The impact of COVID-19 on young people

This global pandemic is poised to deepen a learning crisis that already existed, with millions of young people not developing the skills that will enable them to get a good job, start a business, and engage in their community.

Urmila Sarkar, Hana Sahatqija, Mami Kyo
Vira (16) studies at home during covid 19 . she uses tradional books and mobile education. Location : Sanwlor Village, Barmer, Rajasthan, India
15 June 2021

Originally published on the Comparative and International Education Society's Perspectives.

The current generation of young people – numbering 1.8 billion – is one-quarter of the world’s population and a dominant force now and in the decades to come. This generation represents the largest cohort of young people ever with the demographic boom across much of the world. If these young people are prepared with the relevant skills to become productive and engaged members of society, they will significantly contribute towards positive socio-economic development outcomes and the Sustainable Development Goals. However, investments towards quality employment and entrepreneurship opportunities fall short of young people’s aspirations and the growing pool of young jobseekers. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is rapidly changing labor market needs and many education systems are struggling to prepare young people with skills in demand while millions continue to remain out of school.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 267 million young people (aged 15-24) were not in employment, education and training (NEET); two-thirds of which are young women, as a result of gendered expectations of unpaid family work (e.g. sibling/childcare, household chores) and informal employment. While recognizing girls and boys experience adolescence in very different ways, the world tends to narrow for girls, who face limitations on their ability to move freely and to make decisions affecting their education, work, marriage and relationships. They are also vulnerable to child marriage, teenage pregnancy, gender-biased sex selection and violence.

This global pandemic is poised to deepen a learning crisis that already existed, with millions of young people not developing the skills that will enable them to get a good job, start a business, and engage in their community. The quality and levels of access to education and skill-development opportunities, particularly for the most marginalized, are desperately limited and inadequate for young people who are demanding – and deserve – access to learning. With the sudden closure of schools where over 1 billion students globally were affected, governments have taken actions to ensure learning continuity by rapidly transforming education delivery with digital and non-digital (i.e. radio, TV, paper) solutions. However, the availability of quality learning and teaching materials, teacher trainings as well as gaps in digital connectivity remain a major challenge. Currently, according to the ITU only half of the global population is connected to the internet and a mere 15 per cent among low-income countries.

As we are in a global recession, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on businesses and employment has disproportionately impacted young people working in the services and sales sector as well as the informal economy. According to new data released by the ILO and its Global Survey on Youth and COVID-19, 17 per cent of respondents who were employed before the outbreak, stopped working altogether and 42 per cent reported a reduction in their income. COVID-19 has also posed immense psychosocial impact on young people. Disruption in education and economic opportunities, family stress, social isolation, risk of domestic abuse and uncertainty about the future have led to reduced well-being of young people globally. Psychosocial support and counseling for young people have become ever more important to ensure they are able to harness their talents and reach their aspirations in the post-COVID world.  

The global response and Generation Unlimited

Generation Unlimited (GenU) was launched in September 2018 to overcome these challenges and chart pathways for prosperity young people. It is a global multi-sector, public-private partnership hosted by UNICEF that aims to enable the largest generation of 1.8 billion young people to become productive and engaged members of society. GenU connects governments with private sector, front-line partners and most importantly the young people themselves. Its Board includes many prominent government and civil society leaders and CEOs of major corporations. 

GenU contributes to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and aims to:

  • Modernize secondary education and training to build the skills young people need for productive lives and work.
  • Increase and improve the number of quality work opportunities available to youth.
  • Foster entrepreneurship as a mindset and a livelihood for young people.
  • Collaborate with youth as problem-solvers and engaged citizens to help create the world they want.

GenU brings together the private sector, governments, multilateral organizations, civil society, and young people to:

  • Put youth at the heart of everything it does. We engage youth in the co-creation of our agenda and its ongoing governance and implementation. Young people are part of the GenU Board, and we’ve set up the Young People’s Action Team (YPAT) to act as a sounding board for everything we do.
  • Deliver at scale. We identify and develop youth-focused solutions and innovations and mobilize financing to implement them at scale.  This is done by using the extensive reach of our networks, such as the United Nations and the complementary capabilities and networks of our many partner organizations, such as businesses, and foundations.
  • Crowd-in capital. We use catalytic capital – primarily sourced from donors – to bring in and mobilize additional financing.

GenU has rolled out the public-private partnership platforms across 41 frontrunner countries across 7 regions it currently operates in. For instance:

  • Across GenU India, Yuwaah! aims to build pathways to economic opportunities for 100 million young people, facilitate 200 million young people to develop relevant skills for the future of work, and equip more than 300 million young people to become catalysts of social change by 2030. They adapted plans to address industry and job losses, shutting down of educational institutes, and the psychological impact on young people caused by COVID-19. Yuwaah! is reaching almost 30 million with the support of digital innovation.
  • GenU Bangladesh aims to reach more than 17 million young people with skills development and quality employment opportunities by 2024. They have formed a Steering Committee chaired by Government and led by a2i (Digital Bangladesh), BRAC, ILO, UNICEF, UNDP and the World Bank with industry associations representing more than 500 national businesses.  They are investing in scalable solutions in apprenticeship, secondary education and Madrasas, entrepreneurship, job-matching platforms and mainstreaming vocational education in systems.
  • Led by President Kenyatta, GenU Kenya is building on existing youth skills/employment initiatives, tapping into vibrant private sector, and co-creation with youth.  The platform is rolling out a new initiative, African Youth Digital Marketplace (YOMA), which supports young people in their quest for growth by matching them to opportunities for education, skills development, volunteering, apprenticeships, social innovation challenges or self-development initiatives that help them acquire 21st-century skills in practice.

GenU and COVID-19 response

To address the unprecedented challenges posed on young people by the current COVID-19 global pandemic, Generation Unlimited has mobilized its partners to establish Task Forces to accelerate results in the following areas:

  1. Connecting every school and learner to the internet. This will mobilize private and public funding and other resources to connect two million schools and approximately 500 million children and youth in the next three years. We want to create industry coalitions for providing satellite and mobile connectivity and digital services.
  2. Scaling-up online/remote learning, skilling and livelihood platforms. This will provide facilitated access to existing digital content and tools that can be used for remote learning and skilling of young people as well as for advancing employment, entrepreneurship and civic engagement opportunities.
  3. Encouraging entrepreneurship skills and opportunities. This will provide the support necessary for the establishment of local entrepreneurship ecosystems and entrepreneurial education and culture for young people.
  4. Supporting young people as changemakers. This entails massive scale-up of proven youth engagement and volunteering initiatives globally to support young people as changemakers and co-creators of their own solutions.

The Executive Committee of the GenU Board is driving these Task Forces and they include: Dubai Cares, IKEA Foundation, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), UNICEF, Unilever, World Bank, and the Ministry of ICT of Kenya.

Young people’s engagement and civic participation

Young people first and foremost have a fundamental right to participate and engage meaningfully in society as well as to have their voices heard in decisions affecting them. More efforts need to be made to empower vulnerable and marginalized youth with opportunities for civic engagement. Young people can then strengthen civil society, increase accountability of governments and corporations, and foster greater social cohesionKey principles for successful engagement of young people include creating a safe environment where young people can express their views without fear; ensuring the engagement of those hardest-to-reach in both development and humanitarian contexts; and engaging young people in decisions that are meaningful to them.

Having that in mind, GenU ensures that every initiative, partnership, and development of programmatic guidance has young people at the forefront. This is why on the August 2020 International Youth Day, GenU and UNICEF, jointly with ILO and the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth, marked the launch of the What Works? A Guide to Action in an event rallying more than 300 participants from over 70 countries and 100 organizations and entities. The event covered the latest global trends on skills and employment in light of COVID-19, the outcomes of extensive consultations with youth, and the launch of a set of practical guides that give partners and policy-makers new tools, ideas, and evidence on what works to help young people access the skills and training they need to prepare for the future.  This key global knowledge tool also benefited from the extensive inputs of UNESCO, the World Bank, UNDP, UNFPA, Plan International and the World Organization of the Scout Movement. 

Given the right space, skills, and support, young people can co-create solutions for scale for their communities and beyond. GenU has been employing an iterative, human-centered method for creative problem solving and innovation that resonates more deeply with the marginalized young audience — ultimately driving engagement, growth, and creating a global generation of young problem-solvers. Effective, context-responsive youth programmes generally fall on the nexus of expert, research-based best practices and collaborative, user-centric methods. Following such practice, GenU has been leading on initiatives such as the human-centered design based initiative on social entrepreneurship for marginalized young people, UPSHIFT, and the global social impact innovation challenge, as well as on engagement of young people in co-creating the vision and strategy of the partnership platform itself.

To lead on establishing pathways towards cutting-edge tools and techniques in better youth engagement and co-creation of solutions, universities are crucial. In the quest for increased connectivity and partnership, universities can connect governments, the private sector, and young people in a transformational quadruple helix. Thus, by fostering a healthy ecosystem, universities and societies such as CIES can play an instrumental role in creating a sustainable and youth-generated movement through knowledge generation, education, and co-creation with and for young people.

In short, to address today’s challenges and build a sustainable future, it is crucial to harness the energy and creativity of young people and provide them more opportunities and platforms for driving and innovating transformative solutions.  After all, it is their time, their turn, and their future!