Why the minutes and the months matter most to young people during the COVID-19 crisis
Jun. 01, 2020
Vulnerable young people will need the most urgent support during and after the pandemic. Economic insecurity and the educational fallout will affect many more for years to come. Here's what policy-makers should focus on to minimise the harms being done to young people.
The UK is now emerging slowly from a lockdown that began on 23 March. After 10 weeks of lockdown extensions, one could almost be forgiven for thinking that this crisis is one in which citizens are living week-to-week, simply going about their normal lives for six days and then pausing for reflection on the seventh.
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In reality, however, very few possess this luxury. For countless young people across both London and the UK as a whole, it is the minutes and the months that matter most during the COVID-19 crisis.
Even though lockdown restrictions are increasingly eased, the same cannot be said for the pressures facing youth mental health services. It is vulnerable young people, particularly those most at risk from what The National Youth Agency (NYA) labels the ‘toxic trio’ of addiction, mental health issues and domestic abuse, who will require the most substantial and pressing support during the pandemic. In an emergency situation, this support will need to be accessible within minutes, not weeks (or worse). Unfortunately, the 2007/8 global financial crisis has left state-provided mental health services severely under-funded and plagued by endless waiting lists . The recent addition of increased demand and rising worker illnesses have only exacerbated these issues.
Even more worrying is the scale of this challenge. Charities have identified over one million young people who will be " at risk at home " during lockdown, whilst a recent NYA report found that 84% of young people have reported "worse mental health problems following school closures or due to not being able to access mental health support".
The minutes will also matter for young people facing economic insecurity. Many do not have the luxury of waiting three weeks to secure their next paycheck, with a staggering 36% of 15-to-24-year olds across London regularly slipping into poverty after paying their housing costs. The corresponding figure for the whole of England is 26%. This is compounded by the fact that it is young people who are disproportionately affected by joblessness due to COVID-19. The Resolution Foundation , a think tank focused on improving the standard of living for low- and middle-income families, have found that prior to the outbreak, almost 40% of 16-to-24-year olds worked in sectors that are now on lockdown. This rises to over 60% for those born after 2000.
Minutes aside, the virus also threatens to affect the lives of young people across the UK for months and years to come. For those in secondary and post-16 education, the indefinite closure of all schools and cancellation of GCSE and A-Level exams has thrown the future of many pupils into great uncertainty. The Prime Minister has stated that all pupils will still "get the qualifications they need for university", but the government is yet to devise an appropriate way of putting this into practice. Even if school students do manage to make it to university, however, the prospect of a decent education is still under threat. Times Higher Education claims that due to financial uncertainties, many UK universities "could be at risk of permanent closure" with some having already announced plans to limit spending and cut staff. This will only compound the misery of the countless students fighting to reclaim thousands of pounds spent on now-vacated university accommodation.
Those due to leave education will be impacted by the virus too, with many likely to suffer the long-term wage scarring effects associated with entering a decimated labour market. This means years of pay freezes, slim promotion prospects and reduced earnings. Just this month alone, research carried out by The Learning and Work Institute, Youth Futures Foundation and The Resolution Foundation have all concluded that the effects of the UK’s impending recession will disproportionately, negatively, and indefinitely impact young people. The NYA has subsequently warned that ‘unless urgent action is taken to support vulnerable children and young people, whose needs are often unseen, the long-term damage caused will be unimaginable’.
The measures to take
Whilst the majority of government policies have, quite rightly, so far focused predominantly on saving the lives of older adults, this is not an excuse to disregard the pressing needs of our young population. Therefore, both during and long after the virus, the government must ensure that young people have the short-and long-term security they deserve. Measures could include sending support and resources to those one million young people identified as being ‘at risk at home’, similar to the supermarkets’ grocery delivery initiative for older and vulnerable adults. The government could also introduce schemes that incentivise key industries to employ the 40% of young people previously working in ‘ lockdown sectors ’. To protect social mobility, universities should be offered attractive loans that will enable them to plan for the future and guarantee adequate funding for both current and prospective students. And as for the decimated labour market, the government should bolster regulations that will prevent the exploitation of ‘low-skilled’ (and often young) workers, such as the National Living Wage, minimum wage, zero-hour contracts, and unpaid internships.
The lockdown period may go on for another 3, 6 or 9 weeks, but young people across the UK are operating on a different clock. The government must act now to address both the short- and long-term social, economic, and educational insecurity plaguing an entire generation. Simply put, it’s the minutes and the months that matter.