Did The Pandemic Steal Our Youth?
On grappling with the unsteadiness of time during Covid-19.
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I can’t shake the feeling that I lost the final pieces of my youth to the pandemic.
I can’t pinpoint the moment when this thought first hit me, but it was probably while I was scrolling through TikTok, a space where I can fritter away hours of my day, but still fundamentally feel like an interloper. Talking directly into my iPhone camera gives me a minor panic attack, and despite being a dancer throughout my childhood and teen years, my ability to learn and retain choreography has become deadened to the point of embarrassment. I can generally keep up with the trends — I know what a “no bones day” is! I went deep on Rush Tok! — but I usually find out about them once they’ve reached the point of national frenzy.
In short, TikTok makes me feel old.
Yes yes, I know. Before you scold me on the Internet, I’m aware that millennials aren’t actually “old” in the grand scheme of life spans — most of us have yet to reach middle age. And yes, lots of millennials have thrived on TikTok. And yet, something has shifted over the nearly two years we’ve been living in pandemic-land. I have never felt more acutely aware of my own aging than in an era where all of the cultural markers of traditional adulthood feel unstable, unreachable or more unfulfilling than we were told they would be, and I know I’m not alone.
Maybe it’s the notable uptick in casual conversations about egg freezing, or the sensation that I went to sleep one night and the next morning all my closest friends were suddenly pregnant or undergoing IVF. Maybe it’s seeing those friends live through the sobering realities of getting medical care during quarantine, and raising infants and toddlers without community support or access to child care. Maybe it’s the number of people who bought houses in the suburbs a few years earlier than they might otherwise have. Maybe it’s walking around Brooklyn and experiencing deja vu at all the skinny straps, platforms, mini skirts and bucket hats.
Maybe it’s the feeling that our lives were so go go go — get up, work out, go to the office, run to dinner, call a friend, watch TV, go to bed, get up again — that we didn’t have time to really think about what was changing as we got older, and then, all of a sudden, a pandemic forced everything to stop. And now that things have started again, in uneven bits and spurts, it all feels so very different.
“Move Over Millennials, Gen Z Is The New ‘It’ Generation,” declared Business Insider last month. A dumb headline designed to maximize clicks? Sure. But what it indicates is something real: “Cool” is determined by the youth -- and my peers and I are no longer those. Pretty sure once the teens are rocking an updated version of the exact clothing you wore in middle school and dreaded ever returning (you will never be able to convince me that low-rise jeans aren’t a scourge meant to torture women with even an ounce of body fat on their bellies), you have moved on from being the primary drivers of cultural phenomena.
And yet I feel unprepared to be an adult. Sure, I pay my mortgage and I do labor for money during weekdays, and I have a calendar and I now own a car. But even as a person with many privileges, the stability I was promised would accompany these markers still eludes me.
The sensation of falling squarely into an adult age group while still feeling like you haven’t accomplished nearly enough to actually be one, is not an experience unique to one generation. But those of us who were thrust into the global pandemic during our 20s and 30s (the oldest millennials are turning 40), are entering this new phase of life during a moment when it feels like time has collapsed on itself.
It is an odd and unmooring sensation as a member of a perpetually infantilized generation. For more than a decade, “millennial” has been media shorthand for young, selfish and frivolous. We entered the workforce during a recession, and remain underpaid, underemployed, and underrepresented in the highest seats of power and government. Just a few short years ago, we were being scolded for squandering our savings on avocado toast instead of investing those (nonexistent) savings into single-family homes.
Now we’re stuck in a liminal phase: still widely regarded as selfish children (even as we have children of our own) in a perpetual state of arrested development, but no longer actually all that young.
A 2018 Twitter thread by author and scholar Sunny Moraine, which recently made the rounds again on Instagram, describes this experience as a crisis of temporality. Many millennials are experiencing “a sense of panic, that we’re getting older and running out of time and *we haven’t even grown the fuck up yet*,” writes Moraine. “We don’t know if we’re old. We don’t know if we’re young. We don’t know what we’re doing. We’ve lost our guideposts, our benchmarks, our rubrics for life. And people blame us for it.”
The pandemic has only served to crystallize these feelings, speeding up changes that were already in the works, and slowing down our present enough to force us to stare at them.
In a September 2020 paper on the ways that Covid-19 has impacted our collective relationship to temporality, sociologist Josep Maria Antentas posited that global crises can act as clarifiers.
“The virus acts as an accelerator of tendencies,” wrote Antentas, “like a wormhole where stages are skipped and in which the leaps forward also modify the final result. It is not a linear acceleration, but a syncopated, catastrophic one, which hastens a phase change.”
The pandemic laid bare how unprepared our social and economic structures were to handle such disruption, how little our society cares for those without unlimited resources at their disposal, and how hollow the concept of adulthood we were fed as children really is.
Also, my back hurts.