Resilience and Strength Shine Brightest: COVID-19 recovery offers the chance to create a more just, compassionate and sustainable economy for history’s largest generation of youth

Banner image: Shutterstock / Dziurek

Like Comment

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. It aims 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.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our OECD Digital Content Hub. 


One-point-eight billion people in the world today are aged 10-24 years old, making them history’s largest generation of young people. Close to 90% of these young people are living in developing countries, adding to the challenges they need to overcome as they transition to adulthood. All of them are celebrating this year’s International World Youth Day in a world starkly different from anything we have ever known before.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, it is becoming increasingly clear that its socio-economic impacts will severely – and disproportionately – affect young people for years to come, coupled with, and intensified by long-standing inequalities. In order to avoid a “lockdown generation” of young people, “locked out” of realising their true potential, governments around the world need to take urgent, decisive and concerted action. They need to focus on structural reforms in education systems, strengthening labour markets, ensuring greater investments in healthcare (including mental health and sexual and reproductive health) and, crucially, involving youth at the centre of decision-making processes of the COVID-19 recovery and beyond.

Even before the pandemic, young people were facing major transformations and a growing skills gap, with economies moving increasingly towards automation and digitalisation. The pandemic has further exposed and exacerbated already existing structural issues confronting the world’s youth.

According to data published by the International Labor Organization in March 2020, youth unemployment rates were approximately three times as high as those of adults before the crisis hit, and more than 75% of the world’s young workers were in informal jobs compared with 60% of adults. While the informality rate is highest in Africa (93.4%) and Asia and the Pacific (84.4%), even wealthier countries with high numbers of wage employment, such as the members the European Union, have seen growing instability in employment conditions for young people. Most worryingly, 267 million young people worldwide – 22% of the world’s youth population – were not in employment, education or training (NEET) before the crisis. Young women with the NEET rate at 40%.

Given their already heightened vulnerability, the crisis has now hit young workers disproportionately hard. Around the world, we are seeing unemployment rising both at a faster pace and to a larger degree for young people than adults, and, again, particularly for young women.

Young people and women are among those at greatest risk of joblessness and poverty. Learn more: OECD Employment Outlook

We have learnt from previous recessions that protracted unemployment can have “scarring effects” on young people’s job stability, earning potential and employability, especially when entering or re-entering the job market. Resulting in less disposable income in the long-run, lack of decent employment during the early stages of a young person’s working life reduces the likelihood of many among this generation’s youth to ever become property owners and, as such, build equity compared to their parents’ generation.

Across OECD countries, youth unemployment rates pre-COVID remained at rates higher than before the global financial crisis of 2007/08 – proof that the long-lasting impacts of economic shocks affect not only the current youth cohort but also future generations. This is not just a missed opportunity to the future well-being of young people, but to society as a whole. In its COVID-19 Risks Outlook Report, the World Economic Forum states that structural unemployment, particularly among youth, should be considered the risk of greatest concern to the world coming out of this pandemic, topped only by a prolonged recession of the global economy.

It is no wonder that young people should be feeling anxious in the face of such uncertainty about their future. Due to a pervasive lack of quality data on mental health in general, as well as data disaggregated by age and gender especially, the full scope of the pandemic’s effect is not yet clear. Currently available figures and anecdotal evidence, however, depict a worrying impact on today’s young people. Approximately half of over 13,000 young people surveyed by the International Labor Organization and partners of the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth were assessed as being vulnerable to anxiety or depression since the start of the pandemic, with those who have stopped working having the highest risk of anxiety or depression. In the United Kingdom, surveys found that 80% of young people thought their mental health had gotten worse due to the pandemic.

Amid this confusion and anxiety, however, it is young people’s resilience and strength that shines brightest.

Amid this confusion and anxiety, however, it is young people’s resilience and strength that shines brightest. #CopingWithCOVID was a series of conversations with young people on mental health during the pandemic hosted by my office, together with UNICEF and the World Health Organization. I heard stories of perseverance from youth around the globe who are finding positive ways for themselves – and their communities – to cope with uncertainty and anxiety.

When it comes to mental health, the pandemic, again, has hit those already vulnerable particularly hard. I heard from LGBTIQ+ youth in Southeast Asia, who have found themselves isolated and cut-off from their communities; with the closure of safe and inclusive youth LGBTIQ centres, groups and specialist support services, they are often trapped in abusive environments with their family or partners. Young Indigenous People, already often structurally disadvantaged in terms of access to essential services and infrastructure, now find themselves unable to fully benefit from the few mental health resources and services that remain available, often online. For young people with disabilities, these challenges are multiplied manifold by a lack of accessibility, with the majority of them not even having basic access to information or youth-friendly health services.

Recovery efforts will need to explicitly target youth, particularly those most vulnerable to shocks – youth whose education is being disrupted, new labour market entrants, the already underemployed and unemployed and those in the informal sector – with the specific challenges faced by young women requiring special attention.

Read the OECD Policy Brief Youth and COVID-19: Response, Recovery and Resilience and more on key policy responses 

Labour market policies will need to be aligned to sectoral priorities in the post-COVID economy, including the development of future-proof digital skills through e-learning and work-based learning, support to entrepreneurship, improved social protection and safeguarding rights for young workers. Broad-based, counter-cyclical employment and training guarantee programmes, such as the European Union’s Youth Guarantee scheme, which sets out to provide young people with a good-quality, concrete job offer within four months of them leaving formal education or becoming unemployed, are a great example.

By speeding up the transition from coal and fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, post-COVID recovery efforts offer an opportunity for governments to create millions of dignified, clean and green jobs for youth, equipping and empowering them to confront climate change while making economic progress.

This is our chance to hit the re-set button

To buttress the post-COVID-19 recovery, efforts must include greater investment in affordable, community-based mental health services that are protective of young people’s human rights. Currently, countries spend an average of only 2% of their healthcare budgets on mental health. As stated by the WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanmon Ghebreyesus: “There can be no health without mental health”. Young people with lived experiences of mental health issues should be involved in the design of health care policies, and psychosocial support must be included in healthcare benefit packages and insurance schemes to ensure essential mental health needs are covered.

Also on the Forum Network: Resilience Against the Odds: Lessons from young people in the COVID-19 environment by Jack Dalrymple, CEO at Global Voices

Greater global solidarity will be crucial to ensure these essential measures can be implemented in low- and middle-income countries, including those experiencing conflict and fragility, to avoid exacerbating inequalities not only within countries, but globally. With the pandemic accelerating an already increasing reliance on working and learning online, it will be crucial to ensure that the 360 million young people currently without access to the internet are connected and digitally literate.

Young people around the globe are rising to the challenge and calling on governments to seize rebuilding efforts as an opportunity for a true paradigm shift. This is our chance to hit the re-set button, setting us on the path to a greener, more compassionate and more sustainable economy in which the world’s young people can not only benefit from but also contribute to fulfilling the promise of our common 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Intergenerational Solidarity Future of Work

Whether you agree, disagree or have another point of view, join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts and tell us what's happening where you are. Your comments are what make the network the unique space it is, connecting citizens, experts and policy makers in open and respectful debate.

Jayathma Wickramanayake

Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, United Nations

Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake was appointed as the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth in June 2017 at the age of 26. She is the youngest senior official in the UN and the first woman to hold this position. In this role, Jayathma works to expand the UN’s youth engagement and advocacy efforts across all four pillars of work – sustainable development, human rights, peace and security and humanitarian action – and serves as a representative of and advisor to the Secretary-General. In November 2019 Jayathma was recognized by Time Magazine in the list of “Time 100 Next: Rising stars shaping the future”  Originally from Sri Lanka, Ms. Wickramanayake has worked extensively on youth development and participation, and has played a key role in transforming the youth development sector in her home country. Prior to taking up her post, Ms. Wickramanayake was instrumental in creating the movement for civic and political engagement of young people, especially young women in Sri Lanka named “Hashtag Generation”. Previously, she advocated for global youth development on an international level including as the first ever Sri Lankan Youth Delegate to the United Nations and as the youth lead negotiator and member of the International Youth Task Force of the World Conference on Youth 2014 where she played a critical role in mainstreaming youth in the Post-2015 Process and in the establishment of World Youth Skills Day.

1 Comment

Go to the profile of Seyhan Pullukçu
Seyhan Pullukçu 4 months ago

Covid 19 sürecinde  öğrencilerime teknolojik bilgiler konusunda çok yardım aldım.Dijital bilgilere hakimler ve uzaktan eğitime hemen uyum sağladılar.