This article is part of our special report Global youth and post-pandemic futures.
As digital skills have become more essential in the labour market, especially for young people, there is an increased urgency to tackle the inequalities of the digital divide caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers say.
Young people have been disproportionately hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic. Youth unemployment stood at 15.4% across the EU in April 2020 but has already risen to 17.8% in December 2020. In contrast, the general unemployment rate rose only by 0.9% from a year ago.
According to a recent international research project, 60% of young people surveyed believe they will struggle financially in the future, while 76% believe their generation will be better educated than previous generations.
However, students, teachers, and employees all over Europe were forced to switch to digital solutions in order to resume their activities safely while healthcare systems were bracing for the recurring waves of COVID-19 infections.
In January, the European Commission called on member states to invest in equipment and training to mitigate “inequalities between children” that came to the fore due to the increased use of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic drove a forced-pivot to digital technologies,” MEP Eva Kaili (S&D), president of EU40 in the European Parliament, told EURACTIV on the sidelines of a recent event.
“While the momentum of digital transformation in Europe soared, providing an opportunity for member states to amplify the integration of digital technologies in their recovery strategies, the risk of growing inequalities persisted, and still persists today,” Kaili said.
Asked what the EU should do to avoid growing inequalities through the digital divide among Europe’s younger generations, Kaili said that “among the many areas that need our attention, appropriate and robust infrastructure, digital equipment, digital content, and tailored digital skills are central to mitigate risks of growing inequalities in the EU”.
“This is particularly important for the younger generations who will be called on to be the most resilient in the aftermath of the pandemic, and we need to equip them for the next challenges,” the Greek MEP added.
According to her, growing inequalities go beyond the region or location, but have also to do with the income level and gender, which is why “a holistic approach with cross-sectoral investment – from networks and infrastructure to the upskilling of educators – is necessary and must reach far and wide, to the most remote regions of the EU”.
Asked whether she thought the pandemic has taught us anything about the specific skills that the executive should prioritise in terms of Europe’s future growth, Kaili pointed towards digital literacy, computing education, programming languages and gamified coding as some examples that educational systems around the EU may integrate, “not only in their curricula but also in the way in which knowledge and content are delivered to students”.
Data-intensive technologies such as AI and early experimentation with robotics and incubated, baseline engineering can not only make the learning environment more stimulating and fit for the future, Kaili said.
“The job market of the future is very different from what our generation was educated for and the advent of AI means that jobs which require knowledge will give way to jobs that require creativity,” she added.
“Already now, if you ask them what is their dream job, they would reply ‘influencer, computer scientist, digital artist, Youtuber or more recently… Tik-toker'”.
“Currently, having power means having access to immense data. In the future, having power will mean to know what to ignore,” she said, adding that the new European Skills agenda could be the right tool to make sure that the young generation has a safety net in the post-COVID era and legal certainty with clear rules of the online space and marketplace will be essential.
Kaili also stressed that she believes people should be supported and given alternatives if they choose to live offline or if they do not have the digital skills to be online, but we should also look into the psychological impact of always being connected.
“We need to understand and control better the effects of new tech for users, workers, children, as it might mean that we need to develop new skill sets in parallel to the digital skills and a more creative and problem-solving mentality,” she added.
“However, the most important aspects of EU’s strategy should be to translate fundamental rights and principles into the digital era, to remain human-centric and trustworthy in respect of the quality of citizens lives,” she added.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Samuel Stolton]