European youth are in urgent need of targeted economic and mental health support to help them weather the long-term recovery from the pandemic, business and civil society representatives told a recent EURACTIV event.
Youth have been particularly hard hit by the economic and social fallout from the pandemic, stakeholders told the event, which brought together European youth, business and policymakers.
“The COVID-19 pandemic was and still is a major test for young people,” said Themis Christophidou, head of the European Commission’s department for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture.
“Public, private and nonprofit organisations all have a role to play in supporting young adults to first develop the ability to respond responsibly and second to demonstrate and apply it”, she added.
However, the word “responsibility” is a loaded term when it comes to young people during the pandemic, warned Kostis Giannidis, president of the Erasmus Student Network.
“Responsibility is actually a very tricky word […] I think young people, they have been bombarded with word for so many months, and the responsibility sometimes was pushed unto their shoulders,” he said.
“In my opinion, what is to be responsible in nowadays, is actually to be able to socialise, to be able to have fun, to be able to live without compromising the other people who are around you, without making the people who around you to be in danger,” he added.
Recent data has supported what policymakers in Brussels have been saying since the pandemic began, that young people are disproportionately affected by the crisis. COVID has had a “systematic, deep and disproportionate” impact on young people, a 2020 International Labour Organization study found.
“Young people are concerned about the future and their place within it,” the authors concluded.
Education is a field which has been particularly impacted.
“The closure of educational institutions, and economic consequences of the pandemic have already had a substantial impact on young people’s lives,” according to a report published by the European Youth Forum in June.
Nearly two-thirds of young people in Europe are believed to now be affected by depression or anxiety, while marginalised youth is at particular risk, the study found, adding that “combined impacts may affect young people’s lives well beyond the end of the pandemic.”
Worryingly, a review of national policy responses showed that so far, there had been little policy focus on limiting the long-term impact on young people and their rights.
“Whilst broader economic measures are in place, it is not clear how much these will effectively address or reach young people […] There are almost no identifiable national policy responses to supporting young people’s mental health either currently or moving forward,” the authors wrote.
Crisis ‘wasted by the old’
“I think that crisis was wasted by the old,” said MEP Nicolae Stefanuta, who stressed the numerous opportunities missed during the pandemic, particularly the financing of mental health services.
“Investing in mental health for young people I think means investing in the future of Europe, a robust generation,” the Romanian politician said.
Business, young people and NGOs need to work together and “of course, Europe needs to finance programmes that encourage this,” he added.
“Responsible Party” is one such initiative, launched in 2009 with the aim of reducing harm and raising awareness among young adults on the risks of over-consumption of alcohol.
The scheme was the first EU-wide alcohol prevention programme implemented by volunteers from the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), with the support of French spirit maker Pernod Ricard.
Since then, the initiative has reached more than 450,000 students in 33 countries, and a further 6 million people with the help of a digital campaign launched after the beginning of the pandemic, the representatives of the project said.
According to an independent evaluation by the French Foundation for Alcohol Research, the program, which offered water and food and, if necessary, assistance with getting a safe ride home, helped 61.4% of survey respondents modify their alcohol-related behaviour.
“No matter your age, no matter your background, no matter where you’re from. Responsibility is universal at every single piece of the journey in life,” said Alexandre Ricard, CEO of Pernod Ricard, adding that responsibility meant empowering people and subsequently holding them accountable.
“It drives me crazy when I hear the senior population blame the young adults for spreading this disease. Now, who’s responsible for the state of the world today?” he added, stressing that Europe must learn the lessons of the pandemic.
“I don’t think we can blame governments for not having been prepared this time […] but next time, we cannot forgive them for that,” he said.
War against conviviality
Pandemic-related closures of the hospitality industry were multi-layered blow for young people, impacting both their social lives and employment opportunities, with 20% of the industry’s workforce aged under 25.
The sector “is important for the workforce. It’s important because it gives you sometimes the first real life experience jobs but also it can offer a nice career,” said Marie Audren, director general of HOTREC, the European association of hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes.
Prior to the pandemic, hospitality, together with tourism, was the third largest socio-economic activity in the EU, representing 2 million enterprises.
But now many of those jobs have melted away, leaving many young people wondering whether to prioritise paying their rent or buying food, said Panagiotis Chatzimichail, board member at the European Youth Forum.
For him, the lessons from the painful past year must be learned for the long-term.
“We really need to invest in what has been the positive side of the pandemic – learning from our mistakes. Make sure that whatever policies, financing we put down, it’s not a quick, short-term solution, that we aim in the long-term,” he said.
At the event, the Erasmus Student Network, Pernod Ricard and HOTREC signed a declaration calling for the safe re-opening of venues with respect to the health measures currently in place.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]