How young people are responding to the COVID-19 economy

The pandemic has frustrated a generation young people looking to launch their careers. Against all odds, many have found innovative ways to join the labor market, especially through freelancing and entrepreneurship. 

Mark Humphrey/AP/File
Country singer Caylee Hammack uses a leaf blower to clear a sidewalk in Mt. Juliet, Tennesee on March 25, 2020. Ms. Hammack began a side gig as a landscaper after COVID-19 wiped her band's touring schedule clean.

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

But as the pandemic halted studies and wiped out employment opportunities for millions of young people around the world, the recent graduate found a silver lining – using the lockdown to launch her career as an independent screenwriter.

Ms. Akerele had always wanted to write about the experience of being Black in Britain, and as global anti-racism protests spread last year, she found people wanted to listen.

“The pandemic gave me something I didn’t have before: time to write and develop my own ideas,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From teenagers coding in their bedrooms to graduates spurning scarce entry-level jobs to set up businesses, Ms. Akerele belongs to Generation COVID – young people who will have to innovate to enter the labor market in 2021 against tough odds.

One in 6 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 survey by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO).

Labor 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 United States-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 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,” Mr. Joshi said.

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

With so many applicants chasing so few jobs, Ms. Akerele, the screenwriter, realized 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.

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

Kimberly-Viola Heita 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 the 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, Ms. Heita took the political science society of nearly 100 students onto WhatsApp, and the messaging platform became a source of debate, motivation, and support, she said.

“2020 has forced us to innovate, collaborate and discover resilience we didn’t know we had,” she said.

As jobs and education moved online during the pandemic, digital skills became in more 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. Aisha Abubakar, 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 ways to access remote online work.

Ms. Abubakar is an interior designer but did not know how to find clients before the course, she said.

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

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.

In many European countries, youth have a harder time accessing social services such as unemployment benefits because they have not banked enough work hours to do so, said Ms. Sanaullah. And as youth lose their incomes, they may also lose housing, she said.

“This was a big challenge even before this crisis occurred,” she said, adding that despite their difficulties, young people were perhaps becoming more engaged in social activism.

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

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

He knows 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.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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