When I asked 18-year-old Ellie Crichton how it feels to come of age in the middle of a pandemic, she simply responded, “pretty rubbish.”
In this current climate, there's no better way than summing up the frustrations of a generation who feel robbed of important rites of passage as a result of the coronavirus crisis. For while the risk of healthy young people contracting severe strains of Covid-19 remain low – 0.01pc of deaths in the UK were people under 15 – the socio-economic stakes are incredibly high. A survey by the mental health charity Young Minds found that more than 80 per cent of young people with a history of mental ill health have found their conditions have worsened since the crisis began in the UK.
When social distancing measures were first announced in March, thousands of young people had to say goodbye to the milestones that, for previous generations, were important landmarks of self-discovery. Teenagers preparing for their 18th birthdays, traditionally a seismic coming of age occasion to buy their first legal drink, found themselves sober, and celebrating at home with their parents.
Meanwhile, others said goodbye to any hope of wearing the honorary mortar hat and cape as graduations around the country were cancelled. For students hoping to start university in September, freshers week will be a thing of the past.
But, like many things in the pandemic, the world hasn't been short of creative solutions. In Manila, China, a group of robotics students engineered an ingenious – and slightly dystopian – way of allowing their classmates to graduate. They attached live streaming tablets to the faces of cut outs wearing a gown, allowing the class to 'walk' along the stage and receive a certificate.
Graduating in a pandemic
While the UK has so far been spared such a discombobulating sight, virtual graduations in more recognisable forms are taking place around the country. For 24-year-old Patrick Hart, a medical student from the University of Glasgow, graduation was a landmark occasion to celebrate six years of university education with his three housemates. However, the event was forced to take place online, where between 700 and 800 students graduated virtually on a Zoom call.
“It was incredibly organised. Six months ago, this sort of thing would have seemed impossible,” he said as we speak on the phone. He’s currently isolating in Glasgow after testing positive for Covid-19 one week after starting work at a hospital.
Originally, Hart had planned to celebrate the occasion by driving the North Coast 500 road trip with his family, before joining his friends and their parents at a pub on the road next to their student digs. Instead, he found himself graduating in front of a screen in his cousin's garden in Belfast; his mother, who is shielding with his brother, watched out the window of her home.
The Zoom ceremony wasn't without its difficulties. “I wouldn’t describe it as strictly professional,” he laughs. “They had to keep telling everyone to mute their microphones, but ‘Roy’s iPad’ was repeatedly flashing up on the screen. It was someone’s Granddad and you could hear him saying ‘how do I turn off the microphone?’ It was really funny.”
While Hart opted for a “classic video call outfit” - a suit and tie on top with pink shorts and Adidas flip-flops for the bottom half - he said some of the other outfits on display were slightly more adventurous. “Lots of people had made hats and gowns out of whatever they could find in the house.
"My flatmate decided to wear a Batman outfit. At the end of the call his video was the default one so everyone could see him sitting in his room alone in the costume. It was very bizarre.”
Although Hart admits he is “sort of disappointed” he didn’t get to have a traditional graduation, he feels the virtual one was “more memorable", and that it was his parents who felt they had missed out more.
Others haven't been lucky enough to have a virtual ceremony. 23-year-old Eva Langwith and her boyfriend James Knight were due to graduate this July, both with First Class degrees in MA Modern History from the University of East Anglia. With their graduation cancelled and no online ceremony in its place, Knight’s mother decided to mark the occasion by crafting them a miniature graduation made out of Ferrero Rocher and paper.
“It was disappointing that our graduation was cancelled, but expected,” said Eva. “We knew that it would be the last time that we would get to say goodbye to course mates, lecturers and to the university where we spent five to seven days a week for four years.”
An 18th birthday like no other
For Ellie Crichton, from Harrogate, celebrating an 18th birthday in lockdown has been similarly unexpected. Her original plan was to have her friends over for cocktails before “heading out into town” for her first legal night of clubbing. Instead, she spent the day with her parents and brother, had a socially distanced visit from friends, and enjoyed a recital of happy birthday sung to her by the neighbours once the weekly clap for carers was over.
“I can’t help but think that you should be paralytic on your 18th, rather than with your parents,” she laughs. "But my mum has sleepless nights when I'm out with friends, so I think she was happy to have me home."
Crichton's end of school prom, girls trip to Zante, and freshers week at the University of Edinburgh have all been cancelled. She’s also been furloughed from her waitressing job. “At the end of school, we didn’t even get to say goodbye to our friends,” she says. “I do feel like I’m missing out on normal teenage life. I haven’t even been able to buy alcohol yet, so turning 18 hasn’t felt like a massive change.”
There have been other silver linings. “It’s bought my family a lot closer", says Crichton. "I cook all the meals because mum and dad are still working. We sit down and chat before watching a film every night. I’ve also bonded with some of the neighbours that are my age, who I wouldn’t normally speak to.”
A gap year that never got off the ground
Gap years are traditionally associated with the first tastes of independence. But after the travel plans for her "dream" gap year were cancelled, 20-year-old Freya Leith from Reading has found herself spending the year at home with her mum and 21-year-old sister.
After dropping out of her first year at Bournemouth University, Leith worked in retail to save up enough money for an Interail trip; starting with Amsterdam Spring Break, she planned to travel through Berlin, Rome and Budapest to attend a ‘sparty’ – a rave inside one of the baths.
"It was so upsetting to find out it had been cancelled but I do understand why. It feels like you're missing out on what past generations have experienced; there’s been some restrictions over time but to a certain extent they’ve been able to do what they want," she says. "A lot of my friends have lost massive job opportunities, industry placements, travelling and some relationships have broken down. It’s a big change and it feels very surreal, and a bit dystopian."
While she hasn’t resorted to touring the world using Google Earth just yet, she has been trying to recreate the experiences of her gap year at home. She’s been using Instagram to create a folder of countries she wants to visit in the future, and has learned to cook Thai food - although she admits it’s not as good as the real thing would have been.
Others have been getting more creative. On the video sharing app TikTok, an account called @it’s_just_jokes1 uploaded a video of a goggle-clad boy attempting to ski in the garden. The caption reads: “So since our ski season has been cancelled. We bought the slopes to us.”
Rather than wallowing in her missed travels, Leith has been using the time to map out which career path she wants to follow: a choice between a psychologist or a wealth manager. "I'm a productive person and I'm really big on planning things. I've been trying to make the most of the time as much as I can," she says.
Karen Abi-Karam is a Milestone Mentor and founder of HART Holistic Support. She says that marking milestones is essential for young people, as it "supports their self image" and "gives them a sense of community among peers."
"In these times, we can acknowledge our young people in quieter and more creative ways. The ceremonial aspect of it can be something quite everyday and ordinary, as long as we are recognising those achievements."