© Wil Stewart (@wilstewart3)

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Being Young in the Time of the Covid-19 Crisis

FROM: Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 09. August 2020
© Wil Stewart (@wilstewart3)

Young people have entered the Covid-19 crisis in a different state of vulnerability. Perhaps the pandemic and its exposure to economic and social injustices may be a reason for a ‘righteous rage’ for more action and intergenerational justice. Without being an alarmist, a new ‘lockdown generation’ with long boiling grievances will more likely lead to widespread social unrest.


From education to employment, then towards economic and financial independence, or to establishing their own family, to getting the right to vote… This was the dream of most young people before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Young people may be slightly more resilient than other age groups or those with severe underlying health conditions. But economic insecurity and the educational fallout will affect the youth the most for years to come. Young people who are not in employment, education, or training (NEET), who live in remote areas and are displaced are particularly vulnerable.  

According to a recent study, more than 100 million young adults are still living in extreme poverty. As the figure below from the Brookings Institution shows, the majority of poor young people are in Africa. There seem to be a few positive changes, alarmingly, between now and 2030.

It is sometimes difficult to find a few words of reassurance. Who knows, it is also possible that a breakdown of dreams may also be a chance for a breakthrough. Our hope shouldn’t fade as we celebrate on 12 August the International Youth Day. This year’s theme is ‘Youth Engagement for Global Action’.

Counting the immediate costs

The Covid-19 pandemic is a big deal for vulnerable groups like the youth. There are considerable risks for them in the fields of education, employment, mental health, and disposable income.

Around the globe, youth are not attending school or university because of temporary or indefinite closures. Some have moved to online platforms. Yet, accessing knowledge is not a click away. For many, fewer educational opportunities exist beyond school. The disruption carries high social and economic costs.

Working parents are more likely to miss work when schools close. Most schools will also likely face significant budget cuts because of the economic downturn. Once disrupted, dropout rates tend to increase when schools reopen. Above all, young people also find schools as crucial hubs of social activity and human interaction.

It is not pretty.

Well before the Covid-19 crisis, young people made up the largest number of the unemployed. They faced with very limited opportunities for employment and career development for a long time. Now, among those who managed to get employment, younger workers are often the first to have their hours cut or be laid off. We are experiencing this in Eastern Europe. Youth tend to work more in sectors, such as retail and hospitality, most affected by the lockdown measures.

For recent and this-year graduates and for people who were unemployed before the crisis, the time ahead will be especially difficult. That will intensify existing aspirations of youth to migrate to the developed countries that also face worsening economic conditions and the rise of anti-immigration sentiments.

Faced with uncertainty, young people are experiencing severe psychological distress. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found over a threefold increase in psychological distress among young adults aged 18-29. Poor mental health is strongly associated with social and economic circumstances, not just because of the fear of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shouldering much of the long-term economic and social consequences

Young people were able to demonstrate remarkable resilience amid economic uncertainties. The 2008 financial crisis is a good example. It may be a false comparison between the 2008 financial crisis and the current Covid-19 pandemic and its impacts. Before the pandemic, young people were already three times more likely to be unemployed compared to adults.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that the real risk that inequalities and social deprivation will increase due to the Covid-19 pandemic. New inequalities will widen most likely affecting vulnerable youth. Out of the 1.3 billion young people worldwide, 85% live in developing countries and almost 50% live in fragile and conflict-affected areas. Over 1 in 6 young people worldwide have stopped working since the start of the crisis, according to the ILO.

With the loss of hopes, young people are the ones that opt for leaving their countries in search of better opportunities. Past crises are good reminders: socio-economic gaps between young people, and across generations, become more profound during and after the crises. Yet, leaders in richer countries often use crises like the pandemic as a reason to tighten borders. The pandemic is becoming a target for ‘very emotive arguments’ and ‘electorally powerful messages’.

Also, unconditional bailouts by governments to private sector enterprises have been questionable as they did not lay the foundation for a more inclusive recovery and long-term development. Few people benefit from such bailouts – as happened during the 2008 financial crisis – while many others like the youth will fall behind.

Doing our share

A more inclusive world will not emerge as if by magic; we must seize the moment of the recovery efforts to improve or build a system for shared prosperity. At Helvetas, a Swiss development organization, we have been partnering with multi-stakeholders to support young women and men to break the cycle of poverty and exclusion. There are examples from Albania to Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania, and other countries.  

In many instances, solutions proposed to tackle the challenges of young women and men did not work or had a limited impact. This was mainly because many development initiatives do things by themselves and therefore become part of the systems. For example, in Eastern Europe, Helvetas is facilitating future-oriented endeavors to address systems that themselves produce, uphold, and improve growth-oriented services, policies, and regulations.

We work in partnership with not only the private sector but also with other development organizations, public-sector actors, and civil society organizations. Different systems that are critical for young people to benefit meaningfully need a ‘ventilator’ at the moment, but the systems also need the ‘immunity’ – resilience – to adapt and innovate in the future.

We are taking ad hoc measures to address the fallout from the pandemic. The challenge often, however, is the lack of attention to a crisis in a more systematic way with a medium to long-term perspective. This is where Helvetas sees opportunities to contribute to minimizing the impacts on young people by searching for innovative solutions different systems – from education to inform, investments in different sectors as well as the enabling policy environment. You can read about specific examples of how are doing this in our inclusive systems blog series.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated how complexity creates more uncertainties. The systems in which development work takes place are complex adaptive systems. This means that designing, implementing, and monitoring/measuring development projects isn’t about following checklists or formulae. We are increasingly creating, as can be seen in this blog, enablers for supporting adaptation, and innovation (e.g. Investments, flexibility in financial and administrative requirements).

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Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies