Being 21 in 2021
If there’s anything the past year has taught us it’s that you can never really plan ahead. Fantastic news for a whole generation who have spent the majority of their lives sitting exams, doing unpaid internships, pouring energy into impressive extracurriculars, shallowly networking, and doting over which colour to make their CV in order to plan ahead for impending adulthood. These have been the foundations of what our early years are built upon; now those foundations have become wobbly and unstable. What do we do? Start again?
For me, the issues that have arisen from the last year don’t translate into entering the new year scrambling for a university place, desperately job-seeking or applying for benefits because of my economic privilege. But it will for thousands of other young people. We need 2021 to not only be the year of raising awareness but engaging in productive continued action for the sake of young people that have a harder time finding pockets of sunshine and rainbows due to their lack of safety nets.
Following the grades debacle handled by an inept education department, British youth chanted ‘fuck the algorithm’ in the streets after A-level students were losing their places at university due to an algorithm which decided their marks. It was devastating. 40% of students saw their predicted grades being marked down and there were claims the grading system was biased, negatively affecting students from poorer backgrounds. The decision was revoked following heavy pressure from students.
But come September, returning university students fared no better fate. ”Students are taking out these horrendous student loans, only to be trapped in their accommodation with online classes and everything’s being cancelled” (Daniel Howell, The Guardian). One only has to think of Manchester literally imprisoning their students using a makeshift fortress around its halls of residence. I too was looking forward to finishing my final year of university in Edinburgh and celebrating with my friends. But suddenly, my two-hour seminars became half an hour of dodgy WiFi issues and twenty minutes of something that slightly resembled a class discussion. Well worth the nine grand.
“We as creatives were under so much pressure to “make stuff” during lockdown”, Scarlett Stitt tells me, a 21 year old actress and student from North London, “but I found the cyclical absurdity of those months totally numbing. Creativity thrives off other people, you have to collaborate to bring a piece of theatre to life, and when that privilege is taken away art becomes quite a selfish endeavour.”
Last year showed a 30% job loss in the UK creative industries and a higher rate of workers leaving the creative sector than ever before. With just under half of all creatives working freelance including myself, a lot of them struggled to claim a penny from the government’s ‘support’ schemes. “I know I am one of many young creatives who are having a real confidence crisis”, says Scarlett, “lots of people I know are even on the brink of giving up and pursuing more “sensible” job options”. It’s not surprising, then, that studies show 58% of young people believe it will be difficult to find a new job in the future going into 2021. That three-quarters of us feel worried about the future.
Sure, I enjoy the yoga and the baking and whatever, but I do want to work. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing socially distanced walks around the park and attempting to read Ulysses (I’m still not finished, it’s really boring). It seems most of us enjoy structure. A study by UCL found that unemployed young people are more than twice as likely to suffer from mental health disorders compared to those with jobs.
“It’s frustrating”, Henrietta Mills tells me, “I’m 21; these are meant to be the years that I go out, experiment and party, make silly mistakes and have fun with my friends and maybe even fall in love with a boy. But I can’t do any of that because of the current climate.” It can feel like our golden years are being compounded by worry and hopelessness. Hell hath no fury like a 19-year-old Nottingham student who hasn’t seen the inside of a drum and bass event for the last 12 months.
And feeling good about your achievements isn’t easy when you’re constantly comparing your life to (insert influencer here) on Instagram and being hounded daily with awful news that the world is literally on fire, that Amazon.com is more prominent than the actual Amazon, and that we live under a Big Brother state where your phone isn’t only listening to you and manipulating your behaviours but will now become sentient and flesh-eating. Submit to your cyborg overlords or perish.
Feeling hopeless yet? Never fear! Rishi Sunak is going to retrain you in cyber.
It’s true that over the course of the year which must not be named, young people acted as the world’s punching bag. The ‘Z’ in Gen Z felt aptly placed – it seemed we were the last on everyone’s priority list. But in fact, our power has never been more potent and concentrated. In America, young people spearheaded the largest civil rights movement in history. In Scotland, we pushed to make sanitary products free for the first time. In Iraq, we deposed corrupt governments and in Argentina we changed abortion laws, just to name a few examples. All whilst battling some of the worst rates of depression, anxiety, job prospects, and housing security we’ve seen within young people in modern history. If anything, it certainly is character building. And it’s great fodder for our talent in making memes out of literally anything.
The use of social media and technology has meant that Gen Z has been more united in a collective vision than any previous generation. Armed with iPhones, young men and women from Syria to Seoul were able to show that they stood in solidarity with BLM protestors in cities across the US. The fact that Gen Z’s across oceans can stand for one unanimous goal despite historically tense political relations between countries is pretty impressive. From Greta Thunberg to Marcus Rashford, this generation is decidedly defined by activism, not hopelessness. Despite what grumbling middle-agers might think, we use Instagram for more than circulating the latest Trump meme, although that’s pretty fun to do.
The ramifications of racial justice causes we saw explode in 2020 have thrust the obstacles people, especially women, of colour face into the limelight in both positive and potentially harmful ways. I’m now worried that when I get commissioned to write a piece, or I get praised for a piece of work, it’s because people want woke-points as opposed to my having earnt such praise through hard work or talent alone. I’m worried that employers will be hypervigilant of “optics”. Why does it matter if I end up with a good job as a result? Because I want to be the best version of myself I can be in 2021 and I won’t get there if people allow me to do a half-assed job: to point out my flaws might cost them a heavy fine of being ‘cancelled’. This isn’t a critique of the racial justice causes we fought hard for in 2020, but it is a genuine concern I have stemming from the razor-sharp war of words. And it’s not a fear I face in solitude.
Zelda Solomon confesses to me, “To be honest, I’m exhausted from trying to be an exemplary Asian person and an exemplary privileged person and an exemplary student. In 2021, I hope I can accept that all I can do is try my best, and welcome whatever comes of that.” As Zelda rightly says, all we as women of colour can do moving forward is try our best, but stop trying so hard when it might come at the cost of our mental well-being. If we’re burnt out, we’re no use to anyone.
Regardless, if there’s one thing 21-year-olds are really good at doing other than making bongs out of household objects, it’s adapting to new surroundings and remaining hopeful. 2020 made that more starkly evident than any other period in history. Odile Jordan, a London-based model, rightly tells me that young people of colour especially are at the forefront of this new hope; “The feeling that I have about girls like us, young women of colour, is that we have been stirred up and we’re deliberately moving forward. There’s a fire that has been lit. I feel emboldened and forged in that fire.” By moving forward with new-found purpose, we can continue to light fires of change for generations that come after us and put out the flames left by those that came before.
Images from Dalia Al-Dujaili, Getty & Sam Coldicott