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What’s happened to tomorrow?

Since March, we have been looking forward, constantly, towards the future, the light at the end of the tunnel – in a few weeks, next month, next summer, next semester, next year… As a new year dawns, with another strict lockdown and no clear end in sight, what do young people – the generation who have been fundamentally shaped by this pandemic – think about the future?

The future has always been defined by infinite uncertainty, but perhaps it is more so now than ever before. The pandemic has upended all our certainties, the normal process of events, warping how we perceive time itself. We have experienced the endless repetition of lockdown – of not knowing or caring what day it is, of repeating the same thing day after day – of being immobilised while we watch the world fall to pieces around us. 

The disruption of our expectations of the future has caused ‘temporal vertigo’ – the feeling of being left adrift in time. This has been most acute for young people, as we have missed countless traditional markers of growing up: exams, leaving school celebrations, getting our first jobs, freshers’ week and graduation ceremonies. Perhaps this has reduced our temporal orientation to the day-to-day, as first year student Ollie Winterson explained, “I don’t think about the future, I just take each day as it comes”. 

There is a clear reluctance among students to make plans or predictions about the future, often greeting questions about the future with offhand nihilistic jokes, guarding ourselves against being disappointed once again.

Even before the pandemic, the view of the future as an exciting place of infinite advancement was quickly being replaced by a much darker vision. Ours is a generation raised on a diet of disaster, apocalypse and dystopia – we have been taught about the apocalyptic consequences of the climate crisis since primary school, and we have consumed dystopian fiction throughout our teens. In the pandemic, we have experienced a taste of this apocalypse. 

It does not seem too far-fetched for many of us that the world will continue to descend into darkness and chaos. The state of the current world order does not appear to give us hope for future advancement. The pandemic has shone a light on entrenched inequality and increased it exponentially. It seems that this inequality may only worsen as the economic crisis caused by the pandemic extends indefinitely.

Many young people have already experienced some of the fallout from this economic crisis, and even if we have not, the prospect looms large on the horizon for all of us. The Resolution Foundation think tank has warned that the crisis risks pushing another 600,000 18-24 year-olds into unemployment in the next year, as well as damaging their long-term pay and job prospects. 

Young people are not unaware of this prospect. A survey from Censuswide reports that 44% of 16-25 year olds say that their aspirations for the future are much lower as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. One first year student said, “I feel apprehensive because the state of the economy affects every part of our lives”, and this sentiment was echoed by many who are increasingly anxious about their options when they enter the job market.

So, have we given up on the future? Certainly, many of the messages of hope that characterised the rhetoric at the beginning of the pandemic seem cringeworthy and shallow now. Yet the dismal long-term effect of the pandemic is rarely the first thing on our minds when we talk of the future. So many of our conversations still revolve around future plans, dreaming of all the things we want to do that we have missed in the past year. 

According to first year student Aasia Amein, “personally, I feel like after the pandemic there is a lot to look forward to – just because we’ve been inside for so long and we haven’t really had a taste of a normal, pre-adulthood experience”. 

Whereas before the pandemic, a conversation about the future may have focused on our career aspirations, now we dream of travelling, going to concerts and clubs, or simply visiting family and friends.

This shift to our future aspirations caused by lockdown could be considered positive. Although everyone has experienced lockdown in different ways, for many young people it gave us a unique amount of time for reflection, especially for those who no longer had to study for A-levels and GCSEs. 

For Aasia, the break from education and routine lockdown gave her time “to reflect on my abilities outside of education and what I enjoy doing”, and this reflection has “changed the perspective of what I want my future to consist of”. In the UK education system, our futures are often reduced to narrow definitions of success, like academic achievement and career goals. Lockdown has disrupted these narrow life trajectories, giving us time to learn more about ourselves, and to appreciate all the experiences we may have taken for granted.

Despite all that has happened in the past year, or perhaps because of it, we are resilient. The pandemic may have jaded us, but it has not made us hopeless – our future plans may always be qualified with ‘if’, and we are very aware that they could be disrupted at a moment’s notice, but this does not stop us dreaming of them. 

There is a general feeling, that, as one first year student said, “it can only get better from here”. As the pandemic has lengthened, our aspirations may have shrunk in some ways, but more importantly they have shifted, away from narrow career goals, which may seem increasingly impossible, towards fully experiencing the lives which seem to have been paused for so long. 

As second year student Maria said, “I want to be hopeful”: in a world where disruption and disappointment have become the norm, hope for the future is a choice we make, a refusal to focus on the pessimistic and even apocalyptic visions that may at times seem likely.

Image: Nick Youngson via Picpedia