Young people are anxious about the effects of the crisis yet also more trusting in the European Union—an asset which should not be squandered.
While we now know that the idea that ‘Covid-19 only affects older people’ is wrong, the first weeks of the pandemic have shown that young people are in general more resilient than older people to the disease. But are they also more resilient to its social and economic impacts?
Evidence from the last recession would suggest otherwise. The crisis precipitated in 2008 revealed the additional vulnerability of youth: unemployment among young people soared above 40 per cent in many European Union countries and the share of the EU population aged 15-29 not in employment, education and training (NEETs) peaked at an historic high of 16 per cent. This had major social consequences for the lives of young people as well as constituting an annual economic loss, with such a large cohort of young people outside the labour market and education, estimated at above €153 billion.
Will history repeat itself this time? Will young workers be the next victims of the Covid-19 economic fallout? And, more generally, how is the pandemic affecting young people’s lives specifically?
To answer these questions, in April Eurofound collected the experiences of over 85,000 citizens across all EU countries, using a short online questionnaire, weighting their replies to reflect the structure of the EU population. The results show how young people in Europe are struggling to respond to the crisis, reporting poorer mental wellbeing and greater loneliness than other age groups—coupled with job loss and a dramatic decrease in working time and overall insecurity about their professional and financial future.
Covid-19 has caused major disruptions to families’ lives. To try to control the pandemic, EU governments have put in place a series of restrictive measures, including ‘social distancing’, school closures and then effective lockdown. These seem to have affected young people more, recording lower levels of wellbeing than other age groups across many member states, reversing pre-crisis patterns.
Thus survey respondents aged 18-34 rated their life satisfaction on average at 6.2, on a scale of 1-10, a little lower than the over-50s (6.4). Yet before the crisis the 2016 European Quality of Life Survey found young people had an average life satisfaction of 7.4, compared with an overall average of 7.1.
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Perhaps surprisingly, young people were less likely to perceive themselves as resilient in crises: 29 per cent agreed with the statement ‘I find it difficult to deal with important problems that come up in my life’ and 26 per cent agreed with ‘When things go wrong in my life, it generally takes me a long time to get back to normal’. The comparative figures for the over-50s were 21 and 23 per cent.
Even more striking is the evidence on loneliness and depression. Twenty per cent of young respondents said they felt lonely ‘all or most of the time’, compared with 15 per cent of older cohorts. Again, this marks a change: in the EQLS only 4 per cent of young people felt this way, compared with 6 per cent of others. In this survey, young men were more likely to say they were lonely than young women (21 versus 18 per cent).
Furthermore, young respondents were more likely to feel ‘downhearted and depressed’ (16 per cent) than older groups (12 per cent). Again, in the 2016 EQLS less than 5 per cent of young people felt depressed, against 7 per cent of other age groups.
The experience of the previous recession indicates that young people, especially those just out of education, could be hit especially hard by the economic ramifications of Covid-19.
Youth tend to work more in those sectors, such as retail and hospitality (including tourism-related), most affected by the lockdown measures, including travel bans, put in place to control the viral spread. Young people are often on temporary contracts or in otherwise insecure and precarious work, and so are more likely to be first to be laid off or to suffer cuts in hours. Moreover, as unemployment rises, they compete for work with older and more experienced workers who have a more settled pattern of employment, and so they are more at risk of long-term unemployment and of a very difficult initiation into the labour market.
So, will history repeat itself and will young workers bear the brunt again? The risk is very high, and the first signals are not very encouraging.
Eurostat data from March reveal that while unemployment for the general population increased by 0.1 per cent, from 6.5 to 6.6 per cent, youth unemployment increased by 0.4 per cent, from 14.8 to 15.2 per cent. While these numbers can be only the tip of the iceberg, Eurofound’s Covid-19 survey found that in this initial phase of the crisis youth had been just slightly more affected than the rest of the population in terms of labour-market participation.
At the EU level 6 per cent of young worker respondents said they had lost their job permanently, against 5 per cent of other age groups. In Bulgaria, Hungary and Portugal, more than 10 per cent of young workers claimed to have lost their job for good. Additionally, and in line with other cohorts, 23 per cent across the EU said they had lost their job temporarily and 16 per cent feared doing so in the next three months.
Nearly half (49 per cent) of young workers said their working hours had been reduced since the onset of the crisis. This is in line with other age groups, even though many more young people (43 per cent) started to telework during the outbreak than older cohorts (34 per cent).
Despite these first negative effects of the crisis on the wellbeing and labour-market participation of young people, they remain slightly more optimistic (53 per cent) about their future than other age groups (42 per cent). This greater optimism may also drive their additional trust in institutions, in comparison with other cohorts—especially trust in the European Union.
Unlike other age groups, young people still trust the EU (5.2) more than their national government (5.1). Students manifest even higher trust in both the EU (5.8) and their government (5.6). And although unemployed young people betray lower trust in both (4.4 and 4.1 respectively), this is still higher than for older unemployed.
The trust young people have in their institutions is an important asset which should not be squandered. The EU and national governments should protect this asset by putting in place measures which would prevent the explosion of another youth-unemployment crisis as a follow-up to the pandemic. The SURE job-support initiative and a reinforced Youth Guarantee go in the right direction to help young people maintain their job or quickly reintegrate into the labour market.
Massimiliano Mascherini Is head of the social policies unit at Eurofound, in which Eszter Sandor is a research manager. He has a PhD in applied statistics from the University of Florence and has been a visiting fellow at the University of Sydney and Aalborg University. She has a masters in economics and international relations from the Corvinus University of Budapest.