The pandemic has damaged youth employment: Here’s how we can help

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Young people were left unemployed by the pandemic in far greater numbers than adults, with the effects being felt worse in lower income countries.
  • Young women have tended to be more likely to become unemployed as a result of COVID-19 disruption than young men.
  • The equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs were lost around the world due to the pandemic, according to data from the International Labour Organization.

Around the world in 2020, youth employment dropped by 8.7%. For adults the fall in employment was less severe, registering at 3.7%. This difference illustrates the extent of the pandemic’s economic consequences for younger people.

Unless action is taken to tackle the way the pandemic has affected young people’s employment opportunities, many of them could continue to struggle for decades, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

A ‘far deeper’ setback

The economic hit inflicted on the global economy in 2020 was “far deeper” than the one seen in 2009, following the global financial crisis. The effects have been felt all around the world. In April 2020, the US experienced its highest rate of unemployment (14.8%) since records began.

The challenge of the economic disenfranchisement of young people is also featured in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2021. “Today’s youth already bear the scars of a decade-long financial crisis, an outdated education system, and an entrenched climate crisis, as well as violence in many places,” the report says.

With “lockdown and other containment measures, most notably in the second quarter of 2020,” enacted in most countries, the ILO says the effects of pandemic-induced economic harm were widespread. “Output in emerging and developing economies is estimated to have declined by 2.2% in 2020 compared with a fall of 4.7% in advanced economies.”

this graph shows the real GDP growth rates from 2005 to 2022 (%) show the scale of the global crisis in 2020.
Real GDP growth rates from 2005 to 2022 (%) show the scale of the global crisis in 2020. Image: ILO

The number of working hours that disappeared because of COVID-19 are equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs being lost around the world. Not only have young people suffered more than adults, but young women have been hit hardest by unemployment during the pandemic.

ILO figures (based on a sample of 58 countries) show that employment fell by 11.2% for young men and 13.9% for young women in the second quarter of 2020. The effects on young men and young women in middle-income economies were around double, the ILO says.

It also refers to estimated data from the US that suggests even a moderate recession – one that raises unemployment rates by 3 points – can lead to a cumulative loss of earnings equivalent to 60% of one year’s earnings.

these graphs show the comparison of employment trends for young people (15-24) and adults (25+) in 2020, selected countries
Comparison of employment trends for young people (15-24) and adults (25+) in 2020, selected countries. Image: ILO

Policy priorities to help aid recovery

Although the pandemic lies at the heart of increased youth unemployment, there have been multiple specific events leading to people being out of work. For example, it may have been due to industry- or sector-wide closures caused by lockdowns. Retail and hospitality are two such sectors where widespread closures led to large numbers of lay-offs. Others, working in more marginalized forms of employment may have found that opportunities to make money had dried up.

But there are also many young people whose education and training have been disrupted, leaving them – in some cases – economically inactive.

Resolving these scenarios requires an understanding of the intersectionality of people’s circumstances. In short, one size will not fit all when it comes to planning a recovery of employment prospects for young people, the ILO says.

It recommends a series of policy-driven initiatives and interventions to help turn things around.

Encourage job creation

Stimulate new employment and entrepreneurship, focusing on the most vulnerable young people and getting them into work.

Education and training retention

Get more young people to study and train to fill any skills gaps that may have arisen due to disruptions during the pandemic.

Re-entry programmes

Those young people who have lost their jobs should be supported through employment services, entrepreneurship schemes, and programmes that target their entry or re-entry into work.

What is the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

The COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship is a coalition of 85 global leaders, hosted by the World Economic Forum. Its mission: Join hands in support of social entrepreneurs everywhere as vital first responders to the pandemic and as pioneers of a green, inclusive economic reality.

Its COVID Social Enterprise Action Agenda, outlines 25 concrete recommendations for key stakeholder groups, including funders and philanthropists, investors, government institutions, support organizations, and corporations. In January of 2021, its members launched its 2021 Roadmap through which its members will roll out an ambitious set of 21 action projects in 10 areas of work. Including corporate access and policy change in support of a social economy.

For more information see the Alliance website or its “impact story” here.

Extending social protections

Keeping young people in the formal economy calls for initiatives that make them less likely to seek money-making opportunities through informal activities. The payment of unemployment benefits can play a part in this.

Safeguarding workers’ rights

It will be important to ensure young workers in particular feel they have a voice in the workplace. To that end, they should be included in collective bargaining, freedom of association, social dialogue and social partnership policies.

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