I’ve never known whether to consider myself a millennial or a gen-z. The millennial cut-off is technically 1996, and while I was born in 1997, my peers didn’t grow up with smartphones, tablets, or the Metaverse. I still remember playing snake on my green Samsung Galaxy flip phone in high school and creating my Facebook profile at the school computer lab. Then came iPhones, and Instagram, and suddenly a world of information was available at our fingertips – at all times. So, I consider my year “cuspers” – on the cusp of two generations, and the guinea pigs of the technological transition.
When we first caught wind of the pandemic back in March 2020, I had just completed my undergraduate degree at McGill University and moved back home to Vancouver. Many of those who have entered the world of work after university can agree that it is a weird transition – even weirder when a global pandemic hits six months in. At this time, many of my fellow cuspers who went straight from high school to university were freshly graduated and either searching for work or starting a new job, many had moved to a new city, some were travelling, or beginning graduate school. I consider this to be a pretty overwhelming transition – even without a pandemic, our lives were never going to be the same as they were for the past four years in university.
It’s almost funny now, two and a half years into the pandemic, to think back on how life used to be. My freshman year courses at McGill, with over 600 students in the lecture hall. Around November inevitably, you’d start to hear muffled coughs throughout the auditorium, attendance would fall a bit – and then finals would come around in December, with 1000 students packed in the field house, taking exams on tiny desks (2 meters apart, ironically). Of course, the freshman students of 2020 had an entirely different first-year university experience. With zoom lectures and take-home exams, limited social interaction with classmates and professors. A part of me feels fundamentally sad for the missed experiences of university students throughout covid, but I also mourn for those my age, who graduated university with a world of possibilities that felt squelched almost as quickly as they were imagined.
In writing this blog post, I spoke to a few of my close friends about how the pandemic has impacted their early professional lives; the way they work, job seek, and study. Although nearly everyone has been adversely affected by the pandemic in some way or another – losing work, losing family, financial pressure, housing troubles, mental health, not to mention the climate crisis. It has not been an easy few years. However, I am constantly amazed by the resiliency of my generation. Instead of reminiscing on the freedoms we had before the pandemic, everyone spoke about what had changed for the better, the things they didn’t want to go back to, and what they hoped for in the future.
When I reflect on hope during the pandemic, participating in Waterlution’s 2020 Global Water Innovation Lab immediately comes to my mind. I had originally planned to attend the five-day WIL scheduled in British Columbia, but the pandemic caused the program to rapidly shift focus to be a fully virtual, 6-month international program. WIL Global was born out of restriction-induced innovation, and although none of us were familiar with zoom or virtual learning yet, the pandemic brought together 125 likeminded individuals from across the globe that never would have met otherwise. It is hard to express how much solace it brought me to speak with passionate young people about climate change and water. Attending WIL Global every Wednesday morning for 6 months at 6am Pacific was always the highlight of my week – I had a community, and most importantly, I felt like I was allowed to be hopeful. Two years later, Waterlution has remained an anchor of hope for me throughout the ups and downs of my early career in the water sector. As I write this article, I am wrapping up a month-long contract assisting Waterlution with the launch of WIL Atlantic and WIL Great Lakes. I had a chance to catch up with WIL Global participants while I was promoting the programs and was once again struck by the meaningful work being done by my peers in the water world. While I was reviewing applications for WIL Atlantic, I found myself moved to tears by the passion and excitement of applicants, who will get to meet face-to-face in Prince Edward Island for the first in-person Canadian WIL since 2019. Human connection, something that we will never take for granted after two years of technical difficulties.
In true form for my generation, to answer my research question on how Covid-19 has impacted the way young people work and study, I took my query to Instagram. Each poll was posted to my personal Instagram story for 24 hours and received roughly 250 responses – results are shared below.
The results: Flexibility and work-life balance were clear priorities.
Some peers wrote to me about the extra time they had for hobbies, creativity and exercise since working from home. The ability to travel and work virtually from anywhere in the world was a commonly cited bonus. But also the little things; having the option to work from home if you’re having a bad day, being able to take a walk in your neighbourhood on a coffee break, the famous ‘meetings that could have been emails,’ are more often becoming emails. While the pandemic confined us to our homes for nearly two years, it opened up a new world of remote job opportunities, virtual training programs, flexible workplaces, and importantly, it allowed many of us to take a step back. We spend half of our waking weeks working, if not more, but the pandemic demonstrated to many that life is too precious to be doing something you don’t enjoy. A former colleague I spoke to expressed his gratitude for the ability to slow down since Covid. He quit his job, sold his car, and moved across the country in search of professional change. Before the pandemic he always felt pressure to be doing something, but a few months of enforced nothingness inspired him to take a leap and start fresh. For a brief period, the immense societal pressure of productivity was alleviated, which encouraged him to pursue meaningful work rather than a paycheque.
As we “return to a new normal” in Canada, there have been many questions swirling around about the return to offices and classrooms. I discussed this topic with my best friend from Vancouver who spent the first year of the pandemic working for a student travel company (tough industry), and the second year doing her master’s in Environmental Planning at UBC. She expressed her hope for a future with more patience in the workplace. In the era of constant digital accessibility, where we are expected to be plugged in at all times, she hopes that we will be given the grace to disconnect after work hours, to leave non-essential emails until tomorrow. From an Urban Planning perspective, she also sees huge potential for green infrastructure in the shift away from offices and commuter vehicles, to favour bike and pedestrian centric urban centres. We spoke on the phone about how the City of Vancouver could utilize empty commuter parking lots as green infrastructure for stormwater management, with community gardens and green roofs. There is possibility all around us, if we allow ourselves to envision a “new normal” that is fundamentally different from pre-pandemic society.
In this age of digital connectedness, the world can feel more divided than ever; with health inequities, wars, divisive politics, and environmental injustices constantly circulating our newsfeeds. Besides the pandemic, one unifying force that transcends these national, local, and social divisions is the need for global action to halt the progression of climate change. I recently attended a webinar hosted by the University of Victoria’s POLIS Water Sustainability Project about hope during this time of global change. I resonated greatly with one of the speakers, who expressed that we cannot allow the world to return to a different, but fundamentally unaltered version of what it was before the pandemic. That we must seize this moment to change the way we live and work, in order to ensure an equitable future for the planet. Although these issues feel bigger than us as individuals, meaningful change starts at the local level by communities like Waterlution, Indigenous activists, youth, and so many others who are fighting fiercely to protect our land and waters. In this overwhelming (seemingly never-ending) period of global transformation, I manage to hold on to hope thanks to the inspirational and innovative minds of my generation. As indicated in response to my Instagram questions, young people in the workforce are hoping for a future with more love, gratitude, and respect for one another and the planet.
Neela is a graduate student in Integrated Water Resource Management at McGill University in Montreal. She is currently working as a student Policy Analyst for the Canada Water Agency Transition Office at Environment and Climate Change Canada. Neela has been involved with Waterlution for over three years and most recently completed a short contract assisting with the launch of WIL Atlantic and WIL Great Lakes. She grew up on a small island in Howe Sound, on the unseeded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, where she learned to love and protect the waters.