In May, we launched a special online COVID-19 Survey of 1970 British Cohort Study members and participants in four other cohort studies (born in 1946, 1958, 1989-90 and 2000-02) .
We followed this up with a second survey in September. In all, over 29,000 people, across the five studies, completed one or both of these two surveys.
The first survey included one open-ended question. We asked you to express in your own words the main ways the coronavirus outbreak has affected your life and/or your loved ones so far, and what you thought the effects might be in the future.
Across all five cohorts, a total of 10,793 study members answered this question, writing slightly more than 1.2 million words between you. More women than men answered this question. Researchers have been analysing the content of the responses and found that the most frequently used nouns for your generation were ‘family’, ‘work’, ‘time’ and ‘home’. The terms used most frequently did not differ by gender or occupation. The word cloud below (Word frequency, all five generations combined) shows which words appeared the most often in your responses – the bigger the word, the more often it was used.
These responses capture only one unique point in time, when the UK government response to COVID-19 was in an early phase and the pandemic was still a relatively new experience. From this overall sample, 50 responses were randomly sampled from each of the five generations and preliminarily analysed by our researchers, to identify major themes. Few study members reported fully negative (or fully positive) experiences. Most described a mix of inter-related positive and negative impacts which broadly fit into the following themes.
A particularly common theme across all generations was missing friends and family. One study member from the youngest age group noted:
“I have not been able to see my girlfriend in months. It’s made me feel a bit numb” (Male, age 19).
Others have been worrying about the loneliness felt by family members:
“My mother is [in her late 80s] and is really struggling with being isolated. [She] finds it hard to understand why I can’t spend time with her” (Female age 62).
Mental health impacts
Researchers using other information collected in our survey found that many study members suffered from poor mental health during the first national lockdown. Poor mental health was most common among 19-year-olds, followed by those aged 30 and then those aged 50 and 62. Females reported worse mental health than males during the lockdown, consistent with previous (pre-lockdown) findings. Most study members who mentioned mental health in their response to our open question focused on negative impacts, but a small number reported that the lockdown had improved their mental wellbeing by reducing social pressure. Study members noted:
“I’ve been in full control of my depression. My father on the other hand has struggled big time. Since the outbreak he has become more depressed” (Male, age 50).
“I have suffered with my mental health for a number of years and the effects of the virus and the lockdown have caused an incredible amount of stress and anxiety” (Female age 19).
Education and gendered childcare
The survey responses included numerous examples of worries about how the pandemic was affecting family and friends. Parents were also concerned about the impact on their children.
“The main concern is my children… They are both at interesting and exciting stages of their life, and I do not know how this will now play out and how it will affect them in the next couple of years” (Female, age 50).
For many, disruption to education was a big concern:
“This outbreak has made uni 100X more stressful and difficult” (Female, age 19).
In another piece of analysis, we found there were stark differences in the amount of time that mothers and fathers of young children were devoting to childcare (including home schooling), with mothers on average spending several more hours per day on these tasks. A number of mothers used the open text response to explain how this disparity was affecting them.
“The stress on my relationship has been difficult as both of us… still have to go to work [and] the nursery had to close… My partner has struggled with this… I’m now having to work evenings and weekends and… he just expected me to… still be wholly responsible for the care of our child” (Female, age 30).
Financial difficulties, and the impact of these on wellbeing, were another common theme in the responses, including your generation:
“I have been let go from one [of] my jobs… which has left us without enough money to pay all the bills and keep food in. So we have been using [a] food bank and had help [from] our church to be able to eat” (Female, age 50).
In addition to reflecting on your current experience of the pandemic, many of you looked ahead to the long term impacts:
“The virus… will have a big impact on finances which will affect me starting a family and looking to purchase a house” (Male, age 30).
Increased free time was perhaps the most commonly cited positive impact of the pandemic, both for individuals on furlough and those who were not:
“I have enjoyed having the time to… take a walk every day to improve my health and fitness” (Female, age 62).
For others the positivity is focused on the reassurance that government assistance has given them:
“Being furloughed has removed the worry that I would have otherwise had” (Female, age 50).
Your responses show that experiences of the pandemic are complex. We are asking you the same open question again in our third COVID-19 survey, launched in February 2021, as the UK endures a third national lockdown. The information you share with us will provide further rich insights into the impacts of the virus.
A big thank you to all study members, across the five studies, who completed our COVID-19 survey.
In their own words: five generations of Britons describe their experiences of the coronavirus pandemic- initial findings from COVID-19 survey (Download – opens PDF in a separate window)