When mental health charity Mind conducted a survey into the impacts of lockdown, in the first months of the pandemic, the figures were striking. Not least among young people, and university students, 73% of which reported that their mental health had deteriorated since lockdown began.
That was over a year ago. If asked again now, doubtless even more would say that things had got even worse.
The pressures on Gen Z, especially those trying to get through their degrees, have been immense. Students have spent months locked down with housemates, sometimes virtual strangers, condemned to a routine of all work and very little play.
Come May and June, when they’d normally have been out on the town, bidding good riddance to the gruelling final exams, many weren’t even in the cities of their university, let alone out with their mates. When the end of term finally came, the year went out with more of a whimper than a bang.
With calls to charge students less if, when the 2021/22 academic year comes around, they have to carry on learning online, it seems this strange, almost virtual reality for students isn’t suddenly going to stop in the autumn. It may continue for months, given the volatility of the times.
It’s safe to say that the students who came to university as freshers in 2019, and are now about to start their final year, haven’t had the typical uni experience. You can’t blame them for feeling severely hard done by, which is exactly how many feel right now.
And as the Mind survey reveals, it goes far deeper than simply feeling angry, or disappointed. The pressures and trials of lockdown itself have taken their toll.
So much so that universities are going to great lengths to provide support to their students, virtually or in person. Look at the University of the West of England’s extensive page dedicated to mental health during lockdown, to see just how seriously some are taking this.
There’s been the anxiety of living through lockdown; now there’s an anxiety of coming out of lockdown once and for all (perhaps), which many, including university students, aren’t relishing. There’s even a new acronym to go with this new fear – FOGO, ‘fear of going out’ (a play on FOMO, the ‘fear of missing out’) – and it’s very real.
But has the last year been all pain and no gain? It depends how you look at things. Yes, students have missed out on the ‘normal’ university experience, but a new normal has undoubtedly emerged – and it’s certainly not all bad.
It’s been a boom for Tik Tok, the hottest new social media network, generator of a whole new surge of content that has wowed the world. Students may have been stuck at home – but a whole new world of creativity has exploded on their smartphones, and maybe even helped to bridge the gaps of isolation that otherwise would have turned into chasms.
Other subcultures have thrived over the past 18 months. It might not be as slick or sexy as making videos for Tik Tok, but fantasy gaming manufacturer Games Workshop has enjoyed a boom during lockdown, recording profits of £151 million in the 12 months to May 31 – £61 million more than in the previous year.
And Gen Zers aren’t just enjoying what life under lockdown has offered them as consumers. More and more are going out and grasping the new normal with both hands, and becoming entrepreneurs.
Research conducted by The Accountancy Partnership into patterns of business development in what it calls ‘The Age of Entrepreneurialism’, shows that more young people are taking the plunge into business than ever before, and it’s in the 16-20-year-old category where the biggest increases are showing.
A revitalisation of the entrepreneurial spirit in young people points to an increase of confidence among Gen Z, not of a generation cowed into isolation, crippled with anxiety by the stresses of the era.
If the experiences of previous generations going back to the turn of the 20th century show, people are resilient, and times of stress bring about great change, often for the better.
As young people look ahead to the future, no doubt with trepidation, there are certain things about life in lockdown they won’t want to leave behind.
For students, whether they’re about to start university afresh, wary of the unknown, or if they’re about to start their final year, lockdown-hardened, the next term is going to be riddled with challenges and pressures, no doubt. But there are exciting new things out there as well, new normals to be discovered – silver linings to be found.
It won’t be easy going back. FOGO may be real, but then as the Gen Z author of the same blog puts it, as things return to normal, “it seems that we’ve managed it, aware that some ‘me-time’ is a good thing, and that being alone doesn’t always mean feeling lonely”.
There is plenty to look forward to, even embrace, as the future rolls into view.