COVID recovery: no generation left behind

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Lockdown generation? [European Youth Forum]

European COVID recovery plans must address youth unemployment and wellbeing if they are to avoid the mistakes of the previous crisis.

The European Youth Forum is the platform organisation advocating for youth rights in Europe.

Dr Justa Hopma, 34, started her career during the financial crisis, the impacts of which have been felt, in some way or another, for the past decade. Now, it’s all happening again.

“Our generation has always been told: do what you love, follow your passion,” she says. “But does that even make any sense at all, when you’re faced with the reality of an uncertain job market?”

Dr Hopma is based in the Netherlands. As the pandemic hit Europe, she briefly paused her career decisions, before ultimately deciding to go-ahead. “Your work is so infused with identity, maybe that’s why it hits hard if you can’t follow your plans. That’s certainly what’s happening to the generation that’s leaving university now. For them, this must be even harder.”

While young people are at lower risk of the health impacts of COVID-19, they are among the most vulnerable to its social and economic repercussions. Due to the lasting effects of the previous crisis, young people were already at the greatest risk of poverty and social exclusion in Europe. The pandemic has disrupted education, affected jobs and income prospects, and is having a negative effect on wellbeing.

Irish national Elliott Davidson, 25, runs a small marketing agency, serving clients across the EU. He has felt the mental strain as he tried to keep his business going. Friends and relatives of his generation are feeling the economic sting: students are paying large fees for a compromised education experience. Those in work are being pushed into unfavourable employment terms or worse, finding themselves unemployed. “I don’t think my generation truly realises the impact this could have on our lives.”

According to a global survey by the International Labour Organisation, the European Youth Forum and others, over one in six young people have stopped working since the start of the crisis. Within the EU, youth unemployment is rising four times faster than the general rate.

With the previous crisis in mind, Dr Hopma wants to see more cross-generational solidarity to ensure no generations are more adversely affected by the crisis. Millennials, in general, are less likely to take risks as a result of the previous crisis, but are more willing to share knowledge and contacts.

That collaborative spirit should be developed across generations and nations, she says. There is a perceived narrative in the Netherlands that southern European countries always go over the borrowing allowance set by the EU, while northern European countries do not. “I’ve never seen stories on how younger generations feel about North-South solidarity,” Dr Hopma says. “The millennial generation grew up with Erasmus schemes and free movement. They might actually understand that youth unemployment in other countries needs to be addressed for the good of the EU.”

The EU has set up the Recovery and Resilience Facility as a central pillar of NextGenerationEU, an emergency recovery instrument that the European Commission put forward in response to the health and economic crisis. Member States will be able to access funds in grants and loans, based on the economic downturn and unemployment rates, after submitting a National Recovery and Resilience Plan that meets certain targets. For example, each recovery and resilience plan will have to include a minimum of 37% of expenditure related to climate.

France and Italy have already released draft plans. Alongside green and digital measures, France has put particular focus on support for young people, including €1.6bn for training programmes and €1.3bn for employment support measures like the Youth Guarantee. While the Italian plan is less detailed, it outlines similar priorities.

However, there seems to be little from either plan for mental health, housing, and social work – social inclusion is largely seen as ‘employment’, but little else. Employment opportunities also need to be high quality to avoid the mistakes of the previous crisis, where many young people ended up in temporary work or on zero-hour contracts.

In the longer term, the MFF is an important avenue for investment in Europe’s youth through various programmes. This includes the Erasmus+ programme, which has strengthened connections across the EU. Demand for student exchanges, projects and traineeships currently outstrips current funding. A proposed increase to €21.2bn still does not cover it.

The MFF’s seven-year lifespan also provides opportunities for greater attention to youth unemployment; 15% of the European Social Fund Plus could be earmarked for youth unemployment in countries where it is highest.

National Youth Councils (NYCs) and organisations can help to influence decisions to ensure that young people are not failed in this crisis like they were in the last. Highlighting tried and tested programmes that could be scaled up with the right funding could make a difference, as could analysis and recommendations for draft recovery programmes.

NYCs can also push the need for the structured and meaningful involvement of civil society, including youth organisations, at a national and local level. It’s not enough to talk about protecting younger generations – governments, society and organisations must act.

“We’ve never had a more idealistic generation than the new generation,” says Dr Hopma. “What can you do to help that generation realise its potential?”

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