Living our best lives? Hardly, say young people feeling trapped by pandemic

Young adults have taken a lot of blame for spreading COVID-19, but they say they've lost a lot, too. Dating, starting a family and careers are on hold, and many feel there's no end in sight.

Dating, starting a family, careers on hold for many during COVID-19

Sumaira Islam, 24, says she feels anxious that her life isn't unfolding the way she expected it to, and she blames the pandemic. (Hillary Johnstone/CBC)

Sumaira Islam is feeling the pressure to start a family. 

Islam, who's nearly 25, said she's been hearing a lot recently about how it's harder to have kids after 30.

That can be anxiety-inducing for any single woman. Now, throw in a global pandemic — especially one where you're bombarded with public health messages about the dangers of mingling with people outside your household — and it's not exactly an ideal climate for coupling.

I'm in this situation, but it's kind of out of my control. There's nothing I can do.- Sumaira Islam, 24

"It's kind of like my time is running out, and here I am. I can't do anything about it. And this feeling of hopelessness, right? I'm in this situation, but it's kind of out of my control. There's nothing I can do," said Islam. 

"[The pandemic] feels like a never-ending thing now. It almost feels like there's no end in sight." 

Young lives 'on hold'

Throughout the pandemic, health officials have pointed fingers at young people as being responsible for spreading the virus. But many young adults say it's unfair to place that burden on them. 

They say they wish there was better understanding of this critical stage of their lives, a stage they feel they're missing out on right now. They're fearful it could affect their chances of finding a partner, starting a family, furthering their education, breaking into the job market and becoming contributing members of a society that will count on them to rebuild the economy post-pandemic. 

"Our life does feel like it's on hold," said Islam.

Pandemic leading to new anxieties for young adults

1 year ago
Duration 0:53
Student Sumaira Islam, 24, says the pandemic, and the isolation that comes with it, has made it feel like she’s running out of time to fully experience her 20s. 0:53

CBC has spoken to more than a dozen people in their late teens and 20s who described feeling frustrated, hopeless and even guilty.

Guilty, they said, because they know some have suffered more than they have. Many spoke compassionately for people who have lost their lives, loved ones or livelihoods. They fully understand the seriousness and complexity of this health crisis.

But they also feel there's a general unwillingness to recognize the serious setbacks their own generation is now facing.

Careers stalled

Aidan Cooke hoped a co-op placement would be his ticket into a public service job. The 22-year-old worked hard to get into Carleton University's master's of public policy and administration program. He had his sights set on working for the Department of National Defence one day. 

"A lot of times, once you graduate and if you make a good impression ... you can step into a full-time position," said Cooke. 

But on the second day of class, his professor told students those coveted co-op positions have been severely restricted this year because of the pandemic. 

He was hoping to get a foot in the door. Instead, he feels like the door is slamming shut.

Aidan Cooke, 22, fears he'll be forced to take a low-paying job when he graduates with a master's degree. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Cooke said he's now starting to accept the reality that he might have to take a low-paying job when he graduates with his expensive degree — maybe a job similar to the one he recently worked at a downtown Ottawa Loblaws. 

"Of course there's nothing wrong with working a job at Loblaws or Starbucks, but it's not the career that I'm seeking with a master's degree. And it might be where I end up," he said.

You're kind of just reaching into the darkness and hoping you can find a job.- Aidan Cooke, 22

"The job market is a lot more competitive right now, just given the nature of COVID, and with the lack of co-op, again, you're kind of just reaching into the darkness and hoping you can find a job."

He's also worried he'll see his own taxes and cost of living rise in coming years.

"A lot of the subsidies and the tax breaks that we've given to help small businesses and individuals through COVID ... someone has to pay for it. And in all reality, that's going to be people like myself."

'YOLO' indeed

Young adults say it's true that some of their peers have acted irresponsibly during the pandemic, but it's not fair to paint every young person with the same brush.

"It's almost like one kid in the class is misbehaving, so the teachers are keeping us all in for recess," said Temima Silver, 18. 

Loss of co-op placements a big blow to future careers, student says

1 year ago
Duration 0:57
Aidan Cooke, a 22-year-old master’s student in Carleton’s public policy and administration program, says co-op placements have been restricted, leading to fears that he’ll have no way to get his foot in the door of his chosen industry. 0:57

Temima and her sister Jasmine, 20, said they've both seen examples on social media in recent months of crowded house parties and other large gatherings. 

The sisters said they've called "stupid people" out for that type of behaviour. When case numbers eased in Ottawa this summer, they tried to keep it safe when they went to see friends for drinks on patios. 

From left to right, sisters Shira, 20, Jasmine, 20, and Temima Silver, 18. (Submitted by Temima Silver)

Jasmine Silver said she thinks there's a misconception that young people "just want to see our friends, because forget about coronavirus, we don't really care, we're out living our best life, like YOLO [You Only Live Once]."

Living through this pandemic as a young person at a "pivotal point" in life is different from the experience of someone who's already settled down, said Temima Silver.

How many years [are] you going to put your life on hold for a virus?- Temima Silver, 18

"People, especially who have a significant other in their home, when they're older and they've already settled down, or their kids are coming back home and staying with them ... they still have somewhat of a community feeling," she said.

The sisters said they "start to spiral" downward when they think about how much more of their youth might be lost to the pandemic.

COVID-19 pandemic dealing a blow to formative years

1 year ago
Duration 1:05
Sisters Jasmine, 20, and Temima Silver, 18, say socializing, meeting new people and heading off to university would normally be how they, as young adults, would figure out who they are — but COVID-19 has put all that on hold. 1:05

"It's so scary to think of," Temima said. 

"As cliché as it sounds, [young people are] trying to figure out, who am I?" her sister added.

"How many years [are] you going to put your life on hold for a virus? Life needs to continue going," Temima said.


Hillary Johnstone is a reporter for CBC Ottawa. You can reach her by email

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