The end is in sight. Restrictions are lifting and slowly but surely, we’re starting to feel ‘normal’ again. Across Europe and beyond, offices are starting to reopen, empty classrooms have welcomed back students, and spending time with family and friends is no longer limited to staring at each other on a screen.
We are on the path to recovery; safe in the knowledge that vaccines are already making a difference. But for our societies and our young people, the process of healing is going to take a lot longer. If we don’t act quickly, the long-term consequences of this pandemic risk leaving a deeper scar. One that could have a lifelong impact on young generations.
New research from the European Youth Forum launched today, 17 June, has examined the deep social, economic, and also mental health challenges young people are facing as a result of the current crisis. The report, “Beyond Lockdown: The ‘Pandemic Scar’ on Young People”, analyses how the pandemic and lockdown measures have already severely affected young people’s work and income, education and learning, and mental health and wellbeing.
The results are striking. The report finds that despite young people being disproportionately affected by the pandemic, less than 1% of national COVID-19 economic policy responses in the EU and UK targeted young people. While policy measures mainly focused on occupational groups (like the self-employed), the figure of 1% is still less than any other social group, including parents, children, or older people.
This gap in targeted measures for young people is alarming. When looking at the rise in unemployment, one of the major impacts of Covid-19, young people were among those worse affected. As one young research participants told us:
“Students were the first to get fired because the owners were keener on firing young people than those who are in higher functions, management.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, Eurostat estimated the youth unemployment rate in the EU has risen from 14.9% to 17.1%. Worryingly, our report found that nearly half (49.0%) of young people who were not in education, employment or training said they were not aware of the support services offered by the government to help them find a job. This concerning figure is also echoed in a Eurofound study of unemployed people of all ages in the EU-27, which identified that well over half of people did not receive any official financial support since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Feelings of stress, uncertainty and financial instability were not limited to those who lost their job. Alongside those young people who experienced job losses, some of those still in work also experienced loss of income. In the survey, more than one in four (28.0%) young workers indicated their income had decreased or decreased substantially since the onset of the pandemic. This figure was higher amongst young people in marginalised situations (31.6%). Given that young people already tend to be paid lower wages than other age groups, this change in income can have serious consequences.
The disruption to education has also been one of the most immediate impacts of the pandemic for young people. Shifting to digital learning seems to have had a hugely detrimental effect on quality, access to learning and equality of opportunity. Another young research participant explained: “In the refugee community [in my country] one of the problems is that the people don’t have enough money. […] So that means these young people have to rotate. Today I go online, tomorrow you go online, for me that is not an effective way of education.”
Sadly, our survey found that a third of students (39.3%) believed the pandemic would delay their education and one in ten students believed that the pandemic would cause them to fail.
As young people’s social and economic rights have been under threat, so we have also seen a rise in the threat to young people’s mental health and wellbeing. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of young people may be affected by anxiety or depression as a result of the pandemic. Uncertainty around work, education or living circumstances, can lead to long-lasting effects. What’s worse, is that our research wasn’t able to identify any substantial policy responses to supporting young people’s mental health during and beyond the pandemic.
Moreover, as we’ve seen, the effects of the pandemic on young people haven’t been felt equally. Young people from marginalised backgrounds are twice as likely to have lost their job and they are more likely to feel the longer-term effects on mental health due to pre-existing inequalities.
Education, employment, mental health and wellbeing are all interconnected. Challenges in one area exacerbate struggles in another, and risk leaving young people with a lifelong “pandemic scar”. The loss of learning today can impact employment and income prospects in the future, which can impact mental health.
Policy makers failed to protect young people after the 2008 economic crisis. High rates of youth poverty and unemployment took years to alleviate and young people were increasingly pushed into precarious jobs. Governments and institutions must learn from those lessons, and act now to tackle the long-term impacts of today’s crisis by focusing on quality jobs, stronger social protection systems, more inclusive education and scaling up access to mental health support.
A sustainable and youth inclusive recovery is the only way forward to make sure this pandemic scar doesn’t follow young people for the rest of their lives.