CareTalk Podcast – The Pandemic: Family Edition

Zoom classes. Less time out with friends and more time at home with family. In this episode of CareTalk Podcast, John and David explore the pandemic through the eyes of teenagers.

David Williams:

Well, John, I’m not sure you ever graduated from high school, but what do you think life was like for this year’s high school seniors?

John Driscoll:

Well, David, the pandemic took a terrible toll, but I actually think that many kids are emerging with a new found resilience.

David Williams:

Welcome to CareTalk, America’s home for incisive debate about healthcare, business, and policy. I’m David Williams, President of Health Business Group.

John Driscoll:

And I’m John Driscoll, the CEO of CareCentrix.

David Williams:

Well, John, teen dreams. How did teens react to the pandemic when it started? We’ve been so focused on the older folks. What was it like for the teens?

John Driscoll:

I think it was brutal. Look, this has been a really hard year for everyone, particularly in that first phase. Life, interrupted. And I can’t imagine when I was a … Perhaps when you were a teenager, you wanted to spend all your time with your parents. But at least for most of us, we actually wanted to spend as little time at home as possible. But I don’t think it was necessarily all bad for kids.

David Williams:

Well, John, I think when it started off, it was pretty scary. Everybody was scared. All of a sudden, also, you’re not in school, so you got a lot of time to be worried, especially if your parents or your grandparents still have to go out and work. And you see it was older people that were getting sick and dying. So I think people were really, really worried about their parents and grandparents.

It’s a little bit of a role reversal. The parents are supposed to protect the kids, but I think it was extremely scary for that. And I do think there’s been evolution certainly over the next year or so. Obviously, we hear a lot about anxiety and mental health. That’s real from social isolation, people worried about … certainly, especially for people where food insecurity is an issue, where parents might not be healthy.

And then we talk about social media and some of the challenges there. It definitely warps the sense of your normal social interactions when you’re not seeing people at all. So those are some of the challenges.

John Driscoll:

Yeah. It probably extended and enlarged the really nasty, non-me too-ism of social media, which is to say everybody wants to be aspirational. And there’s this envy-driven marketing that drives social media that honestly is affecting a lot of people and leaving parents as well as kids, but even more so kids as they’re developing their own sense of self-worth, with a sense of emptiness or missing something.

And I got to think that early stage of living social on media versus in person has got to have affected it. But I think it’s more enlarged, an underlying social problem. But certainly, kids seem to have come through it, certainly the teenagers, pretty well.

David Williams:

Yeah. I think first of all, youth tend to be resilient. But also, not just some silver linings, but it’s actually even a mixed bag. For sure all the negative things that you’re talking about were real, but there were a couple of other things that were happening. You now have they been a movement to start high school later, because kids, their natural … Your body clock tells them to go to bed late and wake up late.

And even though anxiety and depression is certainly caused by the pandemic, I saw a survey that was showing mid-year that it really wasn’t that much of an increase, if even an increase, because the kids were getting more sleep, which they needed. They’re also getting closer to family. And if you’ve got functional relationships in your household, that can actually be strengthening. And then some of the federal programs that were passed on a bipartisan basis actually did provide a pretty good short-term safety net.

John Driscoll:

Well, and I think that whole connection with family, one of the things that we don’t do in the United States, but other countries do is they’ve got a family policy. France has an entire office in it. And if you think about the kinds of things that we rolled out in a coherent way as a society, whether it’s food support, extended healthcare support, making sure if you were really sick, all the bills were paid, and the fact that families were actually eating together and spending more time together and that we were, in a funny way, getting to know one another just through proximity of being forced. Some of that was extremely hard for folks who didn’t have the resources or the space to handle it.

But I’ve got to think it’s a positive for a lot. And I do think that as a country, again, in this crazy partisan time, it’s nice to remember that just six months ago, we were coming together to solve a common problem that actually propped up and supported and helped build a bridge for those families to stay together and not frankly go crazy while they were trying to beat COVID.

David Williams:

John, you said before about wanting to spend time with your parents as a teen. And when I was 16, I was ready to get the hell out of the house. That was for sure. But the teens today are a little bit different, and actually there’s more of an extended childhood. And I think this has given them an opportunity to actually spend time with parents. And of course, it depends on the situation, but they often like it.

Academic performance though is another matter. John, the strong students figure out how to manage on their own. They learn in new ways. They adapt. But your weaker students, I was speaking with a high school teacher who was dealing with some students that were more in the lower classes and had some challenges, and the attendance just went to hell. And if they weren’t showing up that much in school, they sure weren’t sure showing up online. And certainly, the educational gaps have widened.

John Driscoll:

Well, it’s really hard with younger kids, David, to keep people … And it doesn’t matter what your educational level is or what your resources are. Kids are not programmed to sit in front of a screen and pay attention to hard lessons for four or five hours a day. That just wasn’t going to … that wasn’t going to fly. And so I think that that was a problem.

But I do think that this whole family approach to mental health, healthcare, food, and support is something I hope we don’t lose. And there’s no question that there are scars, whether it’s kids falling behind who are already challenged, whether it’s younger kids who frankly, basically lost six to 12 months. The state of Connecticut’s actually investing in learning camps and they’re trying to come up with fun activities, so it isn’t just reading, writing, and arithmetic, and doing drills, because they need to come up with … In the same way that we all got used to a hybrid life, I do think that schools are now … and then schools and educational institutions that are committed to kids are going to have to come up with more creative ways to engage.

And probably, the biggest challenge have been kids with special needs, where the entire system failed them. There is no kid with behavioral or cognitive difficulties who’s ready for Zoom academy. That’s the one place where I think the educational safety net failed.

David Williams:

Well, John, I’m trying to keep a little bit of a positive edge here to this discussion. One thing that we have spoken about a lot is the divide within this country, between people who believe in the pandemic versus those that don’t, masks versus not, and so on. And on the one hand, you’ve seen things where people were worried about teens or young adults flaunting, flooding restrictions, and just going out and causing infections.

But on the other hand, I actually put it through … I put this out there without any evidence that actually we’re less divided at the teen level than we are at the grownup level. And in particular, if you think about the vaccine and attitudes toward it, hesitancy, people who are concerned about it, at the teen level, a lot of people are more pragmatic. It’s like, “Get me the vaccine. I want to get back to be able to be with my friends, be in school,” and that they’re more focused on the practical side and actually probably more unified and less hesitant than the parents.

John Driscoll:

You’re obsessed with the teen years. And I’m sure you had a difficult time as a teenager, so that’s probably why you’re so focused on that.

David Williams:

No kidding, John. Yeah, about eighth grade in particular, it was like a nightmare. I remember my mother told me about junior high school, “It’s going to be terrible,” and it was.

John Driscoll:

Yeah, your micro traumas. I think one of the things that’s interesting when you look back at the lessons is there was a great desire in a lot of parts of the country, “Well, we’re not going to send kids to school because schools will be super spreaders.” There is no evidence that keeping schools open was a spreading event, and part of it, a big part of it is kids were incredibly compliant to hand washing, to mask wearing, to social distancing. Honestly, the kids were much better than the adults at every level, literally from elementary school through high school.

But I will say there’s some incredibly entertaining videos, for example, from Israel, when the vaccine finally hit and the infections are down, and then the kids are literally tearing off the masks and dancing in the aisles.

David Williams:

Tearing off the masks and tearing them up too. I saw. That was pretty good activity there. I don’t know enough of us-

John Driscoll:

But again, I think we tend to underestimate the power and the willingness of kids to actually conform. And I think, again, one of the interesting lessons here is states like Connecticut, which kept the schools open. And it’s a local decision. It’s not a state decision. In almost every community, they were much more successful and much more effective and did not have big community spread. Whereas in New York, New York City, they shut it down over there. It was erratic. You actually had more spread. And it was because the adults were spreading and the kids were not in a situation where they had a system of conformity. I think the interesting thing is we look back on it, we should have bet on the kids.

David Williams:

Yeah. So John, let’s look forward a little bit now and talk about what does it mean for people who’ve been through this? There’ve been other generations that have had different traumas. We had the so-called greatest generation, people that went through the World War, World War II together. This isn’t going to be the greatest generation

John Driscoll:

You were struggling. You’re struggling with [crosstalk 00:10:03].

David Williams:

Well, I was trying to think World War … Did they call it World War I at the time? I can’t remember, but …

John Driscoll:

They called it the Great War. And it also had a great generation. It’s just that generation went through a very difficult time with the Great Depression. And the greatest generation really refers to that generation that was young and middle-aged, meaning age 17 to 40, that served in the second World War and in Korea, which followed actually much more quickly than people probably recollect. And at the end, it ended up really balancing the notion that we not only cared for ourselves as individuals and families, but also for the country.

I actually think that could be one of the themes amidst all this partisan nonsense. We’ve definitely got a fascist, mini fascist movement in this country that’s not that different from the populist movements that gets a lot of attention. But I actually think there was a lot of good citizenship throughout this process in its own herky jerky way. And I do think that that, no one’s going to write a headline about that, about the way there was kids conforming, people getting vaccinated, the country getting behind creating the vaccine, and then getting vaccinated, not perfectly, but there’s a lot of good news out there, David, that I think if we can build on, we can actually not just build back better with bridges, but also socially. And that could be one of the surprise results, not perfect, but better.

David Williams:

Well, John, one of the things that you’ll see happen now is unemployment’s very low. It’s easy to get a job. So at least somebody can go out of high school or college. They are likely to be able to to get a job now. And also, I think they’ve got greater context and an understanding of how to face up to some of the other challenges we’re going to have. As we know, this pandemic may not be the last one. So they have some practice in that. We’ve got challenges, racial discord, climate change, gun violence. These are all big issues that I think there’s been a bit of hopelessness about whether the country can actually rally and confront them. And I think without having to have necessarily political conformity, maybe we can have some consensus and confidence to be able to take on some of these challenges head on, and maybe the younger generation is going to be the ones that help to lead us there, because God knows that some of the other generations haven’t done the best job of it.

John Driscoll:

Well, I think there’s such a tendency to focus on the bad news. And gosh, we hit 600,000 deaths the other day, and there’s plenty of bad news. But there is an element of reconnection that I think if we can build on the resilience … And yeah, we get big challenges, but we’ve always had big challenges. And as a country, perhaps better than some and better at certain times than others, we’ve taken them on. And I think this generation really has been through quite a significant challenge, and we appear to be coming out of it as strong or stronger than any other in the industrialized world. But we should build on that.

David Williams:

So, John, here’s the last question for you. It’s a tough one, okay? Do you think we can get today’s teens to fix our broken healthcare system?

John Driscoll:

No.

David Williams:

Yeah, I’m going to pump that off until another episode. What do you say?

John Driscoll:

Good idea.

David Williams:

Okay. Well then that’s it for yet another edition of CareTalk. I’m David Williams, President of Health Business Group.

John Driscoll:

And I’m John Driscoll, the CEO of CareCentrix. If you like what you heard or didn’t, please subscribe and tell us what you think.