A lesson from discussing the COVID-19 job crisis with young policy makers: Listen!

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders from around the world and all parts of society address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

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First published in German in the OECD Berlin Center Blog, on 10 July 2020.

Young people may have a low likelihood of suffering a severe form of  COVID-19 – yet they could lose out much more than other group during this crisis. Surveys suggest that they worry particularly about their job prospects, educational opportunities and the impact on their mental health. And the data back up their concerns.  

According to the OECD’s April survey among youngsters from 48 countries, mental health is their prime concern during this crisis. This is followed closely by educational and career prospects and friendships and relationships with family members.

Read the full OECD Policy Response on our COVID-19 Hub: Youth and COVID-19: Response, recovery and resilience

These concerns are real. New entrants to the labour market have been badly affected by the drastic decline in new hires. Young people’s training opportunities are also impaired. Occasional jobs in tourism or food service, which many of them need to finance their studies, are hardly available anymore. And that's not all: young employees typically work under fixed-term contracts and in part-time jobs. These offer little security and only limited access to social protection schemes – two major shortcomings when you find yourself in a severe labour market crisis.

Previous crises have shown that a bad start on the job market can leave scars on a whole career. It can harm chances for professional development and income in the long term and ultimately lower pension prospects. Likewise, school closures negatively impact the long-term development of skills and salaries. A lost school year can lead to a loss of up to 10% of lifetime income, not to mention the psychological consequences of losing contact with friends and educators.

So what is to be done? One answer is: listen!

So what is to be done? One answer is: listen! At the OECD, we discussed our latest Employment Outlook with representatives of political youth organisations in Germany and Austria. The debate demonstrated how much they have to offer when it comes to contributing to the pandemic’s policy responses and ensuring support for their peers.

As an example, Tobias Reder of the Austrian Green Youth called for an expansion of psychosocial support systems in addition to establishing a training guarantee for young people, arguing that a lack of job prospects can trigger severe psychological stress. That in turn can hamper successful entry into the labour market – a vicious circle that needs to be broken.

Kevin Kühnert, leader of the German Young Socialists, believes that a feeling of insecurity is now sadly the norm for many young people at the start of their career. Often working in non-standard jobs, somewhere between classic salaried employment and self-employment, many will never know the kind of job security that previous generations have taken for granted, he argued. According to Kühnert, labour law needs to adapt to better recognise and protect these new forms of employment. Ria Schröder, leader of the German Young Liberals, chose a different focus, advocating for stronger support for self-employment, including better social protection.

More on the Forum Network: A Class, Apart: The career aspirations of the COVID Generation on the eve of the pandemic by Andreas Schleicher and Anthony Mann, OECD

These political youth organisations do not only talk, they act: together they campaigned for stronger financial assistance for vocational training in the crisis at a level on par with the state’s financial assistance for university students (BAföG). They also demanded that this financial assistance be made available to all those in education or training who have lost their job in this crisis. Anna Peters of the Green Youth Germany would like to go a step further and step up the regular BAföG rate.

Pascal Reddig of the Young Union (linked to the Christian Democrats and Christian Social Union), advocated for making poorly paid professions with high social relevance more attractive, for example those in childcare and nursing. In his view, this would include higher pay, better career opportunities and a better work-life balance. If, as a result, more young people take up these professions, society as a whole will benefit, he argued.

 The discussion with young politicians has shown that our societies can draw on valuable resources to meet this common challenge: young people with good ideas and commitment to contribute to the policy response.

The young politicians also want to build better bridges for job transitions and career advancement. This requires better recognition of skills and qualifications and  access to training that responds to the specifc needs of a modern labour market. The young policy makers highlighted that training opportunities for digital skills are often sorely lacking . Maximilian Schulz of the German Left Youth thought that much more in-house training and lifelong learning opportunities should be offered to employees. He put forward Transformationskurzarbeitergeld as a good model – a training allowance that the German labour Union IG Metall advocates for.

Ria Schröder emphasised the need for a joint European response to the employment crisis. One of her ideas was to develop a true European job portal, for example by building on the existing European Employment Services. Young people could thus look for jobs throughout the EU. In her view, this would not only help combat the job crisis, but also promote European cohesion.

The ideas brought up in this inspiring debate partly correspond to the OECD’s analyses and recommendations, but they also highlighted many new aspects – an excellent demonstration of the importance of dialogue. 

Many of us worry about the COVID-19 crisis and its repercussions on public health, social inclusion and the economy. The discussion with young politicians has shown that our societies can draw on valuable resources to meet this common challenge: young people with good ideas and commitment to contribute to the policy response. If we listen and ensure their involvement in developing political solutions we can meet this common challenge together. A "Class of Corona" generation that suffers disproportionately from the crisis does not have to be inevitable.

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19

Future of Education & Skills

Intergenerational Solidarity

Future of Work

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Nicola Brandt

Head, OECD Berlin Centre

As head of the OECD’s Berlin Centre, Nicola Brandt represents the OECD in German-speaking countries, where she builds partnerships and cooperation with government and research institutions, social partners, business and civil society organisations. An expert in macroeconomics and structural economic policy reform, she worked for many years in the OECD’s economic department in Paris, advising governments of OECD and partner countries from Latin American and Europe on a wide range of policy issues, including fiscal, social and labour market policies, innovation, education and the environment.

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