The once-in-a-century Covid-19 pandemic has made teens and youngsters wise beyond their age. It’s a welcome relief for the contagion-bruised world as these young voices of reason and sanity shine a light on their challenges amid a bid to return to normalcy

By Lekha Menon

Published: Thu 10 Mar 2022, 10:59 PM

My brain is rewired differently; I have a growth mindset now. My approach towards life, and definition of contentment and happiness have changed as well. I have realised that life doesn’t happen to us, it happens for us,” says Dubai-based Orion Sandeep pontificating on the internal shift he has experienced in the 24 months since Covid-19 struck and upended our lives.

It then gets deeper as he lists the big changes, he feels within himself — a love for learning that goes beyond grades, the desire to build meaningful relationships, an alignment of his parents’ goals to his and a reorientation of career objectives.

In a nutshell, Orion, who admits having felt temperamental and shifty in the initial months of the Covid-19-enforced lockdown restrictions, is looking back at the period as a phase that has led him to a better place mentally, with greater confidence and focus. “2020 wasn’t the best year, it started off with a loss. But it allowed me to be away from people. It led me to heal my inner child and any sort of insecurities and issues I might have had,” he concludes.

Hearing Orion speak with clarity about mental health, the importance of self-care and his journey towards becoming “his own person”, I almost felt I was listening to a sagacious adult, shaped by intense experiences, and not a precocious 15-year-old on the cusp of exploring life as a carefree teen.

But that is exactly what the events of the past two years appear to have done to youngsters like Orion, a student at GEMS Founders School – make them wise beyond their age and give them a new purpose. This may be the beginning of the end of the pandemic (hopefully!). But even as people cautiously hobble back to the pre-pandemic routine, something inexorably seems to have changed with the group which had been most impacted by the crisis – Gen Zers and millennials.

A 2021 poll by Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research in the United States concluded that more Americans aged between 13 and 24 found their goals and social lives hindered by the virus than Millennials and Gen X.

Similarly, the American Psychological Association found Gen Z members across cultures and countries were likely to have a harder time making major life decisions due to the uncertainty and reported higher stress levels than others.

Gen Z consciousness

Of course, generational cohorts and cutoff points may not be a scientific measure to study a generation but according to Anthony Nhalpo, Clinical Psychologist, Cambridge Medical Centre, they can certainly help understand changes in world views.

Anthony observes a similarity in the attitudinal and behaviour shift that the pandemic has caused to both millennials and Genzers. “Although the former experienced a global disaster in the past in the form of a recession, Covid-19 impacted both generations equally,” he notes. But what makes GenZ more resilient than their older counterparts is their comfort with the virtual space. While both generations adjusted swiftly to virtual work and learning, teens and young adults appearto have a greater awareness and reflection of life around them. “They are becoming far less apathetic, a label that they have been often accused of, in the past. The pandemic has taught them the value of connectedness and the need to contribute to greater good. It’s no longer about likes and comments but active citizenry,” adds Anthony.

Anyka Chakraborty, a student at GEMS Wellington International School, Dubai, aptly exemplifies this new-found consciousness. “My goals and ambitions seem to be inextricably influenced by the pandemic. However, I do think it has helped me gain clarity in terms of what I want out of a future career – something that builds growth, inclusion, and sustainability,” she says.

The perceptive 18-year-old adds that among her peers, the awareness about mental health has been one of the most significant outcomes of the pandemic. “The pandemic exacerbated feelings of anxiety and loneliness for many of us. We’ve become more conscious of ‘mental hygiene’ and how we can support it. I’ve seen meditation, gratitude journaling and weekly check-ins becoming more prevalent than before,” she says.

Interestingly, much of my conversations with Gen-Z members and millennials were peppered with these expressions — mindfulness, emotional intelligence, conspicuous consumption, and sustainable living — proving that these concepts are not just fancy terms or fads for the current generation but have become defining traits of their personality. Eva Shtreys, a 16-year-student, sums up her pandemic experience with a maturity that belies her age.

“One of my aims now is to keep developing my emotional intelligence. Earlier, I was always in a rush to be somewhere, I rarely focused on myself or my internal state. But not only was it fascinating to learn how truly complex and delicate our emotions are, I also find myself using this set of knowledge daily where I find myself more mindful and sympathetic of others. This has contributed to my mindfulness and easiness despite hectic schedules,” she says.

Career track

Mental health and self-awareness aside, the next big change has certainly been on career goals. Not so long ago, the narrative for college students rallied around big scores, bigger degrees, Ivy League colleges and fat pay cheques.

Not anymore though. Family, friends, and meaningful relationships have taken precedence over qualifications and positions as values and goals go for a rehaul.

Sidharth Seemakurti, 21, describes the change in his life goals as the perfect case of “not realising what you have until it’s lost”. He says, “Initially when I was quarantining along with my family, it hit me how much I depended on friends. Then when I went to college after several months, I started missing my family. Earlier, my graduation goals were simply to take up the highest paying or coolest jobs, but now having realised the importance of family, I decided to take up jobs in Atlanta which helped me to stay close to people most important to me.”

Not surprisingly, there is a premium on taking time off, reflecting on your choices, emotions, and learning to enjoy one’s own company. Rupangi Khosla, a 30-something senior design researcher, had always wanted to try something different — change her line of work lifestyle, and city, but never got around to getting out of her comfort zone. “But once I was locked up inside my house, something didn’t feel right. I decided to quit without any plan and spend time being with my family — something I hadn’t done since I left home in Grade XII. It was scary to just pause without a backup plan. But things worked out,” says Rupangi.

For Rupangi, the biggest gain from the challenge of the past two years has been the freedom to break free from conventional norms.

A lot of her friends did the same thing — quit jobs, move back to their hometowns and live in the new set-up, with the underlying thought of finding balance and appreciation of small joys.

“I think that’s what has changed is this: rather than having goals it’s more about how I want to spend my time today. I am now more willing to try things out than wait for a perfect future by following a plan,” she says.

If there is a plan at all, it is to slow down, take a deep breath and reassess dreams and ambitions. Asher Thomas, a marketing executive, is grateful for all that the pandemic taught him.

Asher was up and ready to do his MBA after graduation when the pandemic struck.

It was time to take a few steps back and look at what he truly wanted to do. He joined the work front and could have done much more on that front, but his goals once again underwent a change when he decided to quit his job and focus on his studies again. “After the pandemic hit and all work shifted online, I realised that I would be losing out on the experience of doing an MBA abroad. By this I mean the important things like the responsibility of living on your own, extracurricular activities, faceto-face learning, socialising and meeting new people from different cultures. I put this all on hold in the beginning of 2020 and decided to extend my time at my company till the situation got better. But it wasn’t meant to be, and I decided to leave. I don’t regret this decision because I made the most out of a bad situation and this gave me the time to relook at what I wanted to do,” he shrugs off.

In pursuit of meaningful relationships

Part of this journey to self-awareness and search of true happiness is also the pursuit of finding meaning in relationships. Undoubtedly, the events of the last two years have turned around ties, both romantic and familial, in a way few things have. Experts have noted how the pandemic exposed relationships, their quality and stability, with couples and families travelling the extreme route – of either becoming very close or breaking apart completely.

Millennials suffered immensely, given that most of them were married or in committed relationships and the pandemic-induced stress caused many to fray.

“Although there is an assumption that human-to-human contact improves relationships, Covid-19 created problems for couples that had to break their schedule and routine in their relationship, especially during lockdown. Couples were forced to be on each other’s faces daily, something that they have never imagined or had to do earlier,” says Anthony.

It is this increasingly fragile nature of relationships that appears to have made the younger generation more wary. As with everything else, the zeal to make real connections and bonds that last has taken over the temptation to jump into relationships every now and then.

Now, the focus appears to be on finding soulmates and not boyfriends or girlfriends, friends in parents and family in friends who would be there for you when you need them. As Anyka says, “We’ve seen the power of genuine connections and are attuned to the idea of making real bonds, despite physical distance. I’ve seen people connect through social media and deepen connections through video calls. It’s been really inspiring and has redefined what I thought constituted a relationship. For Sidharth, the focus is to find that muchvaunted balance between personal and professional lives where the pursuit of material success is not overshadowed by the lack of personal relationships.

“Haven’t you noticed? During the pandemic and after, the biggest cultural shift has been the movement towards more eastern values. Family has grown to be a much more important part of all my friends lives and has changed their values just as mine had changed,” he says.

It would be interesting to see how long this change lasts before it all falls into a familiar pattern but for now these young voices of reason and sanity are just what a bruised world needs.

Lekha Menon is a journalist, editor and communications professional based in Dubai

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