Mai-Sim-18-years-old Generation X meets Generation Z:

A conversation with Mai Sim & Justin Merry and Chad Chadburn.

Having experienced the immediate movement into the UK’s lockdowns and restrictions during early March 2020, the effects of COVID-19 on the world cannot be denied. From economic impacts to fully affecting mental health and school/university or domestic life, this article describes the drastic differences or strange similarities of those born in the 1950s-60s compared to people born in the late 90s/ early 2000s to 2010s. 

Both generations watched the world evolve with new changes (beneficial and detrimental) and there have been increases in minimum wage depending on age as well as several work acts. How was your personal employment experience growing up?


Gen X Mai Sim recalls…

I came to the UK from Hong Kong just before my 11th birthday and began work immediately as a babysitter, but I wasn’t being paid in money originally, I was paid in food. This was important as before I came to the UK I was always hungry, so the money wasn’t the main reward, it was the food. At around 12 years old, being the only employee that spoke both Chinese and English at my dad’s restaurant meant that I helped business being front of house, earning a little more since my dad paid me- back then there was no minimum wage and I willingly worked long hours serving customers. Working there, I worked behind the bar despite being young because of how useful I was, speaking to English customers and also Chinese to the kitchen staff in case there were messages to pass on. 

I was able to cover my driving lessons after I was saving money (gaining my driving license when I was just 17) and managed to keep enough for spending money from the lack of attendance to social events. My shifts were usually half past 5 after school and officially finished around 11 or 12pm after cleaning (with free meals on my break), though I had to wait longer for staff to finish to take me home before I could drive.

Compared to now, I feel that the youngsters starting off with work are paid quite poorly. Back in 1976, where I come from, if your parents couldn’t afford your schooling, you could leave school at 12 years old and begin work. As such, working was normal, and personally I preferred work as staying at home was boring- and I got food (my favourite bit!).” 

Acknowledging the influence of the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in June 2020, what were the attitudes to race and POC when you were growing up?

Mai Sim says…

When I first came to the UK, there was no racism in Amersham that I can recall, they were a curious and wonderful community. People always tried to help me settle in since my spoken English wasn’t that good because I hadn’t used it before. Attending the Woodside School, teachers provided support and found another Chinese girl that I could talk to. I spent a lot of time doing maths and was left to improve my English through reading classic books in the school library. My reading English as a result got better, but my listening and speaking remained a weakness for me- I stressed on improving this as I had to remain the family interpreter. Strangely, the racism was more noticeable as I was much older- the customers would react to my appearance and assume that I didn’t speak English or had an education, but my English was much improved and I had a degree by then. Currently, the attitudes to race and POC vary quite a bit. People who have travelled a lot and are much more educated on other cultures and lifestyles are much more accepting and welcoming. There are still moments where there is subtle racism, but the majority of people are fair.”

Many students within the past few years missed out on a large chunk of their school/university life. How was your school life different and what jobs were the most popular for young people to aspire to in your time?

Justin responds…

Luckily for me, I attended a posh private school and all of the lessons were physical and you’d have to write so laboriously to write information off of the board. The only ‘technology’ we had were overhead projectors where diagrams or graphs would be reflected in light that would shine a diagram on a piece of plastic on the board. Corporal punishment was still a big part of school, and you would get detentions when work wasn’t completed correctly. The grades weren’t GCSEs, they were O levels and CSEs. As for jobs, there were more gender-based jobs- more practical work like engineering for boys, and office-based secretary jobs for girls. Back then, we had much more narrow bands of ideas for possible careers. There was no way to be a tech-savvy streamer and stay at home, or a graphic designer, and the jobs are much more international as people are prepared to move for work. If you got a job, you would only focus on remaining local to where you lived. Now, there’s not much of a comparison as the schooling has totally changed. School nowadays is much more focussed on unlocking students’ potential and recognising weaknesses. We certainly didn’t have any LSAs, any exam board help or ‘extra time/rest breaks’ during tests! Many people with dyscalculia, dyslexia, autism or any mental health issues weren’t recognised and those who couldn’t achieve the grades needed were just abandoned.”

Last but not least, the 50th anniversary of Pride took place in London on July 2nd. It was the first Pride event for some, and long-awaited by many. What were the mainstream views on the queer community in your day and growing up?

Chad recalls…

I didn’t really understand what ‘being gay’ meant as I grew up. It wasn’t a topic that appeared or was discussed, and no-one really knew much about it. The absence of those sorts of discussions led to me educating myself much later on and now I’m very supportive of the queer community.”

After questioning the other interviewees, it seemed that within Generation X ‘being gay/queer’ was much less discussed (especially during the pivotal time of childhood) until the appearance of the Wolfenden Report in 1967, where same-sex acts were partially legalised- even though the age of consent was unequal for gay men compared to opposite-sex acts (21 instead of 16) right up until 2001 in England, Scotland and Wales, and 2009 for Northern Ireland. Strangely though, the law did not apply to lesbians and lesbians were able to be open and speak up about the unjustness. The changes from the heavily oppressive laws restricting any display or discussion of homosexuality still kept citizens uneasy from fear of perversion or criminal acts, but the theatre is where there was a resistance through plays (like A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney) depicting gay people with sensitivity and changing the view that some straight people had. The Stonewall Riots in New York of 1969 was an overt protest that ignited the modern LGBTQ rights we have today.

Nowadays, there are still instances of homophobia (more spread through old-fashioned views) but more importantly, more accepting communities and families help with spread support and celebration of the queer community. Younger people being able to figure out their own identities and labels they are comfortable with, and communicate that through friends, is wonderful and important to eliminating bias and fears.