The year(s) we lost

The burden of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people cannot be overlooked just because they might not be the ones whose health is most threatened by the virus, writes Young Gasteiner Wiebke Seemann in her guest contribution. The effect on them is huge, due to schools and universities being closed, lost job opportunities, and psychological pressure. Efforts on rebuilding the economy must therefore focus predominantly on young people.

The societal response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a huge collaborative effort. Everyone has to do their part and make sacrifices, in the knowledge that protecting the most vulnerable in society from contracting the virus – in this case mainly the oldest – is for the benefit of everyone. The recent change in rhetoric, describing “reckless youths killing old people by partying”, highlights the fact that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is also an intergenerational effort, with a high potential for conflict.

We have yet to understand the long-term impact of closing schools, sports and entertainment facilities, of postponed university studies, of cancelled apprenticeships, internships and study abroad semesters, of decreased salaries and lost jobs. However, recent data shows that the economic aftermath of lockdowns and other restrictions might disproportionally hit younger generations.

The economic impact on young adults

Transitioning from school to work wasn’t easy even before the COVID-19 pandemic, partly because the impact of the 2008 economic crisis can still be felt. The pandemic presents another blow that is expected to severely worsen the problem of youth unemployment. In a recent International Labour Organization (ILO) survey, one in six young people between 19 and 29 years of age reported losing their job during the pandemic. 23 per cent of respondents experienced a reduction in work hours, which often also resulted in income losses. Of those still in education, 60 per cent expected a delay or even termination of their studies.

One in six young people between 19 and 29 years of age reported losing their job during the pandemic.

It is particularly worrying that these developments increase the divide that already exists between young adults from high- and low-income countries and different socio-economic backgrounds. We can expect to see new record numbers of youth unemployment, caused by the closing of businesses and the fact that many young people work in sectors most affected by the crisis.

Mental health

Everyone is affected by the uncertainty, isolation and fear caused by the pandemic. However, the ILO survey as well as other local studies suggest that young people are at particular risk of developing symptoms of anxiety and depression or experiencing a deterioration of pre-existing mental health conditions during the pandemic. This comes against a background of already existing issues of poor mental health among young adults, likely worsened by the loss of educational and professional opportunities, financial instability, fewer recreational and outside activities, as well as isolation from peers and other social support systems. In the context of lost prospects for the future, it is understandable that there is an increasing fear of what is to come. To make matters worse, poor mental health in turn makes accessing the labour market significantly harder, creating a negative feedback loop between economic factors and mental health.

None of the above denies the impact felt by other age groups. Vulnerabilities exist independent of age, gender or other factors – but we cannot overlook the burden of the pandemic on young people, just because they might not be the ones whose health is most threatened by the virus. The challenge for the future will be to create opportunities for young people and tailor recovery efforts towards them and their needs. If we want to avoid a “lost lockdown generation”, as they have already been dubbed, we need intergenerational solidarity that is similar to what we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic response, in the knowledge that helping young people back on their feet will benefit the whole of society in the long run.

Wiebke Seemann, Photo: private

Wiebke Seemann (31) has been a member of the Young Forum Gastein – the network for young European health professionals of the European Health Forum Gastein – since 2018. She works as a project manager in the Secretariat of the Northern Dimension Partnership in Public Health and Social Well-being (NDPHS). The NDPHS is a cooperation between ten governments, the European Commission and eight international organisations.