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The Big Read in short: How will a younger generation scarred by Covid-19 emerge from it?

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at whether the pandemic’s effects on the human psyche could have a longer term impact on youths. This is a shortened version of the full feature.

The TODAY Youth Survey 2021, which polled 1,066 respondents between the ages of 18 and 35 in early October, found that the pandemic has caused many young people to become more insecure about their future in general.

The TODAY Youth Survey 2021, which polled 1,066 respondents between the ages of 18 and 35 in early October, found that the pandemic has caused many young people to become more insecure about their future in general.

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Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at whether the pandemic’s effects on the human psyche could have a longer term impact on youths. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • The recent TODAY Youth Survey 2021 found a majority of those aged between 18 and 35 saying they have become less sociable, and more cautious and fearful
  • The finding which showed that the pandemic has led to greater insecurities among youths echoes that of polls elsewhere
  • Youths interviewed for this article also spoke about their struggles amid reduced social interactions at school and the workplace, their hopes and concerns about the future, and how the pandemic has led to a recalibration of their plans and priorities
  • Covid-19’s economic and health impact on Singapore so far has been relatively less severe compared to several other countries
  • Some experts noted that the jury is still out on the actual longer term impact of the pandemic on an entire generation in Singapore

 

SINGAPORE — Before the pandemic, Mr Nicolas Mok, 25, thought that his first job out of university would probably be an investment banker or a fund manager.

But the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School graduate, who began his job search during his final year of studies last year, had to go back to the drawing board after the Covid-19 crisis scuttled his plans.

With businesses freezing headcounts and the competition tightening around the limited vacancies for highly sought-after finance jobs, Mr Mok decided to take a chance in starting out his own business during the pandemic.

To his mind, it is better to take the plunge now when he is young and seize whatever opportunities may come amid the crisis, than to settle for a job that he may not enjoy while being exposed to the risks of pay cuts or lay-offs. 

“(With Covid-19) everything is so unpredictable, I thought I’d just take the chance and do something that I like.... You never know, right?,” said Mr Mok, who is the co-founder of Belly Empire, which helps local food businesses streamline and expand their operations.

Before the pandemic, Mr Nicolas Mok, 25, thought that his first job out of university would probably be an investment banker or a fund manager, but with businesses freezing headcounts and the competition tightening around the limited vacancies for highly sought-after finance jobs, he decided to take a chance in starting out his own business during the pandemic. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

The same set of circumstances that many are facing as the pandemic rages can, however, trigger contrasting responses: At the other end of the spectrum, the Covid-19 crisis has caused other young Singaporeans to set aside their dreams and ambitions in favour of a more pragmatic path.

Mr Andy Lim, 32, decided to stay on in his current job as a communications professional in a public relations firm, even though he was considering a mid-career switch before the pandemic struck, perhaps even starting his own home-based food business or working abroad for a year or two.

“I think Covid has kind of blurred what was possible. When you’re young, you feel there are many possibilities you want to explore but right now, I would like to play it safe,” said Mr Lim, adding that he does not see himself as a risk-taker.

The stark contrast between Mr Mok and Mr Lim reveals the different approaches of risk-taking and risk-averse millennials, whose career and life decisions must now contend with a coronavirus pandemic that has upended plans and created uncertainties as to what the future holds.

Both are part of what some have termed Generation Covid, a loose moniker covering people from late childhood to early adulthood who are coming of age during the health crisis.

The “crisis of a generation”, as the pandemic has been called, has also left an indelible mark on the psyche of many youths, potentially affecting their mental wellness and social outlook.

The TODAY Youth Survey 2021, which polled 1,066 respondents between the ages of 18 and 35 in early October, found that the pandemic has caused many young people to become more insecure about their future in general.

Around 59 per cent of the respondents said they have become more cautious and fearful, compared with a smaller 39 per cent who have become more risk-taking and fearless.

Less than half (48 per cent) said they are able to live their lives to the fullest despite the pandemic. Around 23 per cent disagreed with the statement.

Meanwhile, over half (54 per cent) said they have become less sociable compared with before the pandemic.

The TODAY Youth Survey 2021 finding which showed that the pandemic has led to greater insecurities among youths echoes that of polls elsewhere.

In April, a global survey of 17 countries by the British publication Financial Times of under-35s revealed that young people around the world were feeling increasingly insecure about their futures amid the pandemic.

It found that significant proportions (above 40 per cent) of respondents believed that they would be worse off than their parents in holding secure jobs, having enough money to live well, owning their home and living comfortably in retirement.

All these insecurities and pessimism among youths are concerning, especially since the impact of the Covid-19 crisis could persist for a while, according to sociologists, psychologists and youth experts interviewed by TODAY.

But the jury is still out on the actual longer term impact of the pandemic on an entire generation in Singapore, noted some academics.

After all, Covid-19’s economic and health impact on Singapore so far has been relatively less severe compared to several other countries.

In April, when Singapore was dealing with fewer than 50 Covid-19 new cases daily, the Financial Times poll found that Singaporeans were the most confident about their outlook out of the 17 countries polled, in terms of the proportion of respondents who felt they would do worse than their parents.

However, in the last three months or so, Singapore has been hit by a wave of infections caused by the Delta variant, with daily cases surging to several thousands.

COVID-19’S IMPACT ON PSYCHE OF YOUTHS

Unlike preceding generations, millennials and Generation Z live in a different era of digital connectedness and opportunities, but could be feeling the pinch of growing economic inequality due to the pandemic, said experts.

Speaking to TODAY, around 10 young adults aged 17 to 35 spoke about their current struggles amid reduced social interactions at school and the workplace, their hopes and concerns about the future, and how the pandemic has led to a recalibration of their plans and priorities.

In general, their most common source of anxiety is job insecurity, which has affected their appetite for risk and desire to pursue their dreams and ambitions. They also pointed out how money, especially cash at hand, has become especially important in a crisis situation.

Communications professional Andy Lim, who used to have an “entertainment budget” before the pandemic and would not think twice about spending money on the latest Nintendo Switch games every month said he has not done so since last year.

“Saving money is much more important. I’m afraid I might lose my job.

I can’t have the ‘you only live once’ mindset because I’m still going to live. Living has things like bills to pay and maybe houses to buy,” he said.

Mr Lim also fears how the pandemic will continue to impact the country’s economy.

Procurement specialist KJ Tay, 31, who is married with a son born last year, said that before the pandemic, he was thinking of switching to another industry.

The sight of long lines for government support at community centres last year scared him, and he no longer contemplated a job change.

“Covid-19 has taught me that staying in one place is a form of security that not everyone has,” he said.

In general, job insecurity is the most common source of anxiety among the young adults who spoke to TODAY. It has affected their appetite for risk and desire to pursue their dreams and ambitions. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong/TODAY

NUS sociologist Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser said that while the well-to-do can afford to venture out of their comfort zones, it is likely that those who are able to “hold on to a middle-class life in Singapore” would have a lower risk appetite.

Meanwhile, those who have lost their income or jobs may actually end up assuming even more risk when they are forced to take on freelancing jobs or even jobs in the gig economy, which are more precarious due to their transient nature and the lack of employee benefits.

“Overall, there would be a mindset change away from settling into stable careers as well-paid employees. Instead of aiming to live the ‘good’ life, many may settle for a ‘good enough’ life. I suspect that family formation may become less of a priority, with cohabitation and having no children becoming the norm,” said Assoc Prof Tan.

CHANGE IN PRIORITIES

Ms Suhaila Shaikh-McCann, 28, said that pre-Covid-19, work was the “most important thing of my life” and admitted that she would put her career ahead of her family.

“I still have a five-year plan of what I want to achieve professionally but I think Covid has really helped me refocus on what's important,” said Ms Suhaila, who lost her job with a technology multinational company in April last year.

“I really had an awakening at that time (in April) to understand that the most important thing right now is my family. So we were just spending lots of time together and it was just the most beautiful thing,” she said.

During this time, Ms Suhaila said that she also volunteered to teach a migrant worker English.

“I am not so laser focused on the future. not just money, but with time as well. I think I was previously quite selfish with my time and that is, I would say, the biggest change for myself,” she said.

Ms Suhaila Shaikh-McCann, 28, said that pre-Covid-19, work was the “most important thing of my life” and admitted that she would put her career ahead of her family. However, she now considers her family to be the most important thing. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

Among the youths whom she interacts with, Ms Anthea Indira Ong, a former Nominated Member of Parliament and an advocate of mental wellness, said she got the sense that the pandemic has led to a renewed reckoning among millennials and Gen Zers about what really matters to them.

“I really think that the pandemic has really called up a lot of this questioning of the ‘why’, because, well, you can die tomorrow, and some of them have been putting it very bluntly to me that (the threat of death) has never been so real, so close and so clear,” she said.

The New York Times has called this phenomenon “the YOLO Economy”, whereby youths who face burnout end up leaving their jobs during the pandemic in order to search for meaning and purpose.

In the United States, some young adults have converted their side hustles into their main jobs, or focused on self-actualising goals that would otherwise have been on the backburner.

YOLO stands for You Only Live Once, a mentality that one should live life to its fullest extent, even if that means taking on risk.

Ms Ong said it is a different situation for Singapore youths, who are not exactly living life with reckless abandon as the YOLO mantra suggests.

She said: “They are not jumping off cliffs, maxing out their credit cards and all. It is more of the deep sense of existentialism that’s actually more practical — do they want to just go get a job that they know they are not going to enjoy, and may even lose?

“So, it is this sense of more thoughtful deliberation of the choices that youths need to make that I am hearing from a lot of young people,” she said, adding that these highly personal decisions have been brought forward thanks to the pandemic.

ISOLATION AND ITS EFFECTS

While much of the pandemic’s impact on the psyche varies from person to person, its mental health effects — arising from the tightened measures to curb the virus spread — tend to be similar for most people.

One survey last month found that nearly 7 in 10 Singaporeans said 2021 was their most stressful year at work, with 58 per cent struggling more with mental health in the workplace this year than in 2020.

For youths, they too are feeling the pressure of restrictions in school and at home.

Student Meghana Prasad, 24, said she began to “feel suffocated” in Singapore when she saw her friends in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia living much more “normal lives as compared to us” — such going to concerts — on social media.

This has also led to Ms Meghana feeling “socially isolated”, when she sees that her extended family in India are able to meet often.

“It has definitely impacted my mental health, and I’m desperate for an escape physically and mentally. I’m still coping but I don't know how long I can hold up,” she said.

Besides the inability to travel, experts said the effect of social isolation at workplaces and in schools could be even more profound.

Assistant Professor Cheung Hoi Shan from Yale-NUS College, who researches parenting and child development, said that the curtailment of social interactions in schools from an early age, for example, could have an impact.

“We’re talking about how kids may grow up, maybe not knowing what it feels like to be in a school camp with 50 people.”

But saying that the past two years of the pandemic will alter the personalities of millennials and Gen Zers is still a stretch, she noted.

“In the whole grand scheme of things, it has been two years of restrictions out of a longer history of life experiences and people relationships, which can be quite resilient. One crisis is not going to wipe out all the experience and learned behaviours that have been built since the day we were born,” said Dr Cheung.  

Related topics

TODAY Youth Survey millenials career stress mental health

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