Can we avoid a “pandemic scar” on youth?

How can we ensure better policy outcomes for youth following the pandemic? Banner images: Shutterstock/LiAndStudio
Can we avoid a “pandemic scar” on youth?
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. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD. Join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts to share your own stories, ideas and expertise in the comments.

With restrictions easing up and many of us getting our long-awaited vaccine, at least in Europe, the light at the end of this COVID-19 tunnel seems to be in sight. But what’s next for youth? How has the past year and a half impacted their future prospects?

Indeed, for youth, life beyond lockdown is not looking as bright. For months we have been reading about how the pandemic was disproportionately affecting young people. Yet, little has been said about the root causes of such disproportionate impact—or the policy choices that led to it.

The European Youth Forum’s new study Beyond Lockdown: The 'Pandemic Scar' on Young People paints a staggering picture: young people in the EU have been losing jobs at a rate three times faster than the rest of the population. And that’s without counting those whose working hours have been reduced to zero, or the many who’ve just become inactive and given up hope. What’s worse, our research found that marginalised young people were twice as likely to be affected by job loss compared to other young people—a stark reminder that the inherent diversity of youth as a group matters. Loss of jobs and working hours is also leading to a substantial decrease in income—a particularly concerning issue when young people are much more likely to be earning the minimum wage than any other age group.

Read the European Youth Forum's report Beyond Lockdown: The 'Pandemic Scar' on Young People

For too many, the deterioration of economic circumstances has meant losing their independence and financial stability; or, quite simply, losing hope for their future. This has had an unprecedented impact on young people’s mental health, generating feelings of unhappiness, uncertainty and hopelessness that put youth in an even tougher spot.

In the words of one of the young participants to the focus group for our research, “Maybe I shouldn’t focus on my dream job anymore. I have to focus on a job that will give me money to live”.

While statistics seem to be shocking institutions and media alike—and who never miss a chance to repeat how young people are destined to become the so-called “lockdown generation”—the truth is that what we’re seeing now is the legacy of chronic lack of support and effective policy making. Since the 2008 economic and financial crisis, we’ve seen young people’s position in the labour market worsen, with many struggling to transition from education to employment; often caught up in cycles of precarious work and unable to find stable and quality jobs; or having to deal with social protection systems that are often inaccessible to youth. It’s no wonder that young people are bearing the brunt of yet another economic downturn.

Ok, the situation is bleak—but have we actually learnt our lesson? Unfortunately, early signs don't seem to be particularly encouraging.

Also on the Forum Network: "The poverty risk has shifted from the elderly to young people" by Maxime Ladaique, Manager of Statistical Resources, OECD

In our research, we looked at economic measures implemented at national level in response to COVID-19, and what we found out is that less than 1% of these were targeting youth specifically. On top of this, promising initiatives such as the new reinforced Youth Guarantee and EU recovery funds have yet to deliver for youth. Very few governments are taking steps to increase the impact and outreach of the Youth Guarantee. Too many national Resilience and Recovery Plans have been drafted behind closed doors, with no meaningful opportunity for youth organisations to contribute.

Why aren’t governments doing more for youth at a time when young people need support the most?

If left unaddressed the challenges we are now facing, paired with pre-existing vulnerabilities, will leave a profound “pandemic scar” on current and future generations of young people. High unemployment rates can increase the risk of long-term unemployment, lower pay over a lifetime and exclusion from the labour market and society more broadly. All in all, we’re looking at potentially reduced life chances for young people—a price that Europe, and society, cannot afford to pay.

The only way forward for a sustainable and youth-inclusive recovery is to act before it’s too late. And, for once, to invest in policy responses that are effective in the long run, rights-based and include a strong intersectional perspective. We must make quality jobs a real priority: this means avoiding relaxing labour legislation to stimulate employment, and instead investing in quality entry-level job creation; better regulating school-to-work transitions; and ensuring adequate wages and fair working conditions. We must ensure that someone’s employment status or age no longer results in a lack of social security. We must acknowledge and act upon the deep links between socio-economic factors and our well-being much more than we’ve done so far.

The educational, economic, and well-being impacts of this crisis are profound, interconnected and can't be ignored any longer. Political leaders keep promising to prioritise youth—they must now turn those words into action. If we want to avoid a long-lasting 'pandemic scar', we can't waste any more time to deliver for youth!

– Joe Elborn, Secretary General, European Youth Forum

There are real people behind the data and statistics we keep mentioning, and behind the claims we make as youth civil society. We must do better for them. Only by shifting how we approach policy making for youth can we move from short-term measures that only provide a temporary response to an immediate issue. To truly tackle the underlying challenges that young people face, we require comprehensive, long-term solutions to structural injustices.

Supporting youth is a prerequisite to building a Europe where intergenerational, social, economic and regional inequalities become a thing of the past. This change in direction is necessary to make sure that young people not only withstand any potential new crisis, but thrive as they deserve.

As part of an OECD Forum series, the virtual event Empowering Workers, Delivering a Jobs-rich Recovery took place on 13 July 2021 —watch the replay below!

And discover the OECD's work on Youth Employment and get the latest on Youthwise, our mission to help develop better policies for better lives with young peoples’ perspective and ideas 

Discover the OECD work on Youth and get the latest data, recommendations and policy advice on Youth and the Future of Work

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