For Rebecca McKeon, a 19-year-old living in Wexford, Ireland, graduating from secondary school was a quick and rather uneventful experience. In mid-June, her school organised a Facebook live stream event to replace the physical graduation event that would have normally taken place. Some of the teachers had recorded video messages in advance, others tuned in live to wish their students well, and that was it. After the Facebook stream ended, McKeon turned to her mother and said: “I think I just graduated?”
“It was just very abrupt, and it didn’t feel as much of a big deal as it should have,” she says, reflecting on the experience. Pointing out that she understands why the physical event was cancelled and that her school did the best they could given the circumstances, she says any virtual ceremony would have fallen short. “It’s just not the same thing.”
The thing McKeon regrets the most, however, is that her prom – tentatively set to take place at the end of September – might not take place. Why? Because prom is a bigger affair that comes with many more whistles and bells, she explains. “Hopefully, it will still go ahead, but if it doesn’t that’s going to be a bigger thing than the graduation ceremony. The prom is definitely more of a rite of passage than graduation is.”
In addition to lost career and education opportunities, the pandemic has robbed many young people of the chance to mark and celebrate big milestones in their young lives: high school graduations, proms and university graduation ceremonies, even milestone birthdays.
The importance of such rites of passage shouldn’t be underestimated, says Heather Servaty-Seib, professor in counselling psychology at the College of Education at Purdue University in Indiana, US. “They provide an important centring point, a point of reflection, a point of community around an experience that is being lost,” she says, adding that their importance and meaningfulness might be unconscious to most people. “The absence of such moments takes away a sense of community and collective celebration around an individual moving from one state of being or one place to another.”
But Servaty-Seib insists that their loss doesn’t have to be something that young people carry with them into the future. Create your own ceremony, she advises: “What can you do to mark the importance of this rite of passage, even if the traditional, expected or desired ceremony wasn’t possible or you weren’t able to participate in it?” she asks. “You may not be able to do it in a broad community, but you could do it in a small community. Or, you could do it individually and it could still be physical, it could still be symbolic, and it could still be powerfully meaningful to you.”
Facing grief, exacerbated inequality and an uncertain future
Servaty-Seib advises young people as well as anyone else struggling with the loss of traditional rites of passage due to Covid-19 not to “internally disenfranchise” those feelings, but to recognise them for what they are – grief. “It’s important for people to be open with themselves about the grief that might be connected to missing and losing out on these rituals. It’s okay and important to say: ‘I’m really sad about this,’ or ‘I’m really confused about this.’”
Young people like McKeon have also strongly felt the economic impact of the pandemic because many of them work temporary or part-time jobs, and are employed in the gig economy. “They are working in those areas and sectors of the economy that were badly hit by the crisis – restaurants, hotels and the gig industry,” explains Moritz Ader, a Paris-based policy analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Thirty-five percent of young people are employed in these types of low-paid and insecure jobs on average, he says, which is significantly higher than any other age group. The OECD expects the number of young people not in education, employment or training to go up as a result of the pandemic.
According to Ader, the crisis is exacerbating two kinds of inequality: that amongst young people themselves as well as inequality between young people and other age groups.
First, he says, the closure of schools and college campuses across the world and the accompanying shift to virtual learning has had a much bigger impact on people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. “Young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, they face challenges in terms of not having a computer, or not having a quiet space to study at home, not having a stable internet connection,” Ader explains.
The pandemic has also worsened inequalities between younger people and older age groups that existed even before the pandemic. He notes, for instance, that today’s young people are the first to have less disposable income than previous generations and that they are 2.5 times more likely than those aged 25 to 64 to be unemployed. Add the impact of the pandemic on top of this, and the picture becomes even starker: “While the elderly may be more affected in terms of direct health outcomes and impact, young people may bear the social and economic consequences in a disproportional way.”
If policymakers don’t want today’s young people to carry the consequences of this crisis into their futures, they need to take these disparities into account as they design and implement their recovery packages. Ader says that they need to “make sure that this [does not become] what some are calling ‘Generation Corona’, a generation that has fewer opportunities in terms of job prospects, income, career path…than previous generations, just because they were born at the wrong time in history, so to speak.”
Struggling with wellbeing
A small survey done by Eurodesk, a Brussels-based organisation that provides information to young people who want to study, work or volunteer abroad, shows that young people are most worried about education (60.6 per cent) and employment (59.6 per cent) at the moment. It’s why Eurodesk has urged lawmakers to offer young people “perspectives and concrete opportunities to overcome the negative impact of the crisis”.
Young people are already struggling with wellbeing issues as a result of the pandemic, Eurodesk president Ingrida Jotkaitė explains, and those issues are being compounded by worries about an uncertain future. “Their careers and also being mobile and having the freedom to travel for study and so on, this is really important for young people.”
Over the last few months, Eurodesk staff have been flooded with questions about the virus and how the pandemic is impacting their families. “Which is interesting because we provide information about mobility,” Jotkaitė explains. “This shows that people are really concerned about the situation in general.”
But Jotkaitė is hopeful for the future. She says this generation is resilient and quick to adapt to new realities.
A Lithuanian national, she tells Equal Times about the young people in her country that have been retraining, for instance, and completing courses to pick up new IT skills to help them move into new professions. “This younger generation, especially the generation which faced the first crisis [of 2008], it’s a little bit changed. They understand how the world works,” she says.
As for McKeon she, too, is trying to be optimistic about what will come next. In September, she wants to pursue a degree in psychology in Waterford, a nearby town situated a one-hour drive from Wexford. Whether or not she gets to do that is outside of her control.
Due to the Irish government’s decision in early May to cancel the final-year exams that decide which colleges and subjects sixth-year pupils can pursue after graduation, teachers will estimate students final grades based on their previous performance during the school year.
When she first found out that the state exams would be cancelled because of the coronavirus, McKeon was really stressed. “It really got to me,” she says. Now, she has adopted a more resigned attitude. “My kind of outlook on all of it right now [is that] while it sucks, none of it’s in my control. Obviously, I’m going to do the best I can. But, realistically, I’ve done everything I can during the year to help myself.”