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Pandemials: Youth in an Age of Lost Opportunity

Tuesday - September 14, 2021

Young adults (ages 15–24) around the world are experiencing their second major global crisis within a decade:1 they entered youth in the throes of the financial crisis,2 and are now exiting at the outset of a pandemic not seen in generations. They will face serious challenges to their education, economic prospects and mental health.

The outlook for this generation had already been diminished by environmental degradation, rising inequality (of many types – gender, intergenerational, economic and ethnic), varying degrees of violence, and social disruption from the tech-enabled industrial transformation. While the digital leap forward (see Chapter 2, Error 404) unlocked opportunities for some youth, many are now entering the workforce in an employment ice age.

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In May 2020, the World Economic Forum’s COVID-19 Risks Outlook warned of a “next lost generation”.3 According to the Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS), “youth disillusionment” is a top neglected risk that will become a critical threat to the world over the next two years (see Figure II, Global Risks Landscape). For younger respondents to the GRPS—the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers—“youth disillusionment” is also a top blind spot (see Box 3.1). Hard-fought societal wins could be obliterated if the current generation lacks adequate pathways to educational and job opportunities.

Box 3.1: Risks Landscape 2021: The Global Shapers’ Perspective

The Global Shapers Community is the World Economic Forum’s network of young people driving dialogue, action and change. Their responses to the GRPS show higher aversion to risks than the multistakeholder sample (see Figure 3.1). There are some similarities, however: Global Shapers also rate climate-related risks as the most likely and most impactful long-term risks and “youth disillusionment” as a top global blind spot.

The Shapers’ perceptions of critical threats to the world show a telling pattern. They see personal risks as immediate threats, macro risks in the medium term and fundamental geopolitical risks in the long term.

Top risks by horizon

  • Short term (0–2 years): “mental health deterioration”, “livelihood crises” and “infectious diseases”
  • Medium term (3–5 years): “IT infrastructure breakdown”, “resource geopolitization”, “price instability”, and “asset bubble burst”
  • Long term (5–10 years): “weapons of mass destruction”, “multilateralism collapse” and “state collapse”

Top blind spots

  • “Climate action failure”, “mental health deterioration” and “youth disillusionment”

A scarred generation

Today’s youth already bear the scars of a decade-long financial crisis, an outdated education system, and an entrenched climate crisis, as well as violence in many places.

Growing disparities
Global fiscal policies following the Great Recession led to unequal prosperity gains across societies and generations. Large-scale financial stimulus packages were insufficient for younger generations to regain their footing, and austerity measures hampered investment in education, narrowing an important channel of mobility. As a result, many young people have lingered in precarious service jobs that are vulnerable to major shocks. Pre-COVID, children and youths accounted for two-thirds of the global poor.4 COVID-19 has severely worsened this situation.5 While the share of youth is expected to increase across Africa—where the median age currently stands at just 19.7 years—and Oceania, Europe and South-East Asia will see declines in their youth populations by 2050,6 adding to the demographic challenges of unemployment and ageing in those regions.

Regional inequalities persist beyond fundamental economics; these disparities are visible in access to education, health systems, social security and protection from violence and conflict. Pre-pandemic, almost 44% of girls and 34% of boys from the poorest strata of society did not complete primary school.7 In recent years, gains in youth retention rates have slowed.8 Health has also deteriorated for youth: non-communicable diseases—which carry long-term health risks through adulthood and older age—grew starkly among adolescents, and more young people are facing the effects of overburdened health systems in their countries.9

Violence compounds these structural challenges. Decade-long conflicts hampered youth prospects in Central Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and West and Central Africa. As a result, a record number of children and youths are now among the world’s refugees.10 In advanced economies, youths are beleaguered by threats of gun violence, domestic terrorism and deep-running societal frictions that could escalate to more violence.

Youth disenfranchisement has been amplified by disappointment at the slow economic recovery from the 2008–2009 Financial Crisis, frustration at ostensibly corrupt and ineffective elites, and socio-economic fault lines that have exposed deep-rooted injustices. This discontent has been evidenced by the growing number of youth-led movements that have erupted in the past decade—among them the Arab Spring, global climate strikes, and civil rights movements seeking more social and racial equality.

Fragile education systems
The year 2020 saw unprecedented challenges to the global education system. During the first wave of pandemic lockdowns, 80% of students globally were out of school, as traditional classroom teaching was rendered mute. Despite worldwide adaptation for remote teaching via television, radio and internet,11 there were stark regional differences in capacity;12 at least 30% of the global student population lacked the technology to participate in digital and broadcast learning.13 While adaptive measures allowed schools to re-open eventually, many challenges remained throughout subsequent waves of COVID-19 because of ineffective or slow government responses.

School closures aggravated youth inequalities between and within societies because young women and those of disadvantaged socio-economic statues were hit hardest. Students in high-income households potentially benefited from more targeted and individualized learning arrangements,14 but resource-strapped youth struggled to participate in educational opportunities in the absence of digital connectivity, adult support or adequate space to study at home.15 For others, border closings complicated educational mobility.

Home schooling and home working increased household stress and the incidence of violence against young adults.16 In areas where school provides access to food and a safe space, school closures put students at higher risk of child labour, recruitment by organised crime,17 human trafficking,18 and gun violence.19 In the Sahel region in Africa—where schools were already under threat of violence—COVID-19 forced safe schools to close, leading to an increase in physical violations against children and recruitment into fighting.20

School closings have had devastating consequences on young women. Gender-based violence has increased globally during the pandemic,21 and rapes rose in advanced and developing countries alike.22 Teenage pregnancies are expected to increase, from Latin America to East Asia and Africa23—previous health crises suggest that some of these girls might be prevented from returning to school.24 Globally, COVID-19 and its “shadow pandemic” on girls and young women risk reversing 25 years’ worth of global gains in girls’ education,25 exposing girls to a higher chance of underage marriage.26

Employment turmoil
Although many economies recovered from the 2008–2009 Financial Crisis, those hit hardest by the Great Recession never did fully. As a result, youth unemployment has risen globally since 2008.27 National policies still fail to lift up youth in many cases. Weak structural transformations have largely failed to reduce stubbornly high, systemic youth unemployment, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.28

The increase of unbound job schemes originating from the “gig” economy, unpaid or low-paid internships and continued high numbers of youth in the informal market have spurred young workers to jump between low-paid short-term jobs. At the same time, labour market distortions narrowed employment opportunities for young adults: a deficit of employment opportunities for highly educated youth in some sectors, and a “skills crisis” in others.29

Policy responses to COVID-19 further exacerbated the marginalization of young workers. The global economy plummeted in the second quarter of 2020 (see Chapter 1, Global Risks 2021), disproportionately affecting the incomes of young adults. In many economies, they were the first to lose their jobs to lockdowns. Many young adults work in the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic (see Table 3.1)—such as the service industry and manufacturing—often on part-time or temporary contracts with limited job protection.30 The informal sector, where almost 80% of the world’s young workers are employed, was particularly impacted.31 Altogether, the number of young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEET), already at 21% in early 2020, is likely to rise in the coming year.32

Young adults’ employment prospects were being challenged by automation,33 as well as by disruption from the Fourth Industrial Revolution,34 before interrupted education opportunities and job losses set them further behind. Youth unemployment may increase across regions,35 given that more sectoral restructuring and shifting consumer habits (see Chapter 5, Imperfect Markets) are expected to trigger mass layoffs.36 Low-wage jobs—which could provide a safety net for young workers starting their careers—are also projected to decrease.37

Table 3.1: Global Estimates of Youth Employment in Hard-Hit COVID-19 Sectors

Source: ILO. 2020. ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Fourth edition. 27 May 2020. International Labour Organization. p. 2.—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_745963.pdf

Note: Impact ratings are based on the ILO’s assessment of real-time and financial data (see the second edition of the ILO Monitor, released on 7 April 2020), ILOSTAT baseline data on sectoral distribution of employment (ISIC Rev. 4) and ILO Harmonized Microdata.


Turbulent paths

“Pandemials” are at risk of becoming the double lost generation of the 21st century. Lack of opportunities for future economic, societal and political participation could have long-lasting global consequences.

A narrowing pathway for youth
Lockdowns may cause an education loss of at least one semester,38 which, like absenteeism, could affect future academic performance,39 increase dropout rates and induce riskier health behaviours.40 This could make it harder for students at the secondary and tertiary levels to acquire the necessary skills to pursue further education or vocational training, or even to secure entry-level jobs. And such further education or training is even more important for “jobs of the future”.41 Youth from low-income households are at risk of missing out on education altogether if they are sent to work rather than back to school.42

Young women face the risk of being kept out of school for household or agricultural work,43 not being able to finish their secondary education, or not being able to return to work after leaving during the pandemic for caregiving responsibilities;44 young men could face increased financial pressure in societies where they are the sole financial contributor of the household. A widening of educational, socio-economic and gender inequalities can be expected.

The 2008–2009 Financial Crisis has shown the persistence of youth unemployment—young adults have continuously struggled to integrate into and align their skills with a grim job market. This struggle can leave long-lasting marks on their livelihoods. As the world starts to recover from COVID-19, young adults are likely to face such challenges again, this time amplified by the world’s digital leap forward (see Chapter 2, Error 404). Entry-level jobs today require more skills than they did a decade ago,45 and, at the same time, there are fewer available because of automation.46

The consequences of rapidly changing markets (see Chapter 5, Imperfect Markets) make youth more vulnerable to unstable contracts, career instability and limited promotion prospects. This can lead to a higher risk that they will miss out on social safety benefits, job protection and re-skilling opportunities. More importantly, a stunted employment outlook complicates young people’s ability to consolidate economic capital and social mobility. Young students are expected to face increased debt burdens as student loans continue to reach record levels,47 and graduates entering the workforce in an economic crisis are more likely to earn less than their peers.48 For young workers, one month being unemployed at age 18–20 can cause a permanent income loss of 2% in the future.49 In economies where informal work is predominant—mostly because of high shares of agricultural and services industry professions—lack of social protection increases youth’s risk of sliding into poverty quickly. Malnutrition and poorer health are immediate effects of such a slide, but the consequences of youth entering into poverty would also cascade to their children.50


Fear, anger and backlash
Young people have become more and more vocal in the past decade, in the streets and in cyberspace. Their concern and proactivity with key issues such as economic hardship, persisting intergenerational inequality, failure in governance and rampant corruption is inspiring;51 but they have also expressed anger, disappointment and pessimism.52 The multitude of youth protests embody an increased sentiment of betrayal by the generation in power over insufficient action on social and climate justice, political change and corruption.53 COVID-19 has added a new criticality to youth disillusionment with their dire economic outlook, missed educational opportunities and disapproval of government emergency response.54 These confrontations and the associated potential disruptions could become constant if the underlying causes are left unaddressed.

Limited economic and educational prospects are likely to exacerbate youth frustrations. The compounding trends of lower intergenerational mobility and widening socio-economic inequalities, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, have markedly deteriorated youth’s mental health. Loneliness and anxiety among youth in developed economies had already been described as an “epidemic”,55 but since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, mental health has deteriorated for 80% of children and young people across the globe.56

Such discontent risks exploitation by reactionary actors. Organised crime,57 extremist groups,58 and recruiters into armed conflicts59 could prey on a more vulnerable youth cohort with diminished job opportunities in developing countries.60 Prolonged lockdown loneliness and job loss stresses61—resulting in higher rates of depression, anxiety,62 and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)63—could make youths more susceptible to alluring but divisive ideas in developed economies.64 More radical youth movements could lead to heightened inter-generational tensions and deepen societal fragmentation along new fault lines. “Social cohesion erosion” compounded by “youth disillusionment”—critical short-term threats to the world in the GRPS—would challenge fragile national institutions or even destabilize political and economic systems altogether.

At the same time, dire prospects for economic and social mobility will likely force more young workers to migrate abroad in search of better opportunities—adding to the current 31 million youth migrants across the world.65 This would induce the real brain drain of the 21st century. However, young migrant workers could see such opportunities diminished if stricter migration policies implemented during the pandemic are slow to relax or become permanent in receiving countries (see Chapter 4, Middle Power Morass).

Passing the baton

The pandemic has exposed youth’s vulnerability to widespread economic and societal shocks. Political and economic systems will need to adapt globally to directly address youth’s needs and minimize the risk of a lost generation. Investment in improving education sectors and in upskilling and reskilling, ensuring adequate social protection schemes, closing the gender gap and addressing mental health scars should be at the centre of the recovery process.

New ways of learning have the potential to be more inclusive, adaptive and comprehensive, enabling students to develop 21st century skills such as creativity, innovation and advanced inter-personal skills. However, it is more critical than ever for the public and the private sector to invest jointly in ensuring connectivity for all youth. Given the fast-changing nature of the job market, more investment is also needed in vocational and on-the-job training. Investment in educational technology must be accompanied by adaptations of the physical educational infrastructure so schools can continue to offer in-person services while harnessing the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To be successful, schools must maintain their critical role in providing nutrition and physical and psychological health services, and in acting as safe havens for at-risk children and adolescents.

The current crisis has also revealed and exacerbated gender inequalities in education and work. Recognizing this gap is the first step in closing it. Schools and employers need to adopt measures to close the gender gap, such as adopting flexible and remote work, ensuring that young women can return to school or the workplace after lengthy absences for caregiving, and implementing support programmes for victims of gender-based violence.

The mental and physical health situations of youths need to be addressed from the outset of economic and societal recovery to minimize the yet-unknown long-term effects of the pandemic and its consequences. The digital leap forward and emerging digital tools can increase youth accessibility to support measures and reduce the stigmatization of mental health issues originating from these chaotic and uncertain times.66

Beyond these short-term investments, more needs to be done in the long run. Young people are demanding more egalitarian, equitable and sustainable societies, yet they continue to face unnecessary barriers and blocked pathways. Channels must be strengthened to enable youth to make their voices heard in all levels of government, on company boards and in multilateral organizations—which will in turn foster an intergenerational transfer of experience, knowledge and skills; serve as a bridge builder against societal frictions; and decrease youth frustrations. Youth must be guaranteed a say in the global recovery. Failure to ensure youth a seat at the table risks entire societal and economic systems being rejected by this generation.

Those in power must steward a global effort to open pathways for youth to acquire the necessary tools, skills and rights for a more sustainable post-pandemic world.

Figure 3.1: Risks Landscape 2021: The Global Shapers’ Perspective


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