Coming of age during a global pandemic and devastating climate change, today’s youth find themselves managing their transition to an adulthood where nothing is certain except uncertainty. But they are not the first generation for whom growing up feels like a plunge into the unknown. An intergenerational dialogue organized by UN DESA this week invited people of all ages to discuss ways of coping with uncertainties and finding jobs in a worsening market

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), COVID-19 has devastated job prospects for the world’s 1.2 billion young people—a demographic already facing an unemployment rate three times higher than adults before the crisis. Participants at the event, part of UN DESA’s Global Online Policy Dialogue Series, developed policy ideas that will be shared with the UN Secretary-General and UN Special Envoy on Youth.

UN DESA’s recent World Youth Report 2020 shows that entrepreneurship can be a valuable avenue for young jobseekers. In particular, social enterprises can be a beneficial job pathway for vulnerable groups and be a tool for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Jeph Acheampong, the Ghanaian founder of Blossom Academy, a start-up that recruits and develops African data science talent, stressed the importance of acquiring both hard and soft skills to stay relevant in one’s job field. Mr. Acheampong, who is affiliated with the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth, explained the importance of prioritizing long-term success over short-term gratification to build a successful career.

Anastasia Gage, Professor at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and a member of the UN High-level Advisory Board on Economic and Social Affairs, said “a job for life is no longer a thing,” and advised young people to be open-minded about their career paths. She added that increased financing for social programmes for young people—including health care, job training and unemployment benefits—would help meet their basic needs, particularly during the pandemic.

Nolundi Luthuli, Managing Director of iSeluleko Youth Leadership Development Forum, said more in-person and online training opportunities for all skill levels are key. Her project, which is registered on UN DESA’s SDG Acceleration Action database, promotes youth skills development in South Africa through gardening and agriculture courses. “Lifelong learning is the only way you’re going to survive in the job market,” she said, adding that developing skills like time management and negotiation are critical.

Furthermore, the private sector has a huge role to play in providing employment for young people—but often fails to fulfil it, said Alexandre Kalache, President of the International Longevity Center in Brazil. More opportunities in the “care” fields—health-care, elder care, childcare—would fill a critical gap, particularly for women, who have been more severely affected economically by the pandemic, he added.

The panelists suggested that governments form partnerships with the private sector to offer modernized internship and apprenticeship opportunities that allow young people to gain new skills for jobs that change rapidly in our digital age. Additionally, older generations can support younger people through thoughtful mentoring programmes that avoid gender and race discrimination.

Discussing the challenges faced by young entrepreneurs and ways for governments to support them, Emeka Nwachinemere, founder and CEO of Kitovu Technology, a  social enterprise recognized in the 2020 Science, Technology and Innovation Forum contest, highlighted three key components of entrepreneurial success: a good team, the necessary skills and access to finance. Based on his experience, young people tend to lack all three aspects—a problem made worse by the pandemic. Governments need to provide more market access to young people, and renew their policy and regulatory frameworks, especially to allow more flexible financing arrangements, he said.

Chmba Ellen Chilemba, founder and CEO of Tiwale, a youth-led, community-based women’s organization in Malawi, noted that the benefits of innovative products and services provided by new enterprises must be accessible to all people, not just the rich.

The panelists agreed that investment in more innovation labs in universities would be helpful in encouraging young people to pursue entrepreneurship from an earlier age. Enterprises that provide services for older persons—a growing demographic—could also be opportunity for young people.

In his concluding remarks, Elliott Harris, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, supported the panelists’ calls for young people to have more access to capital, training opportunities and social services.

“We have all of the necessary building blocks this time around to make recovery of the crisis not only more inclusive, but more inclusive of young people,” he said.