In a rapidly developing crisis, even the most perceptive can be left looking foolish. But frankly, since the COVID-19 pandemic appeared on our collective radar, pride of any sort has had to be jettisoned. A prescient friend drew my attention to the bad news coming out of Wuhan early in January – but I was still travelling on public transport right up to the week of the lockdown here in the UK.
I’m writing this for a monthly magazine, so some of what follows may have been confirmed or denied by the time this issue of Men’s Health reaches your newsagent. For a start, the newsagent may – after briefly opening following the easing of the lockdown restrictions at the beginning of June – have had to closed again. In which case, you may be reading this online, thereby embodying just a small part of the transliteration of our lives from the actual to the virtual, which has been massively accelerated by the pandemic, and to which I’ll return later.
If your local newsagent has shut again, this is because there have been sufficient new cases of the disease for social distancing measures to have been reintroduced. And if that’s the case, it seems not unlikely that the gloomy economic forecasts at the time of writing will have modulated into the bleakest possible pessimism: thousands of businesses bankrupt, millions of unemployed, the inevitable prospect of stagflation.
This volatile situation forces on my attention something that philosophers call “the problem of induction”. Namely, the logical impossibility of predicting the future on the basis of the past. When discussing the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of what we must now, perforce, call Generation C, our lack of certainty about the future is germane. For this is the very essence of the anxiety that now permeates society from top to bottom. Such anxiety would be bad enough, but it has been compounded by shock. The shock – particularly intense, I’d argue, among boys and young men – of realising that a whole range of authorities, from the government to the “science” it has stridently cleaved to, have been exposed as incompetent to the level of outright fraudulence.
The Red Pill
I was first exposed to the problem of induction when I went to university, aged 18, in 1979, and read David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – a work of profound scepticism that is nonetheless credited as the inspiration for much of the Enlightenment philosophy that followed. For me, just as for Immanuel Kant, the argument that no matter how many times the sun has risen in the past, there’s no rational guarantee it will rise again tomorrow, was as unpleasantly revelatory as Neo’s red-pill-popping in The Matrix. The world was laid bare: rather than being surrounded by wise elders who understood the way it turned, we were all part of the same dizzily incomprehensible chaos. Kant’s way back to some sense of security was only possible given the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and loving God. But for Hume, the answer was simpler: we may have no rational grounds for believing the sun will rise tomorrow, but out of sheer force of habit, we can’t help but assume it will.
It’s this unthinking bedrock of our daily lives that has been shattered by the pandemic. For when events are unprecedented in the lifetime of those experiencing them, our habitual behaviours are necessarily disrupted. Arguably, this is worse for those of us who are older – after all, we’re that much more used to believing that the world is a certain way. For young people, pretty much everything is happening for the first time – so, in that sense, it’s all unprecedented. However, much of what we think of as culture and society is, in reality, the institutionalisation of the habitual. We go to work (or school, or university lectures) at 9am and stop at 5pm, because that’s what we’ve always done. We stand for the National Anthem for much the same reason. Of course, we may be genuinely patriotic – but in our immediate response to those leaden chords, we’re as conditioned as a dog that has learned to associate a bell being rung with the arrival of a juicy steak.
For Generation C, there is another important aspect of our psychological conditioning that makes the current situation hard to cope with. This is our propensity to internalise, and so live within the complexes of technology and social rules. Most new technologies are met with fear as much as excitement. To take two examples pertinent to the age of coronavirus: both the advent of the train and inoculation against disease were initially met with horror. In the case of the former, passengers’ sense of onrushing speed and its association with the steely wheels beneath the carriage, ever-ready to slice them up, were only heightened by the poor safety record of the early railways. As for inoculation, in a world without scientific virology or epidemiology, injecting cow pox into your child’s body must have seemed foolhardy in the extreme.
Yet just as arbitrary social conventions become a sort of bubble, at once containing us and distorting our view of the world outside, so we live in these technological bubbles, assuming the benefits and capabilities that they afford us, while forgetting that at any moment – like an early locomotive – they may crash. In Britain, we have become entirely accustomed to living in a bubble of advanced medical technology – I wouldn’t have survived infancy without it, while my youngest son’s mother wouldn’t have survived his birth. I’m now a 58-year-old man on immune- suppressant drugs, without which I would expire within weeks, due to an incurable myeloid blood condition. I know I’m not alone – that many of you reading this will have similar case histories, personal and familial. This is what makes us so very passionate about the defence of “our” National Health Service.
I’m certainly a believer in socialised medicine, consisting of treatment that’s free and on demand – but we need to understand that our belief in its ability to cure all our ills is in the manner of faith, rather than reason. It’s this faith that has been challenged by the pandemic – it’s this bubble that has been popped.
The forecasts are stark. The government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) suggests that 30% of British children quarantined during the lockdown will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During lockdown, anecdotal evidence from three practising psychotherapists I know well, and trust, suggests that mental health problems have increased massively – especially among young men. Meanwhile, friction between generations has also proved incendiary, precipitating many families into outright breakdown. Another friend, who works as an educator with young people who have mental health problems, tells me that she has seen a 300% increase in psychotic episodes among her clients since the lockdown began. And this is against a background of a progressive deterioration in young men’s mental health that has been going on for years.
It is well known that the biggest cause of death among men aged under 45 in Britain is suicide. Less widely understood is the fact that the suicide rate among men under the age of 25 was rising the fastest of any demographic group even before the pandemic hit.
As the father of four young adults – from two marriages, ranging in age from 30 to 18, the eldest and the two youngest male – I’ve taken up an unpleasantly penetrative observation post when it comes to witnessing the negative psychological impacts of the pandemic. My eldest son has had his work as a freelance journalist pretty much dry up, and following a sojourn teaching English as a foreign language – initially in locked-down Naples, and latterly in London – he has now retreated to his mother’s house in the country, where the costs are lower. My daughter is still working as a casting agent but dealing, like many, with the stresses of communicating almost entirely through virtual media that compromise our ability to understand – and so effectively bond – with co-workers.
As for my two younger sons, having suffered the sudden loss of their mother after a short illness last October, they were – in a bizarrely unpalatable sense – already match fit for the trauma and anxiety of the pandemic. Recently and suddenly deprived of what should be one of the most secure anchors in this maelstrom world, they naturally haven’t coped that well. My 18-year-old has scarcely left his bedroom since the pandemic began, citing fears of contracting the virus – and his terror of passing it on to his more vulnerable father, given that I’m in the government’s so-called “shield” category. My 22-year-old, who was initially studying music at Salford University, dropped out a couple of years ago, did some academic A-levels via correspondence courses and, after securing good marks, went up to Glasgow University to study philosophy last autumn.
It’s he who I locate at the epicentre of Generation C: those young people who should be at the very peak of their sense of youthful omnipotentiality – seeing themselves simultaneously as oysters, filtering through their bivalve bodies all the briny immensity of oceanic reality, while also paradoxically regarding that world as their oyster. My son is passionate about politics and music. He loves weightlifting, rambling and dancing – the world he wants to be in is one where he and his friends dispute the issues of the day late into the night, and then lose themselves in a corybantic frenzy of gigs, clubs and raves. The last thing that he wants to do is preserve a 2m distance from anyone, at any time. The pandemic has deprived him of this different bubble: that of his happy embodiment.
It has also compounded his feeling, following his mother’s death, that the society we live in is one typified by hypocrisy. For if there has been one growth industry since the virus was first spat in our faces, it’s that of saying one thing while doing another. At the apex of this pyramid of piffle stands the philoprogenitive Prime Minister, who may know how to pump out semen but seems incontinent when it comes to maintaining the sort of relationships that nurturing the young requires. Especially the kind required to mentor young men and to modulate their impulsiveness and aggression.
But below him stand others such as Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, whose stark warnings about a possible half-million deaths from COVID-19 led the government to finally order a shutdown of the British economy – a move that many other experts now consider to have been too late by at least a fortnight, thereby costing 20,000 lives. Ferguson resigned after being exposed as flouting the lockdown that he mandated in order to meet with his lover – not so Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, whose failure to observe the same rules nearly became the rocky reef upon which the entire ship of state foundered.
Is it any wonder that it’s increasingly hard for young men to have confidence in manifest authority? If I single out young men, it’s not to downplay the effects of the pandemic on women generally – they, too, are suffering. But in the context of a sustained critique of masculinity and power, which is presented as if there were some sort of politically significant axis running between toxic masculinity at one end and restorative femininity at the other, young men in particular can feel as if they have nowhere to go. After all, they share the sex of those who, for the most part, are fingered as the virus’s useful idiots. The result is a downward spiral of self-criticism, predicated entirely on their possession of a penis.
The word is divisive. In a fragmented society, the race is on to cleave to smaller groups – but there can be no men without women, no gay without straight, and no black without white. The liberal dream of simultaneous exclusivity and inclusivity has been exposed by the pandemic as the contradiction in terms it always was. And then there’s education, education, education – the alleged summum bonum of the Blair years, which, under both him and his successors has been sold off by the pound.
I’ve been in pole position to witness this. Over the past decade, I have taught philosophy and literature at a third-tier British university, where I have tried to mentor many young men from disadvantaged backgrounds who, to be blunt, have been flogged a pig-in-a-poke. Perhaps the most shocking statistic to emerge during lockdown has been that 80% of school-age children have done none of the virtual learning provided for them. Those who have engaged have been largely those privileged scions of independent schools. But even these wealthier pupils’ enthusiasm for their education has evaporated – one of my former postgraduate students, who up until the pandemic had been a private tutor, has lost all of his work.
It doesn’t take long to realise why this should be. In line with turning education into something that can be bought and sold came another besetting phenomenon: teaching to the test. In the 10 years since young people were compelled to borrow £27,000 in order to study for a degree, the race has been on to transform our universities into branches of Kall Kwik that simply print out degrees. Across the sector, it has been estimated that degree classifications have been raised by around 25% in a decade. Just like confectionery manufacturers who make their chocolate bars smaller in order to surreptitiously increase prices, the less academically successful universities have handed out “better” degrees in order to justify their disproportionately high fees.
Is it any wonder that students now see higher education in a similar light? With each successive year I’ve been teaching, my students have become more demanding – acting like consumers who are being sold a shrunken chocolate bar, rather than scholars in search of enlightenment. And I don’t blame them – given the grade inflation, and the massive increase in their numbers, all an arts or humanities degree qualifies a recent graduate for is to work in a shoe shop. And who knows when they’ll be recruiting again? No wonder the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects receive the most attention: they, at least, seem to promise the chance of a genuine career and a guaranteed income.
Lack of Incentive
But with the government announcing that all GCSEs for this year would be awarded without testing – and the vast majority of universities following suit by allowing undergraduates to either advance to the next year, or even be awarded their degrees without any further assessment – the entire incentive for this sort of education has collapsed. Is it any wonder that the young – 50% of whom have been attending some sort of institution of higher education – have become disaffected? Is it any surprise that there has been an upsurge of illegal raves – Manchester, with its many thousands of furloughed students being an epicentre of this civil disobedience?
Nor can anyone have been shocked by the willingness of young BAME men in particular to ignore social distancing in order to protest at the profound inequalities visited upon them and their communities. For the pandemic has exposed the British dream of fairness and equality for what it has become: a vast collective act of virtue signalling, whereby we imagine that if we post enough of the good stuff online, it would somehow block out or otherwise annul the bad stuff happening IRL, including institutionalised racism. Now, I’m being told that I will have to move the bulk of my teaching online for the autumn term – another huge devaluation of the education we’re selling to our young people that will result in more of us being confined within a bubble of assumed technological empowerment.
My 22-year-old kept getting into fights on social media during the lockdown. He began to appreciate the full force of Marshall McLuhan’s insight that “the medium is the message”, because the very nature of Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, et al, is to reduce the nuances of human experience to immediate, starkly binary choices. If poetry is typified by – following Wordsworth – “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, social media are all about emotion contrived in instantaneity. Young men, who don’t have good impulse control at the best of times, can find themselves whipped up by divisive online pseudo-debates – and then they perhaps head out for a jog, or to exercise in the park, and see members of the Boomer generation, such as myself, wearing masks and gloves, seemingly trying to protect ourselves from not just their potentially virion-laden breath, but from any contact with them at all. I, and many like me, face the dilemma of whether to expose ourselves to increased risk, or try to keep our young people in lockdown with us.
Old Against Young
There have been plenty of voices raised – and not just on the extreme and capitalistic right – to the effect that the lockdown was a mistake, and that given our vastly increased susceptibility to the virus, us older – and often wealthier – inhabitants of this now septic isle, have sacrificed the next generations’ economic interests to preserve our own perverse immortality project. At root, I’m afraid this critique has validity. How can we expect a generation of young men, who have been taught and bombarded with the prices of everything, to understand the value of anything, including their own lives? Hume’s extreme scepticism led Kant to develop the idea that morality finds its expression in treating human individuals as ends in themselves. But the young men of Generation C can see perfectly well that “kick-starting” the economy off the back of renewed consumerism is nothing of the sort.
I would have liked to end this essay on an optimistic note – but to do so without offering a way towards a possibly brighter future would be casuistry of the worst kind. Instead, I’m going to hope that the editor, who afforded me this space, will allow me some more in the future to set out my vision of what might constitute good mental health care for young men in an era that has seen the return of the pandemic disease, which, let’s face it, has always been endemic to human civilisation.
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