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COVID-19 and Young People’s Stories from Lockdown

We have recently submitted an article for review in the Journal of Youth Studies that we have titled: COVID-19 and Young People’s ‘Future Presents’ @ the Convergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the 6th Mass Extinction: Lockdown Stories from the Anthropocene

In that article we tell a version of Rosie, Ash, Marco and Ash’s stories from the place-based scenario planning project in Melbourne’s (AUSTRALIA) inner northern suburbs that was undertaken in the last half of 2020. The project, titled COVID-19 Recovery Scenarios for Young People in Melbourne’s Inner North, was a collaboration with the Inner Northern Local Learning Employment Network (IN-LLEN) and its Inner North Youth Employment Taskforce (INYET)

We situate these young people’s stories – which we present in this blog – in what Rosi Braidotti (2019) has identified as the convergence of the 4th industrial revolution and the 6th mass extinction. Our aim is to situate the pandemic, the social, cultural, economic and political responses to the pandemic, and the challenges and opportunities that this public health crisis produces for young people’s health and well-being, their education, training and employment pathways, and their sense of belonging, connectedness, even community, in the broader, unfolding crises of global capitalism, of earth systems, and of bio-diversity that is heralded by the Anthropocene.

Rosie

When she was interviewed, Rosie was 18 years old, living in Northcote, and completing her final year of secondary school online because of the lockdown. Rosie is articulate and passionate about politics, her education, and social justice. When she spoke with us, she had hopes of studying global politics at university in 2021, but was worried about getting a high enough Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) score, and was starting to consider alternative entry pathways. She was passionately sceptical about the ability and willingness of older generations to respond to the multiple crises she imagined that she, her peers, and the planet were facing. When asked about the future, and her thoughts and feelings about it, Rosie identified a wide range of issues – Black Lives Matter, the climate crisis, ‘the bushfires’ that Australia had experienced in the summer of 2019-20, the asylum seeker and refugee crises, discrimination and racism – that she felt governments, businesses and communities were not doing enough to resolve:

our government needs to understand and open their eyes to what we’re contributing to, things like climate change, and how we can help countries less fortunate than us…we need to turn on our moral obligation key because we are not really doing that at the moment. 

This mistrust, even anger, with adult institutions and older generations, sat alongside a hope that her generation could rise to these challenges and opportunities – now and in the future:

I guess overall I’m scared and anxious and I feel like I’m also confident because, you know, my generation, I feel like we are very open, and we’ve been fighting for a lot, and I think we have to deal with a lot as well. So I feel like we are all going to put in a big effort to deal with the issues that have been left with us.

During the lockdown Rosie appeared in a number of public, televised discussions where she argued for the importance of completing final year exams and returning to face-to-face schooling: 

I’ve also spoken to The Drum, on the ABC. Four other kids were saying that we should cancel exams, and I was saying that I don’t think we should, because I think that you know, no matter what, no matter what situation you’re in, I think we’ve all worked way too hard over the last 13 years to accomplish our goals and I feel like we still can do that. Even if we’re not at school.

Rosie’s other great concern at that time focused on the various challenges with online learning – such as the isolation from friends, peers and teachers – and the ways in which COVID had, from her perspective, amplified the inequalities in the VCE:

I think in the first lockdown, I wrote to The Age, and I made the point that I think COVID has amplified inequalities in the VCE system. For example, private schools were able to close before we did, and were able to test out their equipment, test out how they were going to run online learning. But for me, like my school’s considered a pretty high socio-economic public school, the first two weeks of lockdown, actually the first time we were dealing with system overloading and internet dropouts. And yeah, I think that definitely put us back a lot. 

Ash

Ash, who was 24 and from the Darebin LGA, identifies as gender fluid, and uses the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’. The central feature, the narrative arc, of Ash’s story related to their history of mental illness, its impacts on life during the COVID-19 pandemic, and on their anxieties, fears, hopes and aspirations about the future. Ash was very open and reflective about dealing with depression and anxiety for the last 12 years. At the same time they were often wryly humourous in these reflections, and tried to deflect or downplay the nature of their struggles:

I have really only broken that quarantine twice the entire time since then. So I have barely left my house since quarantine started which has not been good for both my mental and physical health, but everyone struggles, so we’re doing okay.

The lockdown meant that Ash lost contact with their doctors and their support group, and because of their anxiety they did not follow up with phone appointments:

And so the challenge for me is to adjust to going back after being isolated. I’ve sort of accustomed myself to the way of living being inside and not having to deal with people. Now having to go back and sort of re-acclimatise to having social interactions and things…that could be a bit of a challenge with the mental health issues.

Ash’s struggle with long term mental health issues has meant that they also struggled with meeting any education and training commitments at this time in their lives. They were also unemployed when they spoke with us, and in a fairly precarious financial situation. Ash explained that they only received financial support from Centrelink and through youth allowance, but the support was barely adequate to meet the costs of living independently: 

I don’t have any financial backing from my family and so at the moment without a job, my only financial support has been from the government, with Centrelink. When I was on youth allowance that money was not really sufficient to be able to live on. When you’re living in a place like Melbourne where rent is so expensive…over half my money was going to just pay my rent.

Ash completed a Diploma of Screen Media in Special Effects and Makeup at the end of 2019 and had been searching for a job in the arts or entertainment industry. Since the lockdown and consequent “shut down” of that industry, they had begun to develop an aspiration to explore a career in counselling or psychology: 

I think I could see myself doing that as a career because I love helping people and trying to use my experiences in life, even though I’m only 24. Being part of the LGBT community and having struggled with mental health issues, it really gives me a diverse understanding of what sort of experiences that people can go through in life. I feel like that could benefit me with pursuing a career in counseling or psychology

These hopes were also another way of expressing the concerns that Ash spoke to in terms of the challenges they identified for gender diversity, racism, other forms of discrimination, and the climate crisis. And what Ash thought was being done, or not done, in relation to these crises.

Marco

Marco, who also lived in the Darebin LGA, was 18 years old, and was eager to talk about his interests and hobbies, including volunteering with environmental and social organisations, gardening and indigenous plants, hiking, climbing and playing sports such as soccer and surfing. He graduated from secondary school in 2019, and had, at the start of the pandemic, deferred a university course in Environment and Society. 

It would be appropriate to describe Marco as very politically aware, and as an activist for a variety of social and economic issues. At that time, Marco was working as a climate campaigner, and was a member of Darebin Council’s Young Citizen’s Jury supporting young people in the Darebin LGA. Marco was passionate in talking about his activism in campaigns and actions in support of First Nations sovereignty, and for Climate Justice. The lockdown changed Marco’s work dramatically as he struggled with moving from face-to-face interactions to working online:

Whilst I still have stable work, COVID has significantly changed the way I have worked. For example, all physical meetings and brainstorming sessions have been replaced by online meetings which has significantly reduced productivity. Many projects that I was working on had to be scrapped and completely changed to address new priorities. Campaigning online has been particularly difficult. 

The pandemic and its disruptions had forced Marco to reconsider a number of his priorities and aspirations, and the ways that he could do the things that were important to him: 

I haven’t been able to start my work as a carer and garden helper for elderly people. One of the largest challenges has been changing the way I do everything and to maintain energy and optimism for myself and others in the teams I work and organise with. I have learnt from COVID that when society understands the need to rapidly change everything for the better of others we can do what’s needed even if it was once deemed impossible. Times like these redefine what is possible. 

Marco’s passions and activism also produced a number of frustrations, even agitation, with the inequalities and disadvantage that COVID had amplified, and the ways in which these forms of disadvantage should be, but were not likely to be, central to any road map for what the future held post-COVID:

What would make it easier would be if there was a comprehensive roadmap for how we could come out of COVID. To help people it is important that support packages and services are extended and that the financial situations of people are prioritised over the interests of big business. 

Chloe

Chloe was 16 years old, living in Moreland and studying year 11 at a co-education state secondary school. Chloe described herself as enjoying school ‘for the most part’, particularly subjects such as global politics and art. The shift to online learning via Zoom at her school meant that Chloe struggled to pay attention. 

As she responded to the video prompts it became apparent, including through Chloe’s own ways of talking about herself, that these challenges related to the neuro-diversity which was so fundamental to her sense of her self, her relations with others, and her abilities to conform, or not, with the expectations, norms, practices and processes of institutions (schools) that do not deal well with neuro-diversity.

Chloe was carefully, but confidently, reflective about the impacts of the lockdown and the advent of remote learning and isolation for her learning, her self-awareness, and her relations with others. For Chloe, the pandemic highlighted inequalities in the wider schooling system, and in the VCE. In important ways, these inequalities were manifested in the challenges she and other ‘neuro-diverse’ young people faced in staying engaged, focused and motivated while learning remotely and in isolation.

In addition to the challenges that she had encountered with online learning and standardised assessment systems, Chloe has also faced barriers to work. She recalled applying for a job ‘but did not get in’ due to misspelling her written application. Chloe hopes that neurodiverse young people don’t need to face these challenges in the future, and outlined her aspirations for her own future:

Thinking about my future does give me anxiety, but I hope that I’m doing something that I love. I hope that I get to do a job that involves politics or art or being creative. I want to help people and if I don’t do a job that I love, if I’m doing some shitty desk job, then I hope that I have the opportunity to do things I love, outside of work. I don’t know if I want to go to university. I don’t really want to go to school. So, I hope that the world becomes a more viable place for me to kind of succeed. I don’t think that there are enough things stopping people falling through the gaps right now. 

Chloe was also scared for the future she imagined, and spoke about her understanding of the relations between human food systems, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the climate crisis: 

I’ve been reading about how there’s been a couple of close calls in terms of COVID like diseases, and how it’s becoming more and more likely that the next disease will come out of factory farming, which contributes to climate change and global warming, which has kind of been put on the back burner by this whole COVID thing. Like this was the year that we really had to become serious about it. And we’re seeing serious effects all across the world.

Despite her anxieties about many aspects of the futures that she imagines for herself, and for the planet, Chloe invests hope in her own generation, particularly in terms of those issues that ‘should have been dealt with’. In her sense of these futures, ‘the Youth of today will probably be the ones to solve it.’

By Peter Kelly

I lead the UNESCO UNEVOC Centre in the School of Education at RMIT University.

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