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Young people eating and socialising at a music festival.

Long social distancing: how young adults’ habits have changed since COVID

After two long, difficult years of the pandemic, life has started to return to normal – or at least something resembling normal – for many people.

With all major COVID restrictions now removed in the UK, recorded cases at their lowest rate in about a year, and vaccines and booster coverage relatively high, many people are keenly settling back into old habits. Mobility data suggests that – with the exception of travel on public transport and travel to workplaces, which are still below average – we are starting to get out and about as much as we did before the pandemic.

Quarter life, a series by The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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But for a significant number of people, the habits that were picked up during the pandemic are still very much a part of life. For example, recent data suggests that just under one-third of people in the UK are continuing to avoid crowded places, while about one-third say they’re maintaining social distancing when meeting up with people from outside their household. More than half of people (54%) report still wearing face masks at least sometimes.

This phenomenon – which has been called “long social distancing” – is not unique to the UK. For example, in many countries, including France, Spain, Italy and Germany, more than four in ten people have reported they’re still avoiding crowds.

Meanwhile, US research has found that 13% of Americans say they plan to continue to socially distance after the pandemic is over, with another 46% saying they plan on only a partial return to normal activities.

But who is practising long social distancing, and why? And where do young people fit in?

Let’s take a look

One obvious group is those who are clinically vulnerable. For example, people with disabilities – many of whom, depending on the nature of their disability, might be at higher risk of serious outcomes from COVID – are more likely to believe that their lives will never return to normal. Similarly, adults aged over 70, also at higher risk of serious illness from COVID, are more likely to still be wearing face masks.

There are certainly differences in behaviour by age. Data from the UK finds that younger adults are less likely than older adults to either be still socially distancing or wearing face masks. Research from the US meanwhile finds that younger people are less likely to continue socially distancing after the pandemic is over.

Younger people may have been quicker to return to social activities, compared to older adults. Recent UK data suggests that over the first few months of 2022, during and just after the initial omicron wave, more than 80% of 18 to 29-year-olds said they had met up with friends during the previous week, compared to around 60% to 70% of people in older age groups.

Even so, data shows that 16% of those aged 16-29 are still socially distancing, and 40% are still wearing masks outside of their homes at least sometimes.

A young woman on a bus wearing a mask.
Some young people are continuing to wear masks when they go out. wasilisa/Shutterstock

The pandemic has been hard on young adults

Young adults have tended to get a bad rap during the pandemic, often unfairly. Although some surveys have suggested that rule-breaking was higher among younger adults, others have found that compliance in this group was as high, or at certain points even higher, than it was among older adults.

Notably, young adults have been one of the groups who have found the pandemic, and the policies designed to contain COVID, most difficult. General life satisfaction has been significantly lower among younger compared to older adults throughout the past two years. It’s possible that the “social losses” experienced during the pandemic have been more challenging for younger adults, for whom we know socialising is crucial for development and wellbeing.

Young adults have been among the most likely to experience mental health problems, and not to look after their physical health – for example having a poor diet, drinking a lot of alcohol, or not doing enough exercise. As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, problems such as anxiety and depression tend to remain higher among younger adults.

Why a return to ‘normal’ won’t be uniform

Behaviour is complex and often if not always the result of many factors. Research has invariably shown how everything from political affiliation to personality traits affects how people have been behaving during the pandemic. Conscientiousness and neuroticism, for example, have both been associated with greater adherence to infection-reducing behaviour.

Similarly, these sorts of factors are likely to affect the extent to which different people return to their pre-pandemic social habits. Certainly there’s a significant minority of the population who remain at least somewhat worried about the effect of COVID on their lives – four in ten according to recent UK data.

Interestingly, US data suggests people on lower incomes, and with less formal education, are the least likely to feel as though they will return to normal pre-pandemic activities.

Further research is needed to explore why this is the case. One possible explanation is that people from more deprived communities have been at greater risk of more serious outcomes from COVID. They have also been most affected by the economic and social impacts of pandemic policies. So for them it’s perhaps unsurprising that getting back to “normal” seems like a distant, if not impossible, goal.

Read more: Two years into the pandemic, which of our newly formed habits are here to stay?

In our Public Views During the COVID Pandemic project, we have been following people using a combination of focus groups and surveys since March 2020. One of our aims is to continue to explore some of the reasons behind why, and for how long, social distancing might be a part of some people’s lives.

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