Mixed feelings about getting back to ‘normal’


By Jackie Grisdale

Young people are often plagued by uncertainty, mixed emotions, and the overwhelming prospect of big looming changes. The last 18 months have been like no other in living history and we know it’s taken its toll on our young people. Our Living in Lockdown research gave a small glimpse into what our young people were thinking and feeling last year, particularly about the pandemic. But yet again times have changed. With a prospect of heading back to some semblance of ‘normality’ (whatever that might actually look like), we wanted to see how young people are feeling, right now.

And it is a bit of a mixed bag.

Amongst the 2,000 16–22-year-olds we surveyed; we discovered a clear divide. When asked about their feelings about the future, we found that a high feeling of anxiety (38%) was set against other more positive emotions, including happiness (35%), and optimism (31%).

Anxious times

It may come as no surprise that anxiety was a feeling predominantly felt by females (44% vs 31%) – although men can be a little less forthcoming about their state of mind and mental health. Digging deeper into the detail it became clear that an overriding sense of anxiety was dominating the narrative for the majority of respondents.

School and college students spoke about the stress of exams and the daunting prospect of transitioning on to the next stage of their life journey, whether that was work or further study. This nervousness about the next big step is natural and par for the course under normal circumstances.

Unfortunately, the pandemic layered extra uncertainty on top of the standard concerns of young people at this time. The impact of their lost learning and teacher graded assessments, and how all of this would impact their future, is clearly playing on their minds. This is particularly true for college students, 43% of whom stated they were feeling anxious about the future, compared to 35% of those still at school.

As for university students, there is a clear lack of happiness amongst this group, 29% stating they felt happy about the future compared to 42% of those at school. They have suffered isolation and loneliness; have kept up with the pressures of progressing via online learning and there is a definite sense of anxiety about how these unusual conditions and circumstances will continue to affect their prospects in the future.

We also noted key differences in perspective based on geographical location. Anxiety about the future was highest amongst those in the South West (46%) and the lowest in Greater London (32%). While young people in Wales felt the least hopeful (18%) and optimistic (20%) while those in the South East were much more optimistic (37%) and hopeful (34%). And young people in Scotland, well they are the happiest of us all about the future (46%) a full six percentage points ahead of those in Greater London who fall in second place in the happiness ranks.

There could be many reasons for these differences, but I can’t help drawing conclusions that point to the availability of opportunities in these areas. With those cold spots with lower employment rates, regional deprivation and fewer prospects, and a widening opportunity gap thanks to the impact of the pandemic – in turn impacting on the mood of our young people.

A hopeful outlook

But despite all that uncertainty and anxiety, there was a rising sense of positivity, optimism and hope – feelings which were still evident in ample supply. Perhaps as a result of finally emerging from Covid restrictions, there was a prevailing sense of hope, optimism, and excitement – these young people have survived, the exam situation is perhaps less catastrophic as last year, and the majority are heading off into to work or university – the future is looking bright.

This presents in wide-ranging levels of optimism. Despite those low levels of happiness, University students were amongst the most optimistic about their future (37%), with higher levels of hope (35%) than other groups. Males appear to be much happier than females (41% vs 31%), although slightly less hopeful about the future (27% vs 32%). And as you might expect, those young people currently experiencing working life are generally more positive than most about what the future holds, thanks to employment providing them with a level of certainty and confidence their peers that remain in education, or out of work are not afforded.

We also found that feelings of optimism, confidence and excitement corresponded strongly with optimism about future education and career opportunities. Those who felt optimistic, confident, or excited in general about their future, ranked higher for their levels of optimism about both their future education and career opportunities than those who feel stressed or anxious about it.

While I do find the results of our survey concerning, it’s truly a testament to the resilience of our young people that even in the most challenging of times, hope still prevails amongst them. But there is a lot for employers to think about.

These young people are the future generation of university students and employees. These high feelings of anxiety and worry could continue for some time, and we are yet to really see the full impact of the pandemic on our young people. The impact of lost learning on attainment and the amplification of these impacts amongst the most disadvantaged widening the attainment gap further and how we account for that amongst our applicants. The loss of some skills development and subsequent impact on confidence and aspirations amongst our young people. Our mental health crisis and the rising number of young people experiencing mental health issues, which will be reflected amongst our apprentice, undergraduate and graduate audiences.

Therefore, we need to consider what we can and must do to help. We need to ask ourselves: ‘How we can help change futures for the better?’

  • How can we raise aspirations and bridge the skills and attainment gap through early interventions? Can we support through better engaging with schools and universities? Can we deliver multiple, impactful, high-quality interactions and experiences of the workplace?
  • How can we help young people feel confident in applying? What interventions do we have to support our audiences? Are these experiences designed to nurture and encourage? Are they targeted to help those who need it most?
  • How can we ensure our systems and processes are fit for purpose? Are they suitably contextualised to account for the impact of the pandemic? Do they present barriers? Can prohibitive and restrictive policies and requirements be removed?
  • How can we improve the candidate experience to reduce uncertainty and anxiety? Can we make the process less stressful? Can we decrease delays in the process? Can we provide better feedback? Can we coach and support?
  • How will we support them within our organisation? Do we have wellbeing initiatives? Is our culture one that is welcoming? What is the onboarding experience? Can we do anything to help them feel included and foster a better sense of belonging? Can we help them feel confident to seek out help?

There isn’t a quick fix. Every person and every organisation is different. But we all have the opportunity to do something to create change. What will you do to change the future of our young people for the better?

If you’d like our help or want to hear more about our latest research, get in touch.

You can download the pdf version of this article here.