The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unequivocal impact on young people. An International Labour Organisation (ILO) study found that ‘the impact of the pandemic on young people [is] systematic, deep and disproportionate.’ Twenty-three per cent of young people aged 18-24 who were working pre-pandemic are now unemployed, and those who are working have reported reductions in hours and income. “Students’ perceptions of their future career prospects are bleak, with 40 per cent facing the future with uncertainty and 14 per cent with fear,” the report adds. Globally, young people are feeling more uncertain about what the future holds.

In this COVID-19 and Youth: Learning and Employment interview series, the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) looks to explore trends and patterns within the global youth education and labour environment, and highlight youth voices on their hopes and fears for the post-COVID future.

“I felt alone throughout the process of recruitment and getting on board.” Ana, who graduated from Universidad de Monterrey in 2019, started working for the State of Coahuila de Zaragoza, Mexico as her first full-time job in June 2020.  She recalls feeling nervous about entering the labour market in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Normally when you start a new job, you get this period of training where a mentor or peer will explain how things work there and you get to meet some of your co-workers. But with the pandemic happening, I had no one I could rely on for such help.” After months of working from home, she finally began commuting to the office earlier this year.

This is not a unique experience for her generation. Many youths have experienced starting their first career remotely, with no one to fall back on. But for Ana, her previous experience as a remote intern for an NGO gave her some advantage in adapting to the new environment. “The internship not only helped me professionally, but also taught me what it’s like to work from home.” Remote working allowed her to carry out this role from Mexico. She never visited the NGO’s office in California, relying solely on technology to keep herself connected to the team.

A recent McKinsey report highlights that the world has “vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks” due to the pandemic. This phenomenon in turn has created new opportunities for young people. Nader Kabbani, a research fellow from the Brookings Institute, emphasizes that increasing dependency on technology gives young people an edge over older generations. “Since young people are more comfortable with new technologies, now they're in a better suited position to apply for broad positions and to engage in new opportunities, employment or otherwise.”

The paradigm shift has also been beneficial for students like Majd. She is a computer science student at the Effat University and a cyber-security intern at Microsoft in Saudi Arabia. She currently spends two days a week attending her classes remotely, and the rest of her time goes to the online internship. She explains how efficient it has been for her to engage in remote learning and working at the same time. Without having to waste time commuting to and from the university and workplace, she can dedicate all her time on her education and career,

What's more, learning and pursuing a career at the same time has created great synergy for Majd. “Interestingly, it was the year where I performed the best academically. It increased my satisfaction when I saw the impact of what I studied while doing my job, and it made me realize the importance of what I do both at my university and at work”. Majd received the best grades when she was also working as an intern, since working as a cyber-security intern provided a more hands-on experience for her computer science major.

Majd is optimistic about how technology can be beneficial to young people trying to find their place in the labour market. “If you show that you are always learning about new technologies, since it is an evolving field, companies are definitely going to offer you something because they want people like that – they want energetic people.” She recognises, however, that if people are not familiar with technologies and specific tools used by companies, then it may be hard for some to stay competent.

It is important to look at this from a wider perspective. Overreliance on digital technology may lead to intensifying the ‘digital divide’ both within and between countries. Nader points out that “while there are now more opportunities for people in privileged positions with access to technology, inequality is increasing globally.” According to International Telecommunication Union’s 2019 data, in developed countries 87 per cent of the total population had access to the Internet, while only 19 per cent did in least developed countries. The pandemic would only deepen the divide without prompt action.

Even on just one side of the ‘digital divide’, there is an issue of increased competition at play. Ana recalls how much more competitive the selection processes for internships and jobs have become: “now anyone can apply for a job, as long as they have the skills, access to a computer and internet connection”. National Public Radio (NPR) internship, which would attract 2,500 applications for their in-person openings in a ‘normal’ year, received 20,500 CVs when the internship moved online.

Despite all the positive aspects and opportunities remote working and technology can bring to the workforce, particularly for young people who are well-versed in these skills, we must ensure that this transition does not leave anyone behind on the way.