Is history repeating itself? The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on youth

While we now know that the idea that ‘COVID-19 only affects older people’ is fake news, the first weeks of the pandemic have shown that young people are in general more resilient than older people to the disease. But are they also more resilient to its social and economic impacts?

Evidence from the previous recession would advise against drawing that conclusion. The 2008–2013 crisis revealed the additional vulnerability of young people to economic recession in comparison to other age groups. During that crisis, youth unemployment rates skyrocketed above 40% in many EU countries, and the share of young people not in employment, education or training (NEETs) peaked at a historical high of 16% of the entire population aged 15–29 in the EU. This had major economic and social consequences for the lives of young people; and the economic loss of having such a large cohort of young people outside the labour market and education was estimated at above €153 billion a year.

Will history repeat itself? Will young workers be the next victims of the COVID-19 economic fallout? More generally, how is the pandemic affecting young people’s lives, and does this differ compared to other age groups?

To answer these questions, Eurofound has collected the experiences of over 85,000 citizens across all EU countries using a short online questionnaire and weighted their replies to reflect the structure of the EU population. The results show that the youth of Europe is grappling with the crisis, reporting lower levels of mental well-being and higher levels of loneliness than other age groups, coupled with job loss, a dramatic decrease in working time and a sense of insecurity about their professional and financial futures.

Mental well-being under threat

COVID-19 has created turmoil in families’ lives. The disruption caused by the restrictive measures put in place by EU governments as they attempt to control the pandemic – social distancing, school closures and, eventually, lockdown – seems to have affected youth more than other age groups. Young people, in a reversal of traditional pre-crisis trends, now express lower levels of well-being than those aged 35 and over across many European countries.

In April 2020, respondents aged 18–34 rated their life satisfaction on average at 6.2 on a scale of 1–10, which is slightly lower than the rating of 6.4 from people over 50. This is quite a contrast to results obtained by surveys before the crisis; for example, in the 2016 European Quality of Life Survey (EQLS), young people gave an average life satisfaction rating of 7.4 compared to a population average of 7.1.

Perhaps surprisingly, young people were less likely to perceive themselves as resilient in crises: 28% agreed with the statement ‘I find it difficult to deal with important problems that come up in my life’, and 26% agreed that ‘When things go wrong in my life, it generally takes me a long time to get back to normal’. The comparative figures for the over-35s were 21% and 23%, respectively.

Even more striking are the results on loneliness and depression. When asked about loneliness, 20% of young respondents said that they felt lonely all or most of the time, compared to 15% of older respondents. Again, this difference between younger and older age groups goes against usual trends – in the EQLS, only 4% of young people felt this way, compared to 6% of others. In the April 2020 survey, young men were more likely to say they were lonely than young women (21% vs 18%, respectively).

Furthermore, young respondents were more likely to feel downhearted and depressed: 16% reported such feelings, compared to 12% of older groups. Again, in the 2016 EQLS, less than 5% of young people felt depressed, against 7% of other age groups.

The employment challenge rears its head again

The evidence from the previous recession suggests that young people, especially those who have just left education, could be hit harder economically too by the COVID-19 fallout. The main reason for this additional vulnerability is that they tend to work more in sectors that have been worst affected by the economic shutdown, such as retail and hospitality (including tourism). Furthermore, young people are often employed on temporary contracts or have other insecure and precarious forms of work, hence they are more likely to be laid off first or to suffer cuts in their hours, as was the case during the previous recession. When levels of unemployment are high, youth suffers in competition with older and more experienced workers, who have more settled patterns in employment, and so young people are more at risk of long-term unemployment and of having difficulty breaking into the labour market.

So, will history repeat itself, and will young workers again be the victims of the new economic fallout?

The risk is very high, and the first signals are not encouraging. Eurostat data from March 2020 show that while the unemployment rate of the general population increased by 0.1%, from 6.5% to 6.6%, the youth unemployment rate increased by 0.4%, from 14.8% to 15.2%.

Eurofound’s survey found that in this initial phase of the crisis, young people in the EU have been hit just slightly harder than the rest of the population in terms of labour market participation: 6% said they had lost their job permanently, against 5% of other age groups. But numbers were higher in Bulgaria, Hungary and Portugal, with more than 10% of young workers reporting permanent job loss. Additionally, and in line with other age groups, 23% have lost their job temporarily, and 16% fear that they will lose their job in the next three months.

Nearly half (49%) of young workers said that their working hours had reduced since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. This is in line with other age groups, even though many more young people, 43%, started to telework during the outbreak, against 34% of other age groups.

But still optimistic and trustful towards the EU

Despite these initial negative effects of the crisis on young people’s well-being and employment outlook, they remain slightly more optimistic than other age groups, with 53% reporting feeling optimistic about their future, compared to 41% of respondents over 50. This optimism may be driving the additional trust in institutions that youth possesses in comparison to other age groups – the largest difference between the two occurring in relation to trust in the European Union. In contrast to older age groups, young people still trust the European Union more than they trust national governments, rating their trust of the former at 5.2 on a 1–10 scale, on average, compared to 5.1 for the latter. Young people who are students have even higher levels of trust in both the EU (5.8) and their government (5.6), while those who are unemployed had lower trust in both (4.4 and 4.1, respectively), but this was still higher than other unemployed workers.

The trust that young people have in their institutions is important social capital that should not be wasted or betrayed. Both the EU and national governments should act to preserve this capital by putting in place measures to prevent the explosion of another youth unemployment crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The EU’s SURE initiative, which helps to finance Member State spending on mitigating risk of unemployment, and a reinforced Youth Guarantee go in the right direction towards maintaining young people in employment or quickly reintegrating them in the labour market once the crisis abates.

Image © JDzacovsky/Shutterstock


Uuringud, mis tehti enne Ühendkuningriigi lahkumist Euroopa Liidust 31. jaanuaril 2020 ja avaldati hiljem, võivad sisaldada andmeid 28 ELi liikmesriigi kohta. Pärast seda kuupäeva võetakse uuringutes arvesse ainult 27 ELi liikmesriiki (EL 28 miinus Ühendkuningriik), kui ei ole märgitud teisiti.

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