In Sally Rooney’s Normal People, the transition from school in provincial Sligo to student life in Dublin affects the two main characters very differently. Marianne, a distrusted loner back home, enjoys a fulfilling social life for the first time. Connell, the local Gaelic football star from a working-class background, fails to assimilate in the elite environs of Trinity College Dublin, but discovers his academic vocation.
Ms Rooney’s novel, recently televised to widespread acclaim, is a classic Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. It follows the two protagonists during crucial formative years, as they acquire an education in the widest sense. Sadly, for many school-leavers in the summer of coronavirus, this journey to a transformative future has become a literally remote prospect.
This week, the University of Cambridge announced that all student lectures for the next academic year will be taught online. Other colleges and universities are likely to follow suit, in the hope of offering clarity to students and time for lecturers to properly adapt and prepare. Survey results suggest that one in five prospective undergraduates would rather defer than begin their degree course in such strange circumstances. An argument about the level of tuition fees for those who do sign up is inevitable.
For school-leavers not intending to do a degree, the situation is equally disorienting and disheartening. Businesses are radically reducing the number of apprenticeships on offer, battening down the hatches in the hope of keeping existing employees on board. Internships, placements and work experience programmes are also being substantially cut back. More broadly, the catastrophe that has befallen the leisure, retail and hospitality industry will hit under-25s hardest of all. The gloomy landscape has prompted the Resolution Foundation thinktank to call for some kind of job guarantee for the young.
It is right to focus on the economic predicament of the class of 2020. But we should also be attentive to the enormous emotional strain that must come with being 18 this summer. Having left school overnight in March without properly saying goodbye, this cohort has been deprived of all the usual rites of passage and moments of catharsis: there have been no exams, no proms, no pubs and no parties. For those beginning higher education this autumn, remote learning will never offer the same opportunity to grow as a crowded university campus. Others hoping to go straight from school to the workplace will find it transformed and far less accessible. Taking a gap year will be tempting for some, but the prospects for travel are likely to be constrained, even if the money can be found.
The intensity peculiar to our late teenage years, lived on the threshold of adulthood and independence, is never repeated. The government should think urgently and creatively about how to offer fulfilling opportunities and new social possibilities for a generation that is coming of age in the most testing of circumstances.