A week before the lockdown hit, a friend said the pandemic was going to be the biggest event of our lifetime because it would affect everyone. He thought coronavirus would shift the tectonic plates of culture in ways we’d never seen before; I thought life would be back to normal in a few weeks.
It was mid-March, pre-“in these unprecedented times…”, when it seemed COVID-19 might disappear as soon as we packed our winter coats into storage for the spring. Beside getting a few days off work, how much would really change? I didn’t think that locking down would result in me mourning years that hadn’t even happened yet. It just didn’t seem possible.
Six months and several eras later, the world is a little closer to a vaccine, but no further away from the virus. It’s motoring behind us, the lights on full beam: sometimes close, sometimes around the corner, but always there. It can get right up your arse or disappear to flickers beyond the horizon, a reminder that someone else is driving through the night with you, buzzing slightly in your peripheral hearing.
We’ve transitioned from the early stage of lockdown, when McDs and Wetherspoons shuttered their doors, to semi-lockdown mélange, where doing the loop-de-loop on Thorpe Park’s Colossus is allowed, but seeing your grandparents isn’t. Capitalism has marched on, with face masks and hand san, just so long as you’re getting a gourmet burger and not clubbing, gigging or watching a film.
Preliminary lockdown head shaves and boyfriend trims became professional cuts when barbers and hairdressers opened in July. Love Is Blind became Tiger King became Selling Sunset. Sweatpants are here forever. British theatre is fucked, and the teens are riding e-scooters while laughing at millennials on their TikTok accounts.
The promise of future lockdowns and a permanent work-from-home reality has given office drones the opportunity to ditch cities and up sticks. Young city-dwellers who can afford Diptyque candle sets and several holidays a year (AKA people with money) are looking to hand in notice on their homes as soon as they can, with one-third of 25-34 year olds considering a move to the countryside. But for the less well-off or the worried, there’s a feeling of general inertia. For some, change has slowed down just as much as it’s sped up for others.
I’m 28 years old and the initial cooped-up phase granted me a necessary break; the morning commute became a lie-in, the travel card turned into savings, hangovers were nonexistent and despite the barrage of coronavirus news, life in my bubble was peaceful. Using lockdown as a time to recalibrate and reassess has been in a common thread in many conversations I’ve had with other people my age.
“Initially I was loving lockdown as there was a real sense of the clocks stopping,” says Robert. “I’m proper shook of the passage of time – getting old and dying – so initially I was loving lockdown. I felt like I’d stopped ageing.”
Like Robert, I found early lockdown relatively serene. But now, in semi-lockdown gloop, I’m hyper-aware that the world around me is changing at unprecedented pace. Indoors, it feels easier than ever to slob around in front of Netflix as another day under the virus passes. With the balms of mid-to-late twenties excess no longer in Uber reach, I feel as if time has sped up while I’m watching it move past and around me. It’s like experiencing a slow yet accelerated rush toward my thirties.
The fact is that every millennial like me is ageing. Whether you’re a workwear woman, overgrown emo, tenderqueer or Boohoo man, you’re still age 25 or over and no longer the dominant generation. That belongs to Gen Z now, whose biggest rappers are gigging to millions on Fortnite. And so, lockdown feels like the last hurrah of millennial culture, with us all binging on The Sopranos, just waiting until the pandemic is over and we’re able to move on with our lives.
Anecdotally, at least, people are finding the time to marry, move house or change jobs. There have been big break-ups – of friendships, and relationships. All of these are big life decisions that usually happen around this age, but have been accelerated by a global pandemic. Doom and dread has helped people get their lives in order. It has the opposite effect on others – they feel stuck even as everyone else has been able to go forward. Fight or flight. I think I’m somewhere between the two, but you might be more black and white.
In a very rudimentary poll of my mostly millennial audience among my 1,000-ish Instagram following, 76 percent of respondents said they wanted to make a big personal change while in lockdown, like moving away from the city or changing their lifestyle, but only 56 percent of them found they were able to do it. The great divides of the millennial generation – rent, inequality, money or whether you’re coupled up or single – are becoming starker than ever.
There are positives on a micro, person-by-person level. Lots of millennials I spoke with are moving away from posting on social media – 87 percent from my poll said they’re using Twitter and Instagram less. Given these platforms’ well-established tendency to exacerbate stress, logging off is probably beneficial for many. One person told me: “I can't imagine coming on Twitter in the same way I did two years ago. It just makes me too anxious." Similarly, many people I spoke with are finding it easier to slow down the pace of their life and manage their FOMO better.
No one knows when scientists will find a working vaccine. Russia says they have one, but some say it hasn’t been tested enough. The University of Oxford vaccine produces a strong immune response and has moved into a trial phase, but it won’t arrive for a while even if it does clear that stage. Realistically, vaccine or no vaccine, the effects of the coronavirus are already baked into the next few years and will sit with many millennials until their thirties and beyond.
I’ve struggled with the idea that COVID-19 is here to stay, eating through the last of my twenties. This summer should have banged. I would have been heading to Glastonbury and gone on sabbatical, but instead I’m sweating away the August heat in a kitchen where I’ll spend the rest of the day, and probably the next day, and then the next week, month, or even year, depending on what happens.
Sometimes on morning walks, I think back to the conversation with my friend about how coronavirus would affect everyone. It’s true the virus has altered people’s lives across the globe. Back then, I thought he’d meant the virus would touch everyone in the same way. I thought we’d all feel its ripple effect, but that life wouldn’t change that much, beyond having a few weeks working from home and more sleep.
Instead, the world has changed in different ways for different people. Hospitality workers are losing their jobs, while big businesses are paying off investors with coronavirus cash handouts. Dominic Cummings has been accused of breaking lockdown, yet nothing happens. Pubs open, but they’re not the same. I’m getting old and you are too. Where do we go next?