in policy-making and institution-building, rather than an afterthought. A more youth-centred approach also needs to be more embedded into how companies are regulated. Those with business models that are antithetical to the health and safety of the next generation (certain food and drink companies, for example, and some elements of the tech sector too) need to be made to think again.
Maybe give these a rest…
“I'm so tired of all this political correctness. You can't say anything these days.”
“It's all about identity politics with them.”
“They just hang around in groups, never looking up from their phones.”
“Bullying? Harassment? They don't know the meaning of the words. I had to put up with much worse.”
“I just don't know what they are complaining about. They should try living in [X]. There are plenty of places that are far more [sexist/racist/homophobic/destitute] than here.”
There is still a great deal of stigma surrounding mental health issues. But the fact that this is at last starting to lift is due in no small part to the courage of young people in speaking out about the challenges they face in their daily lives and in accessing the help they need. The willingness of notable young sportsmen and women to speak very frankly about their experiences with anxiety, self-doubt and depression has done an enormous amount to enhance public understanding. While some commentators may huff and puff from the side-lines, the empathy, recognition and gratitude from young audiences is apparent from the flood of support that follows these revelations, via social media in particular. The amount of solidarity shown – the extent to which young people have been prepared to offer support to people of different genders and backgrounds, and irrespective of race and other aspects of identity – is not just touching. It has been an education to us all.
It is disappointing, then, that this enhanced public awareness and acceptance is not yet translating into better mental health services for young people. The extent of the problem in the UK was recently laid bare by data published by the National Health Service, which showed that, even before the effects of pandemic lockdowns started to bite, there were alarming deficiencies in service delivery. In numbers, just under a quarter of under-18s referred to NHS mental health, learning special needs and autism services in 2019-20 were found to have received no direct support from health workers at all, with another 26% having had their referrals merely logged and then closed without having received any treatment to speak of.
Clearly, the budgets of these organisations are under enormous stress. But cutting corners with young people's mental health is not only dangerous, it is short-sighted and ultimately a false economy. Put less politely, it is stupid as well as cruel. We don't yet know the scale of the damage that the pandemic has helped to pile onto an already fragile situation, though we know from surveys of young people that repeated lockdowns, educational and social disruption, and uncertainty have placed them under enormous strain. We also know that young people, while less at risk of serious illness and death from the virus are nevertheless susceptible to “Long Covid”, of which depression and anxiety are common symptoms. And we are only beginning to look at the mental health effects for young adults of emerging working practices, potentially exacerbated by adjustments made due to the pandemic, such as workplace surveillance, over-use of e-mail and the sense (often indeed the reality) of being constantly “on call”.
Will all this to deal with, the idea that we continue to muddle through is just untenable. Governments need to beef up the funding of young people's mental health services to a level that is realistic, given the likely rising need over coming months and years.
Also on the topic of “Mind”, investing properly in education has to be a priority. The sudden shifts to on-line and remote learning caused by repeated lockdowns have had a detrimental effect on the quality of education of children and young adults worldwide, but particularly those without ready access to internet, equipment and suitable places in which to work. At this stage we can't be sure how long these disruptions will last, and the risks of ripple effects long into the future – in terms of growing inequality, diminished life chances and lack of decent work for many – are very great.
Beyond helping young people to recover what they have lost, there is also a need to look to the future, to make sure that educational provision remains relevant for what lies ahead. The pandemic has given us glimpses of ways of working, for instance, which are very different from what we have been used to, with much greater reliance on various kinds of automatization and digitalization. In the coming months and years we are likely to hear a great deal about the importance of educational policies that properly equip young people for these new realities. A vital part of “Building Back Better”, we are already being told, is making sure that young people, worldwide, are skilled up to hit the ground running and thrive in the brave new world of work.
That's fine, but let's not be too presumptuous about what young people's own priorities are likely to be. There are other reasons to invest in education beyond securing future economic growth and making sure that corporations have the highly skilled, tech-savvy workers they need. One of those might be the desirability of living in dynamic, creative and inclusive societies made up of happy, fulfilled and well-rounded people. Building strong democracies, based on rationality and truth, is another.
Maybe give these a rest …
“Young people are so self-obsessed”.
“These millennial snowflakes need to toughen up.”
“Those exams are too easy. There's been so much dumbing down. Those grades don't mean anything anymore.”
A final word
Like many people I have been taking advantage of plenty of online conferences as lockdowns have dragged on. At a recent one in the FT NextGen series (called “ Vision 2040: How Will New Technologies Change Business and Society?” ), a senior Citibank executive did not hold back in his praise for young people. The generation now waiting in the wings are, he declared “the most impressive that humankind has ever seen”. They are, he added, “more thoughtful, more empathetic, grappling with bigger issues earlier in life …. less materialistic … have greater access to knowledge than any generation before.” Alone in my office and “on mute”, with no one to see or hear me, I clapped and cheered. I am sure other virtual conference participants did the same. What a refreshing change from the eye-rollers I have paraphrased under “ Maybe give these a rest …. ” (above)!
But while appreciation and admiration are entirely appropriate, we need to be careful. It's only a short step from here to abdicating responsibility altogether, i.e. “Ah, the future is in safe hands! They'll sort it out! They'll know what to do!”
Over the past few years have emerged some spectacularly courageous and articulate young leaders. It is right that we should pay close attention to what they say. But there is only so much they can do on their own. They do not put themselves forward to entertain us. And when they explain to us that they are only human, that they are afraid, fed up or frustrated, or that they are exhausted and need a break, we adults should not be surprised or disappointed. We should embrace them, support them, honour what they have achieved and ask what practical help we can offer.
We should remember, too, that the young people who do get this kind of attention are only a tiny minority. The vast majority of young people – who may not be flush with resources, who do not dazzle at football or the Olympics, and who do not get invited to speak at the UN or Davos – could be forgiven for looking at the world and feeling “like the smallest doll in a Russian doll” (as Tim Minchin put it when introducing his song). We can't leave it all to them. That is just lazy, selfish and unfair. We need to do what we can – now – to give them a fighting chance. Starting today.
ENJOY THIS: Tim Minchin, “Not Perfect”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dg3PberzvXo
READ THIS: Gordon Brown, Seven Ways to Change the World: How to fix the most pressing problems we face , Simon and Schuster, 2021.
With many thanks to the young people who provided ideas for this piece and comments on earlier drafts. I have learned so much from you.
© Jennifer Zerk, 2021.
Jennifer Zerk Consulting: +44 (0)1223 207305 - firstname.lastname@example.org