Humorists have log had fun with real (or maybe not real) quotations from history about how this or that generation of young people knows nothing, is impolite, is arrogant or won’t listen to advice. Sometimes, it’s even true.
But for someone born in the post-war era, what is striking about today’s young people, especially those between 20 and 30, is how frighteningly immature they are. It’s not entirely, or perhaps even mostly, their fault. For the last thirty-odd years, parents and administrations have treated adolescents as children, and people in their 20s as adolescents. Young people have been encouraged to grow up with this idea that Mummy and Daddy are always there, and that as a result nothing bad should ever happen to them. If it does, Mummy and Daddy, or the University authorities, will punish those responsible. And of course the more you are protected, the more you need to be protected because the more fragile you become.
When shocks and traumas suffered by young people are restricted to naughty words, overly challenging books, or insufficiently respectful behaviour, then this protection can be made to work, just about. But Covid is changing this, as it’s changing everything else. At its simplest, some young people will die, many more will need medical care for life, and even more will see friends and family die. Nothing can be done to stop or cancel this, no matter how many sensible precautions are taken. Young people will have their freedom drastically curtailed, will not be able to socialise and even conceivably grow up, as they now do. For students especially, there will be months, even years, of living at home and starting into screen trying to learn something. Mummy and Daddy can’t help, and, with the best will in the world, may find them something of a burden.
It’s unsurprising then that depression and mental illness are exploding among a generation who aren’t even prepared for the kind of routine stress that earlier generations had to put up with. In different countries we read that anything from one in ten to one in four young people have actively considered suicide. Once more, Covid the heat-seeking missile is unerringly targeting all the weakest parts of our society. Once more it’s not clear what, if anything, can be done about it.