‘We’re on permanent catch-up’: how Covid has changed young Britons’ lives

In the next phase of the Guardian’s Covid Generation series, young people from across the UK continue to analyse how the pandemic is still affecting their lives and their plans for the future, 18 months after the end of the third national lockdown.

Marcel Charowski, 13

Marcel Charowski lives in London with his parents and sister. He struggled to return to school after the Christmas holidays but has recently gone back with an adjusted schedule

Covid affected me because after spending all that time on my own, I have become very distant to my social life and friends, and forgotten, really, how to make friends or be with children my own age.

It was OK when I first went back to school but in recent months I have stopped wanting to interact with people. I have realised that, after the peace of lockdown, I have built a barrier in my mind: I don’t even want to step on school grounds because the noise is too much and I feel people have changed – they seem cruel and dishonest.

Recently, my parents and school suspected that I have a spectrum autism. I think the problems I’ve had since my return to school have helped us realise this: I always did not like the noise of school, but going back after staying peacefully at home for so long has been so bad for me that I feel I can’t stay there.

I don’t think that’s unreasonable. After giving up so much for lockdown then trying my hardest – but failing – to go back to school, I also have this thought that I should be getting what I want now with no compromise. I’ve tried school again but I realise that being at home is really good for my mental health, so I would like to stay here and not go back any more.

Also, in the time since lockdown ended, I’ve looked back at my time isolated at home and realised that I really enjoyed getting closer to nature. I want to take that further now, and move away from the city environment entirely.

The other thing that I’ve realised even more strongly since lockdown ended is that family comes, but that it goes too. During lockdown I thought the urgency of that truth would end when lockdown ended. But people are still dying, from Covid and from other diseases.

I’ve realised that I need to acknowledge who is there and connect with them. I’ve realised I want to be closer to my loving family and my old grandad in Poland. I really miss him.

Eva Yacobi, 14

Eva Yacobi lives in the south of England and is taking her GCSEs next year

Eva Yacobi
Eva Yacobi

When lockdown hit, I was a little girl who had never gone anywhere alone. By the time lockdown finished, I was a teenager and my parents were really keen to give me a lot of freedom straight away.

Because I didn’t have the gradual exposure to independence I would have had in normal times, being out alone or with friends still feels – a year and a half later – both amazing and scary: there are so many things to do that we’re still overwhelmed by the choice.

Lockdown ended ages ago but I’m definitely still grabbing everything life has to offer me with a sense of urgency. Not only have I got so much to catch up on but I’ve got in the back of my mind that it could all be taken away from me again.

Covid is still causing me problems at school: the online lessons I did during lockdown don’t seem to have stuck in my brain. In science, for example, the teachers keep talking about stuff that I have no idea about. They say we did it in year 8 but I have no memory of it. Catching up means a lot of extra work, and being constantly told that I should already know all this stuff isn’t great for my self-esteem.

I also worry that lockdown has affected my memory span in two ways: during lockdown, I got into the habit of binge-watching TV, TikTok, YouTube etc. I also got into the habit of doing two things at once: fiddling with my phone while watching TV or during online lessons. Both habits seem to have stuck. I can still watch stuff online for hours each day, and I find that even now I’m back in a real classroom, I can’t listen to my teachers for very long before I get distracted or just zone out.

On the positive side, a lockdown lesson that has stuck with me is that things that look difficult – like starting my lockdown, online jewellery-making business – actually aren’t that hard if you get into it. I was thinking the other day about what I wanted to do in life and realised that I can try for one career but if it doesn’t work out, there are always other options, other opportunities.

Zubaydah Abdi, 20

Zubaydah Abdi lives in Tottenham with her parents – a cab driver and a special needs teacher – and her five siblings. She is in her first year of a medicine degree at King’s College London

The impact of lockdown has been a slow boil for me. I thought I knew how it had affected me but I’ve very recently realised that my brain has been churning my experiences in the background, because I’ve only just surfaced the realisation that I’m still not being true to myself: that my self-worth is still entirely tied to my academic success and I see every experience I have as only being worthwhile if it has some sort of academic validation.

I’ve also only very recently realised that I was probably quite depressed during the lockdown year. As a consequence, I recently decided to consciously widen my horizons: make new friends, maybe take up a hobby and be kinder, to myself and to others.

Covid has changed me a lot. When I was 10, I wrote a 15-year plan for my life. Going into Covid, I’d never deviated from that plan. But looking back now, 18 months after lockdown ended, I’m beginning to wonder if being so focused was such a good idea.

The question of whether I’m wasting my time has become a constant anxiety to me. I’ve realised how finite time is and I’ve thought about all the time I’ve spent revising. I used to literally spend 8-10 hours a day in the library.

Very recently, I’ve begun thinking: “Is this really how I want to spend the life I’ve been gifted with?” I still do want to be a doctor but I also want to put as much experience as I can into my life and live as much as I possibly can.

Another thing I’ve recently accepted is that after the peace of lockdown, life is often just too fast-paced for me nowadays. Covid gave me the time to focus and think deeply for the first time, and now I’m beginning to think that I need to slow my life down again so I can really think deeply about the new choices I’m making and where life’s momentum is taking me.

I feel I’m at at quite an exciting moment, actually; like I’m on the brink of finding an answer to how I want to live my life. But then I worry I won’t practically apply any realisation I come to, to my life. I worry I’m one of those people who doesn’t change the course of their lives, no matter what wisdom they pick up along the way.

I wonder if I’m like Sisyphus, rolling a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down again. Then again, if that is really who I am, I need to find joy in the effort I make rolling that boulder to the top of the mountain every single day of my life. I need to incorporate all of this into my life.

Lily Smith, 19

Lily Smith comes from Manchester and is in her final year of a musical theatre degree at Anglia Ruskin University

Lily Smith
Lily Smith

I still have the fear that life can be put on hold at the drop of a hat. It’s stressful, thinking that all this hard work I’m putting into my degree could be thrown out of the window. It’s also kind of demeaning because it shows how small and insignificant I am in this world; my life could be closed down and I’d have no control over that.

That powerlessness feeds through to many other feelings. My mental health has definitely been affected by the lingering effects of lockdown. I’d say that what I’m feeling is almost like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].

Most people might have moved on but Covid isn’t over for everyone. I’ve not yet seen my grandmother in her new care home because they still have limited visiting times because of Covid. I feel guilty about that but then again, should I even be visiting if there’s a risk I’ll infect her? If the home is still so worried, maybe I should just stay away. But for how long? When do I get a chance to see her again?

I used to take an active interest in politics but since Covid, I’ve had enough of politicians, experts and authority. I just do what’s best for me. I think a lot of other young people are doing that as well, because we sacrificed so much and we got nothing back to make up for what we lost. They’ve shown no compassion for us.

I’ve become more aware of the importance of compassion though. I want to be nice to everyone, essentially because you never know what’s going to happen to them. They could get Covid tomorrow and be very ill.

Looking back at lockdown, it’s made me think that when I’m the older generation, I want to support young people as much I can. I don’t want any other generation to feel like mine does: looked down on for sacrificing everything to essentially try to solve other people’s problems.

Eoin O’Loughlin, 21

Eoin O’Loughlin moved from Dublin to Dundee during the pandemic. He is now in his second year at the Scottish School for Contemporary Dance

Eoin O’Loughlin
Eoin O’Loughlin

Most of my generation have been affected in deep, developmental ways by Covid and that’s going to affect us forever in unpredictable ways.

Taking dance as a metaphor, I missed my first year of training, so my body simply isn’t strong enough to do what it should be able to do and I’ll never catch up – I can’t magic up a year’s worth of muscle. This means I’ll leave uni never having achieved the creative and physical strength that graduates did before me.

I’m sure it’s the same for academic students; if you lose a year of your course, you can’t necessarily catch up. Work experience, internships, a year studying abroad – some academic experiences have to be had at a specific time, otherwise you’re left less equipped forever as a result. It’s scary.

It’s the same emotionally. My generation missed milestones that were vital to our development. We can’t go back, those experiences are gone – and so is our chance of learning from them.

My generation has had no social respite. We grew up amid the financial crisis, recession and austerity – and then Covid hit. Now we’re having to work non-stop to afford a basic level of living because of the cost of living crisis. I’m too young to be this exhausted, this burnt out. I should be bursting with energy. I can’t afford to be burnt out; life is too expensive.

Basically, my generation will never know what it’s like to be hedonistic. As a result, I think we’ve got quite a sombre, jaded outlook. And “jaded” isn’t a word you should use for 20-year-olds.

One thing that my generation does have, though, is a clearer perspective to rebel against. To put it baldly, we’re frankly not prepared to take shit any more. But while I say we’ll be revolutionary, I think the aim of our revolution will be pretty modest: simply to make life tolerable for everyone. Simply for us all to have decent living standards.

Michael Nesi-Pio, 21

Michael Nesi-Pio was in his final year of A-levels when Covid hit and has retaken his first year of university three times

Covid happened such a long time ago but it continues to affect everyone my age. It’s shaped us in fundamental ways.

I’d planned to take a year out before uni to work out what I wanted to do but because of Covid, I panicked and grabbed the first course I could. That turned out to be a bad mistake and so I moved to a new university. But because I was still in a state of panic, I made another mistake. I’ve now changed again: same university, different course.

I’ve finally got it right this time but I’ve racked up debts I don’t even want to think about and wasted two years. I should be in my final year of uni right now, not my first. But you know what? It’s OK.

And I know it is because Covid taught me that it’s OK to stop and restart – to take a step back and see the bigger picture – that being strong is about being flexible. I think I’ve been fortunate that Covid has taught me that lesson: it’s helped me chill out and value my happiness when planning my life.

Covid has reshuffled everything. The conventional structure of authority has disappeared for me and my peers. Mistakes were made at all levels of authority – not just the government but exam boards, universities, employers, police and so on. My peers have become quite disillusioned with the idea of authority as a result. There’s even contempt there. We’ve realised there’s not this black and white picture – there’s a discourse to be had about the “why” of every rule.

That’s given my generation a confidence in ourselves that was lacking before Covid, when we didn’t really reflect on our own wishes and fell in with the decisions that were being made for us. I’m amazed at the stuff I’ve just accepted in the past. I take everything apart now and think about it.

Because we feel there are no immutable rules any more, my generation is 100% more entrepreneurial than we would have been had Covid not happened. We want to make stuff happen for ourselves.

Individualism is a massive thing for us. It’s not the Thatcher sort of individualism: it’s about finding out what makes you unique and special, and through that, being accepting of others being themselves too.

Once we understand ourselves and accept others, we can create our own job roles and then fit them together in genuinely collaborative teams where people work harmoniously and to their full potential.

Kate Nichols, 20

Kate Nichols, from Newcastle upon Tyne, is in her final year at Cardiff University and still has long Covid, which she developed in December 2021

My long Covid is still casting a long shadow over my life. I’ve finally got an appointment at the chronic fatigue clinic later this month – after waiting almost a year – but I’m not massively optimistic they’ll be able to help.

I’ve done loads of research and I think that even though my symptoms are still pretty dreadful, I’m already doing everything possible in terms of restricting my lifestyle – to the point where I pretty much don’t have any fun at all.

I’m in exam season at the minute and even though I’m so incredibly careful about my health, I’m terrified that I’m going to fall ill yet again. I know from bitter experience that if I stay up later than midnight, for example, or if I drink any alcohol at all, I’ll have to write off at least half the next day to total exhaustion and probably get tonsillitis and a chest infection too.

It’s not a normal life. I go to pilates classes and see people twice my age with more energy and better fitness than me. It’s upsetting to have to be so restrained, disciplined and to have such low energy levels at an age where I should be carefree.

Covid probably feels a long time ago to older people but for my generation, I feel we’ve probably been permanently disadvantaged by it. I missed out on my entire first year of learning thanks to lockdown, which means I didn’t learn the basics of my course as well as I would have done, or get any work experience or internships.

When everything opened up again in our second year, I was flat out with long Covid. I could barely manage my university work, much less do anything extra. I should have spent part of my second year studying abroad but couldn’t. That broke my heart – and robbed me of even more experiences and opportunities that I can never get back.

I do panic and put a lot of pressure on myself to make up for those two lost years. My brain is constantly churning over what I could do to become successful in life. I sometimes feel it’s my fault. I even blame myself for getting long Covid. But even if it’s not my fault, it’s still up to me to pick up the pieces.

One big difference between before and after Covid for me is that I 100% do not trust the government. They were just terrible towards us students during Covid. They either acted like we didn’t exist or they criticised and blamed us for how we were supposedly behaving, even though they didn’t even follow the rules themselves. I definitely feel the politicians took advantage of my generation. They used us as scapegoats. I feel betrayed by them.

Eliza Niblett, 21

Eliza Niblett is from Leicestershire and is coming to the end of her three-year degree in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford

Eliza Niblett
Eliza Niblett

When Covid hit, I was devastated because I’d been looking forward to my first experience of freedom at university: to be out as a lesbian, to have my first kiss, go to my first nightclub, go on a pub crawl. I’d worked so hard to get into uni that I wanted to experience all the things I’d missed.

But when lockdown ended and it was all theoretically available to me again, my degree had kicked in and I didn’t have the time. It seems there are sometimes specific slivers of life when certain experiences are available – and if you miss that sliver of time, that’s an experience you’ll never have.

That’s what’s happened to me for all the fun, young stuff I’ll now never do. As a result, I don’t feel I really know who I am or what I’m fully capable of.

The more serious impact of Covid is that it’s given me acute macular neuroretinopathy in one eye. It basically means I have blind spots. The original spot developed when I had Covid in April – then in October, two more appeared out of nowhere. It’s incredibly rare and no one really understands why it happens. There’s no treatment and they have no idea if I’ll get any more. It’s really stressful: if it starts happening in my other eye, or I develop more spots closer to my central vision, I might start having serious functional problems.

Covid made it crystal clear that the Conservative government don’t care about young people. As a reaction, I think some of my generation are going to be more community-minded because of Covid, but others will be more selfish because of what they had to give up – they now think the world owes them something.

The further away Covid slips into the past, the harder it gets to articulate how it’s still affecting us. But Covid totally disrupted my generation’s transition to adulthood. Our lives got stuck at the point where we were supposed to be becoming independent. It was such a key developmental stage of our lives, both academically and socially, and I’m very interested to see how it continues to affect us as we age.

I think my generation will still be processing the impact it’s had on us 10 years down the line. I don’t think it’s possible to understand it fully yet.

Ella Thornton, 21

Ella Thornton is in her second year of an education degree at the University of East Anglia

Covid is still changing me. During lockdown, I became aware that I might be autistic. I’m certainly neurodiverse. Since lockdown ended, I’ve put a lot of thought into what my limits are and how I need to work within them across my career and life.

For example, my dream to work in mainstream teaching would chip away at me so I’ve turned towards quieter teaching jobs, like museum education; I’m currently doing a placement in the British Schools Museum in Hitchin.

Thanks to Covid, politics are no longer theoretical for me; the issues are very real. So many people made a profit at others’ expense during Covid, and social justice went by the way-side. I don’t know how this will affect my future but it’s become a central part of myself that I feel powerfully about. I realised in lockdown that my life was very small and that I didn’t want it to be that way.

Another good thing about lockdown is that I’ve managed to hold on to [life’s] simplicity. I feel like I’ve gone back to the joy of being a child – taking walks, enjoying the sun on my face – but in a mature way. Those layers that peeled off during lockdown haven’t built back up.

I’ve also allowed myself to feel pain and sadness about things in my life, like living without my dad, and allowed that to be part of me. I’ve learnt that pain can be a good thing because it proves that you love something. Before, I was always trying to be happy and just make everything good, but now I realise that pain is part of being alive. So I can feel happy – but I feel pain as well.

These feelings have taken a long time to unfold. These feelings didn’t start straight away. I consciously help myself go back to lockdown and what I learnt during it by sometimes re-imagining the world as rubble after Covid and imagining that I’d been razed too, and have to be rebuilt.

Jess Paine, 23

Jess Paine works with refugees in Nottingham

Covid changed the whole context of my life. I discovered religion during lockdown and realised that I wanted to work in the charity sector. I went to Greece for six weeks last autumn and volunteered with refugees. I’m about to go back again for three months and in the meantime, am volunteering with a local charity.

Had I not found faith during lockdown I wouldn’t have the heart for this sort of work. I wouldn’t have become politically active. But Covid was a paradigm shift for me because of the space it gave me to open up all these different avenues of thought and space.

We were all courageous in our own way during Covid. We all needed different sorts of courage to get through it. We’ve taken that courage into the post-Covid world and in my generation, that’s taken the post-Covid form of a massive call to arms.

The aftershocks of Covid have united my generation in ongoing political engagement. The government has continued to lose so much power, respect, trust and faith as all their mistakes, errors and lies keep trickling out.

Covid was a leveller because we all had to find our way through it and that made us more aware and open to discussion. I think that’s meant we’re all a lot more engaged with the world – it feels like a prerequisite for my generation that we have to know what’s going on in the world and to have an informed opinion on it. We’re a lot more hungry for wisdom and information as a result.

I feel that my generation is still emerging from a collective identity crisis. We were so young when Covid hit that we didn’t have clear identities. When all our routines were taken away, we were left to explore who we were in a vacuum, and [think about] what we were supposed to be doing in a world where suddenly there was no clear right and wrong, where there had been certainty before.

But I also think my generation is exhausted. Just trying to gather ourselves together is exhausting. Picking up the pieces in this economic and social climate is exhausting. We’re on permanent catch-up.