For three years, Ione Gildroy worked on Saturdays in her local library. The 18-year-old from Leicestershire issued and returned books, organised children’s events and stacked bookshelves. She planned to pool her earnings with some compensation she’d received after being in a car accident to pay for her dream gap year: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bali, Australia. Working in a turtle rehabilitation centre on the Great Barrier Reef. An elephant sanctuary in Thailand.
Gildroy booked the trip at the beginning of January. She’d heard of coronavirus then, but wasn’t worried. “I didn’t think it would even slightly affect my travelling plans,” she says. Gildroy looked forward to the summer of her dreams: a joint 18th birthday party with friends and then off backpacking.
But then coronavirus hit.
Her travel plans were ruined; her raucous 18th birthday party was a picnic with her mum and a socially distanced visit to her grandmother’s.
“It feels like all the rites of passage you go through when you turn 18 we haven’t gotten to go through,” says Gildroy. “I turned 18, but I haven’t been out for a drink anywhere. We only knew it was our last day of school the day before. We didn’t have to do our exams, sure, but I would have preferred to have done A-levels, and got all the good stuff that goes with it, such as going on holiday or having my prom.”
These are strange times for this year’s cohort of A-level students. Schools and colleges closed in March; exams were cancelled. Sectors young people would normally seek casual employment in, such as retail or hospitality, have been shedding staff at an alarming rate. Many universities, including Cambridge, are moving to online tuition. Apprenticeship opportunities have largely evaporated. For school leavers, this is a crucial time: deciding whether to travel, work or go to university. The pace of change at the age of 17 or 18 is the equivalent to years as an adult. But now, with plans shattered, these young people are facing a year in limbo.
“Everything just feels really uncertain,” says Ben Forrest, 18, from Bradford. Like many others, Forrest had carefully sketched out his summer: two music festivals and a joint birthday party before studying journalism at the University of Leeds. “Before this happened, I was really excited,” he says. “Now I don’t know what to do with myself. When I’m occupied and doing stuff, I’m all right, but when you have those days when you’re not doing owt, it’s not great for the mental health side of things.”
Although lockdown restrictions are being eased, there is no timeline for the reopening of clubs and festivals, and many teenagers have lost the part-time jobs they rely on to fund those activities. Forrest has been trying to make the most of the downtime: he is reading a lot and meeting friends in the park. But he still feels pretty down. “The summer between A-levels and uni is meant to be the best time of your life,” he says. “I’ve just spent it in my room.” Among Forrest’s friendship group, the levels of ennui are high. “Everyone is just disappointed, fed up and bored,” he says.
Losing your freedom and autonomy just as you are trying to make your mark in the world can feel devastatingly limiting. “Emerging adulthood is the period when people are trying to reach lift-off in their adult lives,” says Jeffrey Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts. “That time is really difficult, and to have that all come to an end, even temporarily, is painful.” He explains that the lockdown will be felt more acutely by 18- to 24-year-olds than any other generation. “You’ve gone through puberty, with the rush of hormones that entails,” says Arnett. “You’re confronting big questions about what you want your future to look like. When you’re thwarted from exploring those questions as you had intended, you’re likely to see anxiety and depression.”
Covid-19 has also forced school leavers to make hard calculations about their future: do they push ahead with their university plans or defer for a year in the hope that a vaccine will be made available, and that they will be able to have a more typical student experience? Faced with the prospect of online-only learning and a lacklustre, socially distanced freshers’ week, many students are choosing to defer. “I feel like with university next year, my education will be very halfhearted,” says Jawwad Khan, 18, from London. “Especially when you’re paying £9,250 a year for online learning. It’s like buying an online book over a real book. You’d rather have the real book.”
Khan has a place to study economics at Warwick University, which will offer a mixture of in-person and online learning. The prospect of online lectures doesn’t appeal. “I’m not going to be motivated to study online,” Khan says. “I’m just going to end up sleeping in and watching the lecture on my phone.” Khan plans to defer for a year, and he isn’t alone: as many as one in five UK students are also expected to defer the next academic year. In response, some universities are fighting to shore up their student numbers (and revenue) by blocking students from deferring, particularly after the government’s announcement that it will ditch the 50% target for the proportion of young people going to university. “They should either drop the fees or give everyone the first year for free,” says Khan.
Like Khan, 17-year-old Morgan Davies, from Warrington, is also deferring. He has a scholarship to the University of North Carolina to study economics. “I really wanted the full freshman experience,” Davies says. “I wanted to ‘rush a frat’ and go to Halloween parties.” In anticipation of the college year, he had befriended his roommates online, and socialised with them on Zoom.
But Davies’s university is moving to online learning, meaning there will be no in-person lectures or frat parties. At first, Davies thought he could study from his dorm, but the US immigration authorities recently announced that international students would not be allowed into the US if their courses were online-only, meaning that Davies faces the prospect of spending his first year at university in his bedroom in Warrington, studying in US time zones. “For me,” Davies explains, “university is about being physically present … although it wouldn’t affect me academically, being there was a huge part of going to the US. I thought I’d rather delay a year and get the full experience.”
Not all students plan to defer. “I’m definitely starting university in September,” says 18-year-old Lily Good, from Aylesbury, who plans to study politics and sociology at the University of Exeter. “I was umming and ahhing, and wasn’t really sure what to do. But things are reopening now, and I’ve spent so much time at home this year. I honestly cannot wait to go somewhere new, meet new people and have a new start in a different place.” Good is optimistic that she will be able to have a relatively normal student experience. “I think that, even if social distancing is officially in place, I can’t imagine 18- and 19-year-old students staying apart, especially in halls and stuff. And, hopefully, the clubs won’t be shut for too long.”
Of course, making it to university is contingent on getting predicted grades. When Abubakar Finiin, 18, from London, found out that A-level exams were cancelled, he was initially jubilant. “I was dancing, I was so happy,” says Finiin. “I was sending voice notes to my friends, screaming: ‘We don’t have to do A-levels!’” But then reality sunk in: he would be receiving a predicted grade based on his mocks. Finiin didn’t put much effort into them because he was focused on his university application: he has a conditional offer to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford. Now, there is a very real possibility he won’t make his offer. “I kind of cruised through the mocks,” Finiin admits. “I’m one of those people who leave it to the last minute, and then puts 100% focus on it.”
Already, there are indications that exam boards may mark this cohort of students harshly. After the international baccalaureate (IB) examiners released its grades this month, online forums erupted in fury: scores of students felt their grades had been unduly marked down, causing them to miss out on university offers. The IB grading body is now being investigated by England’s exams regulator, Ofqual. “I’m stressed,” Finiin says. “I worked so hard for the offer, and I was ready to transition all my efforts into getting the grades. If I don’t get the grades, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
If you had banked on entering the world of work via an apprenticeship, now is just about the worst possible time to be a school leaver. “Apprenticeship vacancies have collapsed,” says Kathleen Henehan of the Resolution Foundation. “There were just under 2,000 apprenticeship vacancies in England this May, compared with 13,000 the May previously.” This month, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced incentives for employers to hire more apprentices. “It’s a nice step, but there’s a big question mark as to whether that’s enough to incentivise employers struggling to hire them,” says Henehan.
Mason Gunn, 16, from North Shields, left school this year. He planned to find a level-one electrical apprenticeship. “Most companies I’ve spoken to have said if it wasn’t for Covid they would have taken me on,” he says. “They all said the same thing – ‘lack of work due to Covid’ but they would ‘keep me in mind’.” Gunn has phoned or emailed more than 35 local firms, with no luck. “I’m trying to stay positive because I understand that many of these companies are struggling to pull in money, so having an apprenticeship would only make things difficult.”
And young people who had hoped to enter the workforce straight away will find themselves on the sharp end of hiring freezes. “School leavers always tend to suffer during recessions because there are fewer vacancies,” Henehan says. “And when firms are hiring, they want someone with more experience.” She explains that during the 2008 crisis, graduates were pushed into jobs previously taken by non-graduates – leaving the non-graduates jobless. “I’m kind of scrambling to get work even remotely related to the field of work I want to do,” says Marianne Zamgoni, 18, from Doncaster.
Zamgoni planned to get a job as a trainee estate agent on leaving school: she was getting interviews for positions before Covid-19 hit, and then everything dried up. She has applied for 50 jobs in the past three months, with no luck. “I have signed up for every job website under the sun,” she says, “and whenever I get an alert about a new job post, I apply for it.” All the firms who come back say the same thing: they’re on a hiring freeze. Zamgoni is trying to stay hopeful, but it’s hard to not be dispirited. “It can be quite depressing every time you open an email and it says: ‘Sorry to inform you …’” she says. “My future feels very uncertain.”
The Resolution Foundation recently predicted that more than a million young people would be unemployed in the coming years. “I wouldn’t want to be 18 right now,” sighs Henehan. “In terms of the labour market, it’s too soon to tell if this recession will be worse than it was in the 1980s, where we had mass youth unemployment, but it’s possible … it certainly looks more challenging than the 2008 financial crisis. At least in this century, this is the worst time to be a young person.”
Being 18 right now can feel a little like being a member of a cursed generation. “We’ve had it so bad,” says 18-year-old Aisha Akram from Manchester. “We had the new GCSEs, when there was a new curriculum and no past papers. And now Covid.” Akram, who plans to study psychology at the University of Manchester next year, worries about her generation’s long-term prospects with a recession looming. “It’s probably going to be really hard to get a job when I graduate,” she says. Some of Akram’s friends think deferring will improve their job prospects – the labour market should be in better shape by then – but Henehan says that is far from certain: “If everyone stays in education a bit longer, they all exit en masse, and will be competing for the same jobs.”
Finiin’s friends have started jokingly referring to themselves as the “class of Covid-19”. “I remember our economics teacher joking about coronavirus in January, and everyone was laughing,” Finiin says, “and then – bam! – we were all locked down in our houses and school was cancelled. Everything happened at once. I think we’ll look back in a few years and think: ‘Wow, how did that happen?’”
But Akram is confident that the class of Covid-19 will emerge victorious, pointing to the Fridays for Future climate crisis movement and the recent Black Lives Matter protests as evidence of Generation Z’s commitment to making a positive impact on the world. “All these protests will equate to something,” Akram says. “We’ve been hard done by, but in the end we will come out stronger. Our generation is going to make a big change in the world.”
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