According to the Global Risks Perception Survey, ‘youth disillusionment’ will become a critical problem worldwide over the next two years.
Today’s youth (15 to 24 years old) already bear the scars of a decade-long financial crisis, an outdated education system and an entrenched climate crisis, as well as violence in many places. In addition, many young people have lingered in precarious service jobs vulnerable to major shocks.
Children and the youth accounted for two-thirds of the global poor before the onset of COVID-19, and the pandemic has worsened this situation.
Regional inequalities are visible in access to education, health systems, social security and protection from violence and conflict. Before the pandemic, almost 44% of girls and 34% of boys from the poorest strata of society did not complete primary school.
Health has also deteriorated for young people; non-communicable diseases, which carry long-term health risks through adulthood and older age, grew starkly among adolescents.
Decade-long conflicts hamper youth prospects in Central Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and West and Central Africa. In advanced economies, youths are beleaguered by threats of gun violence, domestic terrorism and deep-running societal frictions that could escalate to more violence.
Fragile education systems
During 2020’s first wave of pandemic lockdowns, 80% of students across the world were out of school, as traditional classroom teaching fell away. Despite adaptation to remote teaching via TV, radio and the Internet, there were stark regional differences in capacity.
At least 30% of the global student population lacked the technology to participate in digital and broadcast learning. While adaptive measures enabled schools to reopen eventually, many challenges remained throughout subsequent waves of COVID-19 due to ineffective or slow government responses.
Homeschooling and homeworking increased domestic stress and the incidence of violence against young adults. In areas where schools provide food and a safe space, school closures put students at higher risk of child labour, recruitment by organised crime, human trafficking and gun violence.
School closings had devastating consequences for young women. Gender-based violence rose during the pandemic, and the incidence of rape increased in advanced and developing countries alike. Globally, COVID-19 and its repercussions risk reversing 25 years’ worth of gains in girls’ education, exposing them to a higher chance of underage marriage.
Youth unemployment has risen worldwide since 2008. National policies still fail to uplift young people in many cases. Weak structural transformation has largely failed to reduce systemic, stubbornly high youth unemployment, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.
Policy responses to COVID-19 further exacerbated the marginalisation of young workers. The global economy plummeted in the second quarter of 2020, 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, such as the service industry and manufacturing, often on part-time or temporary contracts with limited job protection. Altogether, the percentage of young people who are not in employment, education or training, already at 21% in early 2020, is likely to rise in 2021.
Young people from low-income households are at risk of missing out on education altogether if they are sent out to work rather than back to school. Young women face the risk of being kept out of school for household or agricultural work, not being able to finish their secondary education, or not being able to return to work after leaving during the pandemic for caregiving responsibilities.
Young adults have long endured a grim job market, and this struggle can leave long-lasting marks on their livelihoods. As the world starts to recover from COVID-19, the youth are likely to face increased challenges.
Entry-level jobs today require more skills than they did a decade ago and, at the same time, there are fewer available because of automation.
The consequences of rapidly changing markets make youths more vulnerable to career instability. This can lead to a higher risk that they will miss out on social safety benefits, job protection and reskilling opportunities.
More importantly, a stunted employment outlook complicates young people’s ability to consolidate economic capital and social mobility.
Students are expected to face increased debt burdens as student loans continue hitting record levels. Moreover, graduates entering the workforce in an economic crisis are more likely to earn less than their peers.
For young workers, one month’s unemployment at the age of 18 to 20 can cause a permanent income loss of 2% in the future.
In economies where informal work is predominant, lack of social protection increases young people’s risk of sliding into poverty quickly. Malnutrition and poorer health are immediate effects of such a slide, and the consequences of youth entering into poverty cascade in turn to their children.
Fear, anger and backlash
Young people have become more and more vocal in the past decade, both on the streets and in cyberspace. Their concern about key issues such as economic hardship, persisting intergenerational inequality, failure in governance and rampant corruption is inspiring, but they have also expressed anger, disappointment and pessimism.
The multitude of youth protests embody an increased sense of betrayal by the generation in power over insufficient action on social and climate justice, political change and corruption.
COVID-19 has added to young people’s disillusionment, as they face a dire economic outlook, missed educational opportunities and inadequate emergency responses by governments.
Loneliness and anxiety among young people in developed economies was already described as an ‘epidemic’, but since the start of the pandemic, mental health has deteriorated for 80% of children and young people across the globe.
There is the danger that organised crime, extremist groups and recruiters into armed conflict could prey on a more vulnerable youth cohort with diminished job opportunities in developing countries.
Prolonged lockdown loneliness and stress from losing their jobs could make young people more susceptible to alluring but divisive ideas in developed economies. More radical youth movements could see heightened intergenerational tensions and deepen societal fragmentation.
At the same time, dire prospects for economic and social mobility are likely to force more young workers to migrate abroad in search of better opportunities, adding to the current 31 million youth migrants across the world.
Passing the baton
The pandemic has exposed young people’s vulnerability to widespread economic and societal shocks. Political and economic systems need to adapt globally to address their needs directly and minimise 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.
Given the fast-changing nature of the job market, more investment is also needed in vocational and on-the-job training.
Schools should maintain their critical roles in providing nutrition and physical and psychological health services, and in acting as safe havens for at-risk children and adolescents.
The mental and physical health situations of young people need to be addressed at the very start of economic and societal recovery in order to minimise the yet-unknown long-term effects of the pandemic and its consequences.
The youth are demanding more egalitarian, equitable and sustainable societies, yet they continue to face unnecessary barriers and blocked pathways.
Channels should be strengthened to enable them to make their voices heard at all levels of government, on company boards and in multilateral organisations, 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.
Young people must be guaranteed a say in the global recovery. Failure to ensure them a seat at the table risks entire societal and economic systems being rejected by this generation.
The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.
This article is an edited extract from the World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Risks Report 2021, 16th Edition’, published in January 2021.