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Young people unplugged
Image: Steve Beech

2022: The year that young Londoners unplugged

Whether it’s combing the Thames riverbank or spotting birds, young Londoners are switching off city life (and their phones)

Written by
Ellie Muir
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It’s midnight on a Friday in Aldgate Square, east London. If you’re familiar with the area, you’ll know that Aldgate isn’t really a thriving hub of London’s nightlife scene. It’s known for being a cold, concrete jungle with skyscrapers and overpriced student accommodation. Bustling with suits by day, deserted by night. 

Beneath the glassy highrises on this cold November night, however, is a group of 30 young people, all paired up, hand in hand, led by the rhythm blaring from a mammoth speaker parked up on the concrete. They’re not out clubbing or puffing relentlessly on Elf Bars, as you might (lazily) assume a Gen Z would spend their Friday night. They’ve been dancing salsa since 8pm and they’ll probably be here, dancing, until 1am. 

One toe-tapper among the crowd is Lamine Kherroubi, 24, who works as a regulations officer. Kherroubi would rather be out in the cold, dancing every Friday night instead of being in the sweaty heat of a nightclub. ‘It’s a no-brainer to be here every week. It’s a community,’ says Kherroubi. ‘I never imagined I’d be the sort of guy that dances. Salsa isn’t part of my own culture but when my friend invited me along to dance, I was hooked.’

Kherroubi gets more fulfilment out of a Salsa session than a night out on the tiles. ‘It’s kind of like you’re going out on a night out. But when you’re here, dancing, there’s no judgment. It doesn’t matter what you look like or how well you dance. It’s just two people working together to dance.’ 

‘I find people my age are on their phones most of the time; it’s easy to feel lonely in London. But if you can find an opportunity to break out of it, it makes a whole difference. Finding a new hobby, like salsa, pushes you out of your comfort zone.’

Tough times call for wholesome hobbies

Amid a cost-of-living crisis, mounting student debts and skyrocketing rents, things are really difficult for Londoners right now. But for young city-dwellers, especially — the demographic who typically earn the least money in the seventeenth-most-expensive city in the world — keeping yourself sane while making ends meet is a game of cat and mouse. 

Kherroubi is just one of thousands of young Londoners taking up shamelessly wholesome hobbies in a bid to unplug from life in the city. You may have seen the rise in retro hobbies among young people, from knitting, crocheting, fishing and record collecting — that’s just the beginning. The rise of ‘cottagecore’ (an aesthetic celebrating an idealised rural life) and the ‘coastal grandma aesthetic’ (another trend emulating the lifestyle of wealthy middle-aged women living in a luxurious seafront mansion) is symptomatic of something bigger: we’re all a bit worn out with our fast-paced, stress-inducing lifestyles. We’re tired of staring at our screens, or meeting up with our friends to… stare at our screens… only together. To top things off, a Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey found that half of Gen Zs and Millennials are anxious or stressed all, or most, of the time. That’s pretty worrying stuff, but not surprising. 

‘I find London can be quite isolating, especially if you’re struggling with something,’ says Kherroubi. ‘There’s quite an individualistic culture here and you’re expected to deal with things on your own. Salsa provides such a sense of community, even if you don’t really know how to dance that well.’

The mudlarker 

Have you ever seen those groups of people slowly creeping along the banks of the Thames, almost as if they were searching for evidence in a murder investigation? You may have seen them with torches or metal detectors, completely engrossed with whatever is under their feet. Content creator Grace Egan, (24), finds sanctuary scouring the riverbanks. If that sounds weird, know that Grace is a hobbyist mudlark – a term known to date back to the eighteenth century to refer to a person who scavenges river mud for objects of value. 

‘You just spend two hours with your head down, you don’t have your phone blinking at you,’ says Egan. ‘Last time I went mudlarking, I was on the foreshore, underneath the Millennium Bridge just looking down for small pieces of history.’ 

Egan has found all sorts: clay pipes and bits of medieval pottery. ‘You need a permit to do it and you’re not allowed to take anything home with you, but it’s great to find little pieces of history and think about something different for a couple of hours,’ says Egan. ‘People have been tossing things into the Thames for years. It’s amazing to hold something in your hand that’s from 100 years ago.’ 

Though it looks like a solitary activity, mudlarking is very sociable. ‘There’s a real community of mudlarks in London,’ says Egan. ‘And the guided mudlarking tours are a really great way to get into it: you meet lots of interesting people. Some of them have found amazing things like treasures and artefacts, but I haven’t found anything that valuable yet.’

The birdwatcher 

In south-east London, 28-year-old project officer Joe Bartman is listening out for the birdsongs of sparrows and woodpigeons in Sydenham Wells Park. Each weekend, he goes to green spaces like Ranham Nature Reserve to unplug from the stresses of living in the city. The constant sound of traffic is the most stressful part of the city for Bartman. The sweet melody of birdsong, however, helps him relax the most. ‘When I’ve got a free day at the weekend, I head to the nature reserve. I find the sound of the water, trees and birdsong are so relaxing.’

Bartman is on a mission to surround himself with birdsong. He wants to hear birdsong pretty much all day, so much so that he put a birdfeeder on his windowsill to attract his winged friends to his home in Forest Hill. ‘Identifying a specific bird from birdsong is a really amazing thing to do,’ he says. ‘It’s almost like wearing noise-cancelling headphones: all you’re listening to is the music.’ 

And in case you were thinking that birdwatching is a geeky activity for the over-sixties, think again. John and Natalie White, who run the fastest-growing birdwatching platform in the UK, the free app Birda, say that nearly 40 percent of its users are between 18 and 34. According to Natalie, the hobby is losing its stereotype as the ‘nerdy’ pastime. ‘A lot of people think birdwatching is for retired people,’ she says, ‘but we’re seeing more young people take it up.’

John adds: ‘Younger people want to enjoy the outdoors and wildlife, and they don’t really care about what other people think. They are more aware of the impact that we’re having on the world. They are looking for a natural, wholesome outlet and a way to spend their time, without caring what other people think.’

Getting grounded 

Audrey Tang, author of ‘The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness’, says that these retro activities are rooted in meditative practices. ‘People report being more grounded when they’re in nature. And that sense of being grounded gives us the strength to face the challenges, like the cost-of-living crisis, all of those things that just seem to keep being thrown at us.’

According to Tang, getting outdoors and switching off our phones can even improve our relationships. ‘It’s not necessarily that being out in nature makes us better people,’ she says. ‘It’s more about being concerned about something other than ourselves and our small bubbles on social media. That’s going to reflect itself in lots of different areas of our lives.’

‘When we do everything online – our connections, our work, even our shopping – we lose the perspective that nature gives us,’ says Tang.

It’s not a revolution, it’s self-preservation

At a time when it feels like things are being hurled at us from all directions, young people are fighting back by doing one unrevolutionary act: going off grid for a couple of hours. It’s not changing the world, but, somehow, unplugging from the push and pull of everyday life feels massively freeing. ‘In this climate, mindfulness is a way of protecting ourselves,’ says Tang. ‘Things start to feel a bit more manageable because it provides a buffer to tolerate the stresses of everyday life.’

So, even if it sounds a bit lame to spend your weekend doing a retro hobby that’s typically enjoyed by retired people, it’s time to drop that misconception. Prioritising mindful activities in your free time is proven to relieve stress and improve your relationships. ‘Mudlarking doesn’t sound glamorous or cool,’ says Egan, ‘But getting out there and putting your head down for a few hours can really help.’

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