What life’s like for young Australians who turned 18 in a pandemic.
In the future, we’ll look back at 2020 and remember it all like a blur: the lockdowns, the late-night press conference panics, the toilet paper shortages, the Netflix binging and the sourdough-starting, the anxiety, the loneliness, the grief.
Young Australians who were in their last year of high school will remember it as a generation-defining disaster.
The pandemic hit them in a fragile moment; the transition from school to the rest of their lives, when every decision they made felt life altering.
This period would normally be marked with a series of milestones. Instead, the class of 2020 said anti-climactic goodbyes from their bedrooms over Zoom. Many finished the year feeling trapped, disoriented and lost.
But others found opportunities amid the chaos. They bonded with family, experimented with their appearance, found their confidence, danced, sang, and even became TikTok famous.
A year on from when Australia first went into lockdown, Hack asked four young Aussies to reflect on what the past year’s been like. We also sent them disposable cameras to document what they’re up to now.
This is a typical week in Flynt Robbins’s life right now: Mondays and Tuesdays he picks fruit at an apple orchard. Wednesdays and Thursdays he serves coffees, drinks and food at his local cafe, Ed’s. Fridays are split between both jobs. On the weekends he’s back at the cafe. That’s a 60-hour week.
It sounds exhausting and it isn’t what the 19-year-old was supposed to be doing this year.
Flynt’s plan was to ace year 12, finally leave the Mornington Peninsula, study teaching in Melbourne and go on a bunch of adventures to figure out who he was.
He did make it into the degree he wanted, but by the end of 2020, he was totally burnt out.
“One of the only benefits of COVID-19 was me coming out of online learning and being like … I can’t do another four years of schooling,” he tells Hack.
“I’m not doing that shit again, I gotta have a breather, like that was torture.”
Plus, Flynt was broke. He’d lost most of his shifts at the cafe because of the lockdowns and he didn’t qualify for JobKeeper. He made the tough call to press pause, recharge and save for his big move to the city.
“There’s no use in situations like that where it’s beyond your control, stressing out and blaming yourself about where you’re at, what you’ve accomplished, what others have accomplished,” he says.
“It was just being pragmatic and sensible about it.”
Flynt still reckons he made the right decision, but he says he has moments of deep unhappiness when he thinks about the things he has missed out on.
“I just feel so lame and so bland, like, I got nothing,” he says.
“I’m 19 and I’ve still got a 17-year-old sort of essence and everything about me back then is basically what I’ve got now except, you know, the trauma of a pandemic as well.”
Flynt didn’t get a formal, a proper last day of school or get to say goodbye to his cohort.
“We were robbed big time,” he says.
“I got a live-streamed graduation. I looked my principal in the eye, he handed me a piece of paper, and then I basically fucked off. And that was it. That was the end of my school experience.”
For a lot of teens, these milestones are supposed to mark the end of this phase of their lives. Without them, Flynt says he has no idea how he is supposed to feel.
“I have no concept of where I should be in my life socially [and] emotionally,” he says.
Flynt only went to his first club a few months ago and he got kicked out because he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to wear shorts.
“It’s fun to live all the things you missed out on, but it also feels wrong. It feels like you don’t belong, like you’re rocking up to the joints and you’re just like, ‘I should have done this last year, like this just feels like I’m old and decrepit.'”
In his low moments, Flynt tries to remember all the good that’s come from the pandemic. He has got to spend more time with his grandma, who he is very close with, and he’s looking forward to a big road trip up to northern NSW and Queensland in September when he plans to travel, meet new people and make money picking fruit.
By next year he’ll have enough money to live in Melbourne and start his secondary teaching degree at Deakin University.
Flynt says this past year has taught him to roll with the punches.
“I’ve just come out of what I did, what else can be thrown at me? I’ve already been through something that messed everything up,” he says.
“I have a plan now.
“There are places I want to be and I’ll do what it takes to get there.”
High school had always been about two things for Unice Wani: her friends and sport. So last year when Perth went into lockdown and extracurriculars were cancelled, she felt like she lost everything that grounded her.
One of 12 siblings, Unice migrated to Australia at the age of four from Kampala, Uganda. It wasn’t an easy transition.
“Learning a new language was very difficult for me,” she tells Hack.
“Being a young girl of colour as well, with all the bullying going on … it was very hard to handle.”
For most of her school life, Unice had felt defined by her heritage.
“No matter what I was good at, it always came back to my skin colour … [or], ‘She’s got big lips or wait, no, she has a big forehead,’ and everything like that … it was quite hectic,” Unice says.
Unice’s way of coping with that bullying and racism was channelling her energy into sport, which she excelled at.
“I started running, jumping, skipping — anything you could imagine, I was in it,” she says.
“That’s what built up my confidence more and it started making me realize I’m actually good at something, and as long as I’m good at something, other people will start viewing me in a different way.”
By the time Unice got to year 12, she was named house sports captain. She finally felt comfortable in her skin and accepted. Then COVID-19 hit.
“It did take a deep toll,” Unice says.
“Finally, I have friends that understand me and I can’t even interact with them, I can’t smile with them, I can’t laugh … it kind of took the excitement out of going to school.
“It was very scary and nerve-racking to even wonder if I’m going to make it through this year.”
Stuck with indefinite uncertainty and a sense of dread about her future, Unice and every other “quaranteen” turned to the one place that would guarantee them respite from their feels: TikTok.
The then-17-year-old would scroll her woes away, interacting with 15-second videos of her peers dancing to It’s Corona Time, Bella Poarch lip-syncing to Millie B’s M to the B or the latest sketch from The Inspired Unemployed guys.
In May last year, Unice started posting her own TikToks, dancing and lip-syncing to trending hip hop and R&B sounds.
To her surprise, they went off.
“The compliments that came built up my love for myself and made my ego bigger,” Unice laughs.
But as her following began to grow, so did the haters.
“People fell back into the whole ‘her skin colour’ or, ‘She’s too dark,’ or, ‘These features about her aren’t great,'” Unice says.
At first, she muted out the hate and deleted the negative comments. But then she started getting messages from young girls.
“Little girls [were] going, ‘If you’re getting all this hate for your skin colour and for looking like this, what does that say about me?'” she says.
Unice decided to address the racism in a video that’s since clocked more than a million views.
“The majority of you guys still feel the need to comment on my skin colour, about how dark I am and about how black, black, black I am,” she says in the TikTok.
“Well guess what? I’m black and I’m so proud. Just look at me, I’m beautiful and that’s never gonna change. Period.”
Unice goes on to thank the trolls for watching her videos and tagging their friends and increasing her views.
“I showed that I love myself regardless of what anyone thinks and I’m gonna keep posting. That’s when my journey started to get better,” she tells Hack.
Despite the uncertainty of last year, restrictions began to ease, and Unice eventually got her ball, a muck-up day and a graduation — videos of which were posted to TikTok for posterity.
A year on from when she posted her first TikTok, Unice has gained more than 550,000 followers and has been picked up by a talent management agency.
Unice says her parents couldn’t be more stoked.
“Like most strict parents, they pushed me and said, ‘We will support you in anything you do, we just want you to get an education,'” she says.
Unice is currently at Murdoch University and planning to go into international business and corporate law next year.
“That’s what I wanted to do for them and for myself: to prove that I came from a foreign place but now I’m here and I’m gonna make something of it … and I’m gonna make not only them proud, but myself proud as well,” she says.
The pandemic gave something very precious back to 18-year-old William Winter from south-west Sydney: time.
Time for study without the hours-long commute into school every day.
Time to spend with his Chilean-Australian family knowing they were safe from the virus.
Time to grow out his wild mane of hair and try on skirts for the first time at home (the denim one with stars and moons is the family favourite).
Time away from a school where he didn’t quite fit in, and time to work out exactly who he is.
While 2020 really sucked for many 18-year-olds, that wasn’t really the case for William.
“For me, there were definitely a lot of positives to staying home,” he tells Hack.
“I’m very introverted and very self-driven, so it was a lot easier for me to be at home, to do classes at my own pace. It was a much more relaxed scenario, and considering the mood during the HSC, it helped me a lot to not have as much stress.”
He took walks around the block with his mum and rearranged his room to create the perfect study nook, surrounded by colourful memorabilia. He watched more construction go up on neighbours’ blocks and loved that the noise made him feel less alone. And it gave him an excuse to be loud back, singing artists like Troye Sivan and Tkay Maidza at the top of his lungs around the house.
But there were downsides, too: no ceremonies throughout the year, no formal at the end.
“A lot of the pomp and circumstance that normally comes with year 12, we missed out on,” he says.
“It was like we finished out high school with a fizzle instead of a bang.”
So as the year wound down, William went into 2021 with no expectations. He reckons that’s been a good thing, giving him space to work out who he is.
A favourite part of 2021 so far? Picking up casual shifts at a local restaurant. He’s been revelling in the validation of doing physical tasks well — and finding other forms of validation too.
“I’m trying to stop compromising about who I am … my voice is really high, I’m very quirky with my humour and everything, and I still get along well with everyone [at the restaurant],” he says.
“It’s made me realise that there are a lot of really nice people in the world and finding an environment where you just fit in is really good.”
He’s found a similar environment at Sydney Uni, where he’s started an Arts course, majoring in politics and gender studies.
“It’s been really good to find people where I can feel confident and just be myself,” he says.
“I think I’m a very loud, obscure personality, and I shut that off a lot in high school amongst most people. And now that I’m in university, I’m trying to make myself be more open about what I really want. And be OK with people not accepting that because I know if I’m open and true to myself, I’ll find people who are accepting of that.”
William always thought life after high school would be a pretty important time for him to explore those sorts of things.
“But the pandemic definitely pushed all of that into overdrive, considering I had to just be at home with my thoughts for several months at a time and really reckon with who I was and what I wanted to express to the world,” he says.
Bianca Delahaye from Brisbane will remember 2020 as the year she got sick. While her classmates went through their final year of high school with COVID-19 looming large, cancelling and rescheduling their formal or having to wear masks during exams, the 18-year-old was barely making it to class.
She missed 100 days of school while she spent her time at doctors’ appointments, in hospital beds, and coming to terms with the extreme symptoms of her incurable illness, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS.
“All of my friends were like, ‘I need to get into uni,’ or, ‘I need to get this ATAR.’ For me, it was just such a huge thing to graduate,” Bianca tells Hack.
“A big thing for me was kind of having to step back and not compare myself to others. And being like, ‘What I’ve gone through to get here is amazing.’ And just accepting that.”
She did graduate and she did make it through year 12. She turned 18, she left school, and she’s planning on going to uni.
But Bianca notices how being a chronically ill 18-year-old has made her grow up even faster than the rest of her fellow “quaranteens”.
“None of my friends understand what it’s like to have to sit in an MRI machine for like three hours or to have to get a blood test four times a day.
“That’s something that I found really difficult with my friends.
“And I’ve lost quite a few friends because of it.”
Bianca accepts that losing friends after high school isn’t unique to her — it’s something everyone goes through.
Being in high school is like being in a boat, she explains. All your classmates are riding the same highs and lows together — in the same uniforms, in the same classrooms, with the same teachers.
“But now we’ve all been put in different boats and we’re all riding different waves. And people are all going through different things and new experiences, and we’re all trying to keep up with each other,” she says.
For Bianca, that means watching some of her friends have the formative experiences she wishes her illness wasn’t robbing her of: going out clubbing, making new friends at uni, becoming more independent.
She admits that at times she feels resentment towards her friends who can live spontaneously while she spends most of her time at home managing her health.
Despite everything, Bianca has a degree of gratitude for growing up with a chronic illness in a pandemic. It’s made her more resilient and it’s forced her to live mindfully in the present.
“The future keeps changing and it keeps changing for everyone,” she says.
“And the idea that we’re just supposed to know what we’re going to be doing in, like, three months’ time doesn’t work for me.
“2020 was terrible timing, but also really good timing. It knocked this sense of reality into us.”
- Reporting: Meghna Bali, Maddy King and Ange McCormack
- Digital production and design: Meghna Bali
- Photography and video: Flynt Robbins, Unice Wani, William Winter and Bianca Delahaye