Today on 2020 International Youth Day, CEO Katherine Ellis shares her ideas for supporting young people during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 has provided an unexpected and important opportunity to bend the arc of history in one of two ways: towards a future that is not much different from the unequal, dysfunctional system we had before, or towards a reimagined future with a renewed sense of hope and possibility for young people.–Katherine Ellis, YACVic CEO
A year and a lifetime ago, while developing YACVic’s new strategic plan I ran a consultation with a diverse group of young people. Sadly, each one of them expressed genuine fear for their future, citing concerns about increasing inequality and discrimination, failing institutions, and the existential threat of climate change.
And at the time no-one was even dreaming of a life-altering pandemic.
Fast forward twelve months, and young people are today bearing the brunt of an unprecedented global health and economic crisis that will define their generation, and potentially have devastating long-term impacts on their lives.
Will Generation Z become known as Generation COVID, scarred by this disaster and destined to struggle long term with unemployment, mental health issues, insecure housing and social disconnection?
Or will we all recognise the sacrifices that this generation of young people is currently making – disrupted education, disproportionate job losses, missed rites of passage, social isolation at a crucial time of identity development – and take tangible action that puts them at the heart of a COVID-19 recovery?
We know from research that youth unemployment has still not recovered from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, with 36% underemployment, and education-to-work transitions stymied by increased workforce casualisation and disappearing entry-level jobs. And it seems that the GFC will be a mere blip compared to the current economic catastrophe.
But as they say, one should never waste a crisis. We actually now have an enormous opportunity as we devise and invest in a COVID-19 recovery, to reinvent the many parts of our economic and social system that do not currently serve the needs and talents of young people, the next generation of citizens, workers and leaders.
A well-planned, youth-focused recovery should include essential short-term measures, such as extra supports to help the thousands of young people whose education has been disrupted to re-connect to their schools and social networks, and catch up on their studies. Thinking bigger, it is also the chance to address pre-existing issues, creating a fit-for-purpose education system that gives young people the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in a dynamic, digital world.
We already knew that 75% of mental health disorders emerge before the age of 25, and that the existing system often doesn’t consider the unique mental health needs of young people. They are often not taken seriously, instead told by political leaders and others to “be more resilient”, without recognition that they are coming of age in a far more complex and uncertain world than any previous generation. The coming reforms from the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, as well as the COVID-19 emergency measures being enacted by state and federal governments, will be key to ensuring that young people emerge safely from the current plague, and thrive into the future.
Decent work and secure housing are foundational needs, and also critical to young people’s mental health and wellbeing. A COVID-19 recovery must prioritise creation of meaningful jobs for young people, giving them a foot on the ladder at a pivotal time, as well as purpose and community connection.
For those who can’t find a job, permanently raising the rate of income support to a liveable level will allow young people to live, develop, volunteer and search for work with dignity and wellbeing.
COVID-19 economic recovery strategies also provide an ideal opportunity to address systemic youth homelessness issues, by building more social housing and improving regulations and support services to make the private rental market more accessible to young people.
And of course there’s the omnipresent existential threat of climate change, which in a time of crisis and economic stimulus offers opportunities as well. Increasing investment in sustainable energy technology would create jobs and careers for young people, position Australia as a thought leader in addressing climate damage, and move Australia meaningfully towards the green economy that young people see as essential for a secure and sustainable future.
One of the deeply concerning aspects of this crisis is that many young people were already facing marginalisation and discrimination, and COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated their challenges, such as online learning with substandard technology and/or minimal family support, and increased difficulty finding and accessing inclusive health services. Even young people who in normal times would have managed fine as they transitioned to adulthood, will now also need support in ways they had never previously contemplated. Clearly, a youth-focused recovery will also require investment in a strong youth sector to support these young people through the short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19.
When young people take action, it is usually for the whole community, not just themselves.–Katherine Ellis, YACVic CEO
On a brighter note, in times of trouble across history, young people have stepped up to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Many in Victoria are already leading on efforts to address the COVID-19 emergency, as well as other major issues such as climate change and mental ill-health. Importantly, when young people take action, it is usually for the whole community, not just themselves.
It was young people from AMSSA Youth Services who stepped in at short notice to deliver essential items and services to the thousands of residents in a hard lockdown at the Flemington and North Melbourne housing estates. And it was young people who organised and marched en masse at the School Strike 4 Climate to ensure a safe planet for everyone.
So this International Youth Day of ‘Youth Engagement for Global Action’, let’s move away from dismissing, blaming and infantilising young people, and instead embrace and invest in their talents, their needs and perspectives, and their vision for a future we all want. Young people want to take action and have a say on their future, and a youth-focused COVID-19 recovery will meaningfully include them at the centre, and welcome and implement their solutions.
Governments, business, philanthropy and community organisations, along with young people themselves, can work collectively to make serious and long-lasting investments in a youth-focused recovery – in young people as agents for change, as well as emerging citizens in need of support and development.
COVID-19 has provided an unexpected and important opportunity to bend the arc of history in one of two ways: towards a future that is not much different from the unequal, dysfunctional system we had before, or towards a reimagined future with a renewed sense of hope and possibility for young people.
Surely instead of Generation COVID, young people deserve genuine hope.