The novelist Gertrude Stein once said to a young Ernest Hemingway, “all of you young people who served in the war … you are all a lost generation.”
That was a reference to the deep emotional and physical scars young people exhibited after World War I. These American lives were upended by the war. They lost friends. They incurred serious injuries. They saw their education or careers interrupted. They suffered mental health problems. And some had their families torn asunder.
The war’s lost generation came to include not only those who served in battle, but other young people who, in witnessing the horrendous effects — such as the immense loss of life and property — began to question the wisdom and values of the prior generation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, media and government officials have focused on telling the story of the pandemic through statistics. The stats include how many people contracted the virus, how many have been hospitalized by the disease and how many, tragically, died from COVID.
These two entities — media and government officials — have also sought to quantify the economic costs and impacts of the pandemic by tracking data related to unemployment, business closings, tax revenues, federal and state relief funding, homelessness and home ownership.
In other words, they have sought to assess the shock of COVID through a series of charts and tables. What they may not be tracking — or what we may not be fully able to understand at this time — is the impact COVID has had on our younger people and whether it is creating our own lost generation.
For the youth of COVID-19, this time in their lives should have been full of joyous events such as graduations, football games and friends’ weddings. These COVID years were to be replete with lifetime memories like becoming parents, or starting their first professional job.
Instead, many of those activities were put on hold or canceled altogether due to the pandemic. Young people were forced to consider social distancing, increased hand washing, remote learning, mask protocols, cautious interactions with others, and COVID testing.
Unfortunately, for many young people, the COVID environment has bred loneliness and isolation along with a sense of pessimism. With their only link at times to others being cellphones, tablets or computers, young people have viewed the world through the lens of the internet rather than in person.
There is a steady stream of depressing news on COVID; confusing directives and guidance from health authorities; the displacement of many workers and loss of millions of jobs, and the on-again-off-again opening of the economy. All have done little to instill faith and trust in our government institutions and leaders.
Couple this greater isolation with the fact that COVID has already claimed more than five-fold the number of Americans lost during World War I, and one may better appreciate the psychological impact that the pandemic may have on young people.
Almost all of them have experienced or been touched by the loss of a family member, friend or neighbor to COVID. For many of them, their families — when they did come together for big dinners — had one less chair at the table. They saw holiday gatherings and family vacations put off, losing the opportunity to interact and spend quality time together. In many cases they did not see certain friends or family for over a year or more. Rather than hugging a family member or shaking the hand of an old friend as a form of endearment, young people were instructed to acknowledge them from afar. Even a casual walk became an obstacle course as people sought to maintain the recommended six feet of distance from others taking a stroll. Finally, this generation of young people had the unfortunate experience of living under the constant specter and fear that they or one of their family members or friends may contract COVID and become seriously ill.
COVID has made an indelible imprint on everyone’s lives and possibly more so on younger people. Recent polls reflect an erosion in trust by young people for our elected representatives and various federal and state institutions, as well as a rejection of many of the norms in our society.
In the end, the creation of a new, lost generation of disillusioned and discouraged young people seeking to reshape our society, as the “lost generation” after World War I had tried, could prove to be the most sustaining legacy of the COVID pandemic.
Greg Fulton is the president of the Colorado Motor Carriers, which represents more than 650 companies directly involved in or affiliated with trucking in Colorado.