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8 January 2021

Generation COVID: How young people are bouncing back

Adesola Akerele had finally landed her dream internship at a production company in London when coronavirus hit and the job was gone.

The 23-year-old graduate, like millions of young people around the world, fell victim to a pandemic halting studies and wiping out employment for young people entering the job market.

But Akerele also found an upside.

She had always wanted to write about the experience of being Black in Britain, and as anti-racism protests spread around the world last summer, she found that for the first time people seemed ready to listen.

"Instead of chasing elusive creative jobs, I used the lockdown to focus on launching my career as a screenwriter," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The pandemic gave me something I didn't have before: time to write and develop my own ideas."

From teenagers coding in their bedrooms to graduates spurning scarce entry-level jobs and setting up businesses, Akerele is part of generation COVID - young people who, in 2021, must innovate to enter the labour market against huge odds.

Bhargav Joshi (left), Kimberly-Viola Heita (top), James Poetzscher (bottom), and Adesola Akerele (right) spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation about how lockdown has impacted them. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tereza Astilean

One in six young people have stopped working since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and about half reported a delay in their studies, according to a global survey by the United Nations' International Labour Organization (ILO).

Labour experts say it is too soon to know exactly how this will impact the generation's lifelong career prospects, but that their path to work is unlikely to be conventional in 2021 and beyond.

"Young people are being more entrepreneurial and looking at career and employment as well as education in a more non-traditional way," said Susan Reichle, president and CEO of the International Youth Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit.

"The traditional sort of first jobs in the service industry, in the hospitality industry are just not there."

Bhargav Joshi was hired at the start of the year as a commis chef at a high-end Italian restaurant in Mumbai. When he was laid off due to COVID-19, he took his chef skills into his parents' kitchen and opened his own takeaway.

"It's been five months since I started. I have managed to break even and that is a big accomplishment for me," said Joshi.

The shift towards entrepreneurship and gig work was underway even before the pandemic among youth, who are three times as likely to be unemployed as adults over the age of 25, according to the ILO.

A 2020 study from the OECD found students rated mental health, employment and disposable income as their key concerns during coronavirus. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tereza Astilean

COVID-19 is likely to accelerate that trend as young people are forced to find creative ways to make money, said Reichle.

With so many applicants chasing so few jobs, screenwriter Akerele realised she could benefit more from pursuing independent projects and freelance work than sending off applications.

In October she signed with an agency to work on a TV show about the young Black British experience.

Reichle said many young people lack the means to launch their own companies or pursue creative projects, but with more support they could.

"This would be an opportunity for governments to intervene and to offer expanded financial services to young entrepreneurs," she said.

Digital tools

Kimberly-Viola Heita, 21, thought 2020 would be the year she became a student radio presenter and formed a new political society at the University of Namibia.

She was excited for her classes and debates with peers, but when coronavirus forced the school to close many of her classmates went home to rural areas with minimal internet access. Online learning became a luxury.

Instead of disconnecting, Heita took the political science society of nearly 100 students on to WhatsApp messenger, which became a source of debate, motivation and support, she said.

Older students helped younger ones via WhatsApp, and many formed study groups in the absence of classroom learning.

"2020 has forced us to innovate, collaborate and discover resilience we didn't know we had," said Heita.

"[The WhatsApp group] was the safe space we needed to keep participating, learning and sharing."

As the coronavirus pandemic hits young people hard, many are finding new and innovative ways to develop their skills and businesses. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tereza Astilean

As jobs and education moved online during the pandemic, digital skills became more in-demand than ever - a trend which will likely continue, said Drew Gardiner, a youth employment specialist at the ILO.

"Young people very much want to get the coding skills, the artificial intelligence skills, but also simpler stuff, like online work translating and editing," he said.

Training in such skills is not always readily available, but initiatives are springing up around the world to meet demand.

Microsoft has launched free online courses aiming to help 25 million people acquire skills for digital jobs this year.

The African Development Bank's "Coding for Employment" platform also offers free online training in basic to advanced digital skills.

Aisha Abubakar, a 33-year-old in northern Nigeria, took part in Click-On Kaduna, a World Bank pilot project last year that trained young people in digital marketing, graphics and design and how to access remote online work.

A 2020 study from the OECD found many students around the world have no access to internet, which has exacerbated existing inequalities as schoolwork moved increasingly online during the coronavirus pandemic. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tereza Astilean

Abubakar is an interior designer, but didn't know how to find clients before the course, she said.

Now her business is flourishing and she has also set up an informal mentoring programme - via WhatsApp - to help other women in her community digitize their small businesses.

"In most cases they don't have access to computers but they have their cell phones ... so what I teach them to do is to use the data they buy to promote their businesses and increase sales," Abubakar said.

"So far it's making a lot of difference."

Community engagement

Out of 12,000 young people surveyed by the ILO, about half said they had become vulnerable to anxiety or depression since the start of the pandemic, with those who had lost their jobs the most affected.

"The uncertainty that the situation has created about their futures is raising really big red flags for us," said Nikita Sanaullah, senior policy officer on social and economic inclusion at the European Youth Forum.

"This is so much bigger than an economic or potential long-term employment impact."

In many European countries youth have a harder time accessing social services such as unemployment benefits because they haven't banked enough work hours, said Sanaullah. As youth lose their incomes, they may also lose housing, she said.

"This was a big challenge even before this crisis occurred," she said.

If there was a silver lining, it was that youth were perhaps becoming more engaged in social activism, said Sanaullah, with about 25% of young people surveyed by the ILO reporting that they had volunteered or donated to help the COVID-19 response.

"What we're seeing is that young people are really stepping up to support their communities," Sanaullah said.

In San Francisco, 17-year-old James Poetzscher found an unusual way to help when he started making online maps of air pollution as a hobby.

James Poetzscher spent the fall of 2019 working with satellite data to create maps of monthly air pollution and greenhouse gas concentrations globally. Thomson Reuters Foundation/James Poetzscher

He was shocked to see that, as the world went into lockdown, the blue dots showing high pollution around cities disappeared.

When wildfires engulfed California in August, Poetzscher took his project one step further and built an air quality data portal for government and non-profit organizations to use - from his bedroom.

He knows that finding a job will be tough, but plans to continue doing his research on air pollution and climate change.

"Regardless of age, we can all make a difference," he said.   

Additional reporting: Roli Srivastava, Kim Harrisberg
Text editing: Tom Finn
Graphic designer: Tereza Astilean
Producer: Amber Milne

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