March 25, 2023 - 8:00am

It’s been three years since then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that normal life would be indefinitely halted. Yet, despite the growing body of evidence proving pandemic mismanagement, a new poll from UnHerd Britain has shown that there is still widespread support for the Government’s lockdown measures. Most surprisingly, despite being the generation most socially impacted, young people continue to show high levels of support for lockdown.

The UnHerd poll shows that 54% of people in the UK do not think, retrospectively, that lockdowns were a mistake, with almost a third (30%) still in strong support of them. Among those in my age group of 18-24, 41% disagree with the idea that the lockdowns were misguided, with 34% in agreement. In this respect they are more pro-lockdown than the 25-34 age bracket, where 39% think the policy was a mistake. This is worryingly compounded by a recent YouGov poll showing that over half (51%) of those aged 18-24 think that Government measures during the pandemic weren’t strict enough.

At first, these numbers are startling. Do young people really wish they were locked up at home for longer, losing more of the best years of their lives? Yet this is less surprising when we consider how youth support for lockdowns is matched by an increasing sympathy for authoritarianism. This scepticism of democracy is now well-documented, with research noting that this is “the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works while in their twenties and thirties”. The reasons for this are complex, but the “democratic disconnect”, it is argued, is largely due to democracy’s failure to deliver important outcomes for young people. 

Source: UnHerd Britain/FocalData

As liberal democracies increasingly fail to deliver the promise of greater opportunity and prosperity, the young may be increasingly drawn towards forms of organising society that are detached from social and political participation. But it seems that young people today don’t have the political organisation, knowledge, or desire to rage against the machine — or even to develop a substantive social and political critique of it. To affect change in the real world would mean unplugging from what Mark Fisher called “the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand”. And nothing facilitated this virtual matrix like lockdown. No wonder young people weren’t bothered about leaving the house and claiming back their freedom. 

Youth support for lockdowns may also be attributed to a worrying reliance on the Government to solve all of their problems. The historian Christopher Lasch once said that “the atrophy of informal controls leads irresistibly to the expansion of bureaucratic controls”. And in a world where members of Gen Z have never known anything but the formal bureaucratic controls of modern liberal democracies, can we really be surprised by their lack of faith in the informal controls of civic duty and personal responsibility? Of course informal controls could not be trusted to stop the spread of Covid-19, just as informal sanctions cannot be used to stop the spread of hate and misinformation. For many young people today, personal civic duty is an empty concept. Safety and common standards can only be upheld by the state.

In the confused Gen Z psyche, lockdowns are a bit like what university has become — nothing more than a comforting formal restraint on the overwhelming prospect of freedom.

Max Mitchell is in his final year studying literature and philosophy at the University of Glasgow.