The secret dread of post-pandemic life

Out with the new, in with the old.

by James Greig
25 March 2021, 8:00am

The end of lockdown in the UK is drawing closer. The vaccination programme is moving swiftly, the infection rates are dropping, and, even as politicians and medical professionals encourage caution, there's legitimate reason to believe that lockdown will end on June 21st. And that's what we all want, right? Well, no, not exactly. 

For many young people, the end of lockdown brings changes both good and bad. After all, lockdown has been a kind of suspension from reality and, essential work notwithstanding, no sphere of everyday life has gone untouched by these measures. We missed out on the bits we liked, but it took away some of the things we hated too.

First, let's start with money. The inequities of the pandemic are, of course, not simply drawn across age brackets, but young people have been hit especially hard over the past year. If you were lucky enough to have a decent salary throughout lockdown, you may well emerge on the other side with some savings. But if you were one of many who suffered a loss of income, it's far more likely you'll be carrying over debt rather than a Monzo pot marked 'Holidays'. As tantalising as it may be to imagine the post-pandemic era as the new roaring twenties, a glance at the recent spate of expensive festival tickets cropping up remind us that entry to Summer 2021 is not guaranteed for all. And that’s before you’ve readjusted to the increased cost-of-living of normal life.

Which takes us to the jobs themselves. Plenty of people who worked office jobs hate working from home, but it's rare to meet someone who is eager to return five days a week. That's not to say home offices don't have their downside -- namely, the fact a ‘home office’ grander than a kitchen table or a bedroom desk belong mostly to the old and wealthy. For some, it's the lesser of two evils, but does this have more to do with uncomfortable, expensive and unreliable public transport, plus an inflexible culture towards working hours, than it does with the joy of sleeping and working in the same room? 

Then again, that's if you've even kept your job; recent data from the Office for National Statistics has shown that two-thirds of people who were made unemployed last year were under 25. The pandemic has decimated the economic prospects of young people, with the number of 16-24s who aren't in employment, education or training rocketing to nearly 800,000. Consider the fact that we're almost certainly looking down the barrel of another decade of a Conservative government, which famously loves policies designed for young people, and the outlook looks even worse.

"It feels so normal for the world to be ending," says Safi, 18, "and that's always been the experience of Gen Zers in the UK. I was born after 9/11, I don't remember a time before the financial crisis and austerity. I was only 14 in 2016, and everything has felt like it's been collapsing since: climate change, state violence, racism, inequality, poverty, the whole lot. We don't even know that what we're getting is shit, because it's the only normal we've ever known. Or rather, we do know, we can intellectually recognise it and learn about why. But we don't have a feeling of what good actually is."

“One must only look at how many rich people fled to Devon or Dubai to appreciate the difference in lockdown living conditions. But what lockdown probably did do is flatten the distinction between you and your friends who have a bit more money.”

But at least we can look forward to the end of social distancing, right? Well, even this comes with its own complications. It's become common to hear people express the fear that they have lost the ability to socialise. When it comes to speaking to people in real life, we're all out of practice, and some are concerned that this will have made us a little bit weird. For me, I suspect this unease will take about two pints to dissipate, but getting over it will be harder if you don't drink. And alcohol consumption, as it happens, is another thing that people are feeling anxious about.

Addiction, in general, has increased since the pandemic began, something which often occurs in tandem with financial problems and stress. Unsurprisingly, the consumption of so-called 'party drugs', like ecstasy and cocaine, has decreased. It's anecdotal, but quite a few people I’ve spoken to have managed to moderate their alcohol and drug use while being stuck inside, if not cutting both out completely. They are worried that this will be difficult to maintain when they're finally set free, particularly since there is a societal pressure to make up for lost time.

But if some people are worried about having too much fun, for others the problem is the opposite. The spectre of good old-fashioned "FOMO" now lingers on the horizon. During lockdown, there's been less "fear of missing out" because there's been little to be missing out on. Of course, the sentiment that we've all been in this together feels about as authentic as a Gal Gadot cover of “Imagine”. One must only look at how many rich people fled to Devon or Dubai to appreciate the difference in lockdown living conditions. But what lockdown probably did do is flatten the distinction between you and your friends who have a bit more money. 

Living in a nice flat, having a garden, and being able to work from home are the kinds of things that have made a substantive difference in just how terrible the last year has been. But still, the vast majority of people have been leading boring, repetitive, and unglamorous lives. This hasn't ushered in an egalitarian utopia, but for many it has provided a respite from the feelings of inadequacy that arise while looking at pictures of other people's holidays and trips to expensive restaurants. 

And, last, but by no means least, there's sex and dating. At the beginning of lockdown, there was an enormous increase in dating app usage. But chatting to people digitally with no prospect of meeting up began to wear thin, as did hanging out with new people without the comfort of pubs, restaurants, cinemas, exhibitions, and parties. Though it would be naive to assume lots of people haven't been bending the rules to hook up with new people, for some this period has provided a liberating sense of freedom from other people’s expectations around their relationships and sex lives. One friend tells me, "Right now, it feels like anyone who judges you for being single is a bit of a dick because it's largely out of your control. But when we can actually start dating again, the onus is back on you." 

None of this is to say that you shouldn't feel excited about the end of lockdown; many aspects of it will be great and, after a terrible year, we should take our optimism where we can; even in the simplest pleasures that have been denied to us for over a year. But we shouldn't be complacent about returning to a normality which was intolerable for so many people. And, even if the 2020s do pan out to be more boring than roaring, this complete upheaval of our lives is an opportunity to think about what we want in life going forward, even if some of these things are ultimately out of our control.

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