Why governments should invest in young people during the recovery

The economic crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the urgency to give all young people the support they need and reinforce their confidence for their future prospects. Banner image: Shutterstock/Sam Wordley
Why governments should invest in young people during the recovery

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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Twenty-seven million. That is the number of young people between 15 and 29 years-old in OECD countries who were looking for a job at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the second quarter of 2020, the OECD youth unemployment rate stood at 17%, nearly double the rate recorded in the last quarter of 2019. Young people have borne a disproportionate burden of the labour market impacts of the crisis: they have not only been more likely to be laid off, but also found it more difficult to find work—often for the first time.

The impacts also go far beyond employment. Faced with financial insecurity and sharp income losses, many young people had little choice but to sacrifice their independence and return to living with their families. COVID-19 also severely disrupted education, as remote learning soon became the norm throughout the OECD. On average in OECD countries, in-person teaching at upper secondary and higher education level was suspended for more than two months during 2020.

In the Risks that Matter 2020 survey we asked 18 to 29 year-olds in 25 OECD countries about their worries. Almost two-in-three respondents reported concern about their household’s finances, and social and economic well-being. Who would not be worried during a pandemic? The mental health impact has also been acute, with symptoms of anxiety and depression among young people rising sharply at the onset of the crisis, and remaining high since.

Read the OECD brief Young people’s concerns during COVID-19: Results from risks that matter 2020 which provides cross-national information on young people’s concerns, perceived vulnerabilities and policy preferences.

These immediate threats come on top of concerns that existed well before the pandemic. The risk of poverty has been increasingly shifting from older age groups to young people. It has become increasingly harder for young people to find good quality jobs and affordable housing. Getting mental health support and treatment was far from easy before the pandemic, and often meant young people had to spend a lot of time on waiting lists.

And let us not forget that not all young people are affected in the same way. Down the road, the crisis may seem like a temporary blip for some young people, but for many others it could have life-long consequences for employment, health and welfare. It is precisely those who faced the greatest challenges prior to the crisis who have been the hardest hit in the past year and a half: young people of low socio-economic status or with lower educational qualifications; minorities including migrants and LGBTI+ individuals; and those with existing mental health conditions or disabilities.

Young people have had to be flexible, inventive and resilient to weather this crisis. While the scale of the challenge must not be underplayed, with the right support and guidance, young people can bounce back quickly. The good news is that OECD governments have taken unprecedented measures to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on young people’s jobs and incomes, to an extent that far outstrips the scale of response to the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

Read the Updated OECD Youth Action Plan: Building Blocks for Future Action which provides the building blocks for improving support in key areas, including employment and education policies, social policies and public governance.

Almost two-thirds of OECD countries have introduced emergency income support for young people, and a similar number of countries have used hiring subsidies to encourage employers to hire young people. Job retention schemes, which have provided employers with subsidies to retain workers during periods of low demand, have been used frequently for young workers. More than three-quarters of OECD countries have strengthened apprenticeship schemes and summer jobs, as governments recognise the value of such schemes in strengthening the school-to-work transition.

Two in three young people think the government should be doing more to ensure economic and social security and well-being

Two in three young people think the government should be doing more to ensure economic and social security and well-being

The question is whether this support has been sufficient. Two-in-three 18-29 year-olds think the government should be doing more to ensure their economic and social security and well-being. However, only one in four young people would be willing to pay additional taxes to finance better support—a clear call for governments to use their budgets more efficiently.

Governments must answer these calls by prioritising support for young people in recovery efforts. This will require whole-of-government policies to support young people through their education in the transition from school to employment, and to thrive at work. Most importantly, governments will have to ensure that young people hardest hit by the crisis have access to adequate support. Investing in youth will also be beneficial for our societies and economies as a whole. Let us remember that young people represent the future of our societies.

Read more on the Forum NetworkA Breaking Point with the Past: Why young people must shape a sustainable future by Alberta Pelino, Chair, Y20 Italy 

We also hear young people’s voices loud and clear, expressing serious concerns about climate change, rising inequality, shrinking space for civil society and threats to democratic institutions. At the OECD, we have created Youthwise, our first youth advisory board, to bring young people’s voices into our policy debates. Yet, young people still have too little say in how our policies can assure intergenerational justice. The impacts of decisions made today will fall upon young people and future generations, and it is our responsibility to ensure that we safeguard our societies, economies and the environment for the future.

This is why we are hosting an OECD Youth Week to find urgent solutions to invest in young people as we recover from the COVID-19 crisis. Young people will be placed front and centre, and will have a say in shaping the building blocks for a brighter future. The OECD encourages its member countries to join forces with other stakeholders and with young people themselves to build an inclusive recovery, where young people have every opportunity to thrive.

Check out the OECD Youth Action Plan to learn more about how governments can ensure that no young person is left behind.

Read more on the Forum NetworkLet’s truly invest in the power of youth by John Hecklinger, President & CEO, Global Fund for Children

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