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It’s official: 2020 has left us ‘stunted’

Research has found that young people in 2020 were less satisfied with their relationships and felt less intimacy than in previous years

Have you been plagued by an unshakeable malaise since coming out of lockdown? Feel as though your ability to socialise has been totally decimated? Are you slowly becoming convinced that this isn’t a “flop era” and this is actually just... life? Good news (kind of): research has found that it’s not all in your head.

The new study, which has been published in the Social, Psychological and Personality Science journal, compared the social development of young people (aged between 18 and 35) over the course of eight months in 2020 with that of people in the same bracket in 2019. 

They found that the 2020 cohort were less satisfied with their relationships, felt less intimacy, and felt less supported by their friends, leading researchers to conclude that the year 2020 was so traumatic for young people that their social development has been “stunted” as a result. They also discovered that young people in 2020 described feeling more stress and anxiety than in previous years.

While the changes between the 2019 and 2020 cohorts were not extreme, academics claimed that those affected had experienced enough “missed opportunities” to impact their development. “Young adults had less positive emotions and more negative emotions,” Dr Janina Bühler, lead author of the study, tells Dazed.

It’s arguably unsurprising: 2020 saw a number of disruptive global events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple extreme weather events, social tension associated with the murder of George Floyd, and a contentious US election that culminated in an attack on the nation’s capital. While there has been a wealth of research on the economic impact of such an unprecedented year, there’s been relatively little research into the psychosocial impact of 2020 on young people.

“It is even natural to focus on the consequences that are immediately observable and most urgent, at least at first glance,” says Dr Bühler. “Therefore, much research – but not all – has focused on the economic or academic consequences for young adults. While these areas are, without doubt, important, they only focus on one side of young adults’ lives and consequently only on one side that could have been affected by the 2020 stressors.”

“One can probably not say what has come first – the economic or the psychosocial consequences” – Dr Janina Bühler

Of course, as Dr Bühler points out, the economic and the psychosocial are linked. “In the case of the 2020 stressors, one can probably not say what has come first – the economic or the psychosocial consequences - because both areas were affected by the stressors,” she says. “We need further research to specifically examine this interplay, especially in the context of collective stress.”

This new research follows a report published by The Prince’s Trust in February which revealed that happiness in young people was at its lowest point in 13 years. The report also found that almost a quarter of young people in the UK believe they will never recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, while 44 per cent are more anxious now than they were at the start of the pandemic.

Any young person could have told you that 2020 was traumatising for free, but now it’s been acknowledged by a number of academics and finally recognised as a widespread, ongoing issue – so where do we go from here? “It is important to focus on young adults’ affective and social well-being and to find ways that they feel less depressed and more socially supported in the midst of collective stressors,” Dr Bühler says.

The team also added that further research which examines how young people who were less affected coped with 2020 could lead to the development of better resources and help for those who continue to struggle.