Young people, jobs and the impact of COVID-19
Gathering the evidence
Unsurprisingly perhaps, a number of reports and other papers have appeared over the last few weeks all wholly or in part focused on the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people’s employment prospects.
Young workers in the coronavirus crisis
This Resolution Foundation report published towards the end of May  found for example that:
- One-third of 18-24 year old employees (excluding students) have lost their jobs or been furloughed, compared to one-in-six prime-age adults.
- 35 per cent of non-full-time student 18-24 year old employees are earning less than they did prior to the outbreak … compared with 23 per cent of 25-49 year olds.
Class of 2020: Education leavers in the current crisis
Linked to this report was an earlier Resolution Foundation paper  focused more on the effects of previous recessions on young people. It for example highlighted that
…for several years after having left education, employment rates across the cohorts that left education during the financial crisis were lower than for those who left education after it – with non-graduates experiencing the largest and longest scarring effects. Graduate ‘recession leavers’ experienced substantial hits too, but more in terms of being stuck in lower-skilled jobs than being out of work altogether. And for several years, both groups had lower hourly pay than their counterparts who left education after the recession.
Covid-19 and social mobility
Though something of a contentious concept, ‘social mobility’ is used in this report from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) and the London School of Economics (LSE)  to highlight how the pandemic ‘has exacerbated existing inequalities defined by income, place, health and ethnicity’. With the young emerging as one of the groups ‘disproportionately affected’, it points to ‘a strong link between a country’s level of income inequality and intergenerational immobility’ and to how ‘real wage stagnation has particularly hit younger Britons’.
It also provides some important reminders about the pre-pandemic situation – that:
- Britain already had a ‘booming gig economy (which) has created millions of jobs … with low incomes and lacking security, progression or rights’ on which young people especially were often reliant.
- Even those ‘disadvantaged’ young people who do go to university may find that those ‘disadvantages’ are not only ignored while they are there but become further entrenched.
Reflecting on the evidence: some implications for practice
The evidence and analysis of these three papers provide some relevant prompts for reflecting critically on the findings of a fourth report – the final evaluation of the government’s Youth Engagement Fund  – even though this, published in March, had clearly been drafted well before the Covid-19 crisis hit. The YEF programme had been launched in 2014 with funding of £10 million from the Office for Civil Society, £5 million from the Department for Work and Pensions and £1 million from the Ministry of Justice. Its aims included improving the ‘employability’ of young people classified as ‘disadvantaged’.
The programme’s design had three defining features which, as we shall see later, had their own impacts on the face-to-face practice:
- The four projects which implemented the programme were defined as ‘a social investor … seeking social impact in addition to financial return’ and so funded through ‘Social Investment Bonds (SIBs).
- The SIBs assumed a process of ‘payment by results’ – defined as ‘… the practice of paying providers for delivering public services based wholly or partly on the results that are achieved’.
- Those results (or ‘outcomes’) were then defined as ‘…what changes for an individual as the result of a service or intervention. For example, improved learning in school, better mental health.
Though not reflected in this conception of ‘results’ as largely individualised change, the programme sought also to enable ‘schools, academies, local authorities, colleges and others to use their resources more effectively to support disadvantaged young people and reduce the number of young people who become NEET’. With some reservations, the evaluation concluded that this had been achieved by, for example, ‘provid(ing) schools with a solution for the young people they were struggling with’ and ‘offer(ing) a “refreshing” alternative to the pre-established support they had lost faith in’.
Interventions aimed at prompting even these kinds of limited institutional change were not however made explicit in the report’s summary of the programme’s methodology. For each of the projects this focused wholly on direct work with individual young people, albeit sometimes within their family or peer group contexts:
- group meetings, individualised tutoring and careers coaching and sign-posting;
- … individualised action plans … which could include resilience training, coaching, employability support, the completion of qualifications and sign-posting to other specialised provision’;
- … a range of tailored in- and out-of-school activities supported through a personal career coach, including volunteering, skills and enrichment activities, group work, employment integration activities, youth applied positive psychology and work with the young person’s family.
- personal mentor(ing) over an extended time-period, as well as group work, skills development, enrichment activities, work experience opportunities and spot purchasing of specialist support.
It was in implementing these face-to-face approaches that the payment-by-results funding framework could clearly at time be constraining or even obstructive. Comments from the practitioners interviewed for example included:
You always have to bear in mind that you’re doing this for an outcome, so you’re limited in what you can do. So the support you want to give, you have to say no because you don’t have time to do that.
It’s not necessarily in the young person’s interest – we’re working to the outcome not the individual…It’s like selling windows sometimes.
More fundamentally, the programme’s overwhelming focus on the individual young person as the primary if not the only focus for change left unaddressed some key broader questions.
- If improving young people’s ‘employability’ is a main goal, and if more widely it is their ‘disadvantage’ which acts as a significant obstacle to their achieving this, might not the causes of their labour market problems go beyond their individual limitations or family dysfunction – or even some localised institutional shortcomings?
- In the light of the evidence on how the coronavirus crisis has exposed and indeed exacerbated already entrenched and interlinked structural inequalities, don’t policy interventions now needed also to be focused on these including, in relation to young people’s ‘employability’, the dominant values, priorities and ways of operating of the labour market itself?
The need for such thinking is further supported by one of the Resolution Foundation papers which points to the limitations – even often the irrelevance – of policy responses based on individualised notions of ‘disadvantage’. While acknowledging that some young school-leavers ‘lack basic numeracy and literacy skills, with few specific job destinations in their plans’, the paper is also explicit that ‘the population of unemployed young people will be diverse indeed’. It points out, for example, that some ‘may have left education with an apprenticeship or a career destination in mind, only to find their sector of choice in severe contraction’. And this before you even begin to try to fit all those ‘graduate recession leavers …stuck in lower-skilled jobs’ into policy-makers’ dominant conceptions of ‘disadvantage’.
Significantly – and refreshingly – far from skirting round these kinds of questions, the YEF evaluators were clear that wider systemic barriers affect a young person’s place and progress through the labour market. They, for example, pointed out that ‘Aside from educational and personal difficulties, structural risk factors (emphasis in the original)can notably increase the risk of (young people) becoming NEET’. And they concluded that:
The projects paid limited focus to external factors that might also impact on NEET rates, such as the quality of the local employment market… Towards the end of the projects, the service providers reflected that they should have done more work to engage employers, and encourage them to provide more apprenticeships and/or be more open to recruiting more disadvantaged young people.
In support of this conclusion, the evaluation went on to recommend that programme interventions of this kind need to ‘provide more holistic support, focusing on support that addresses the wider and more structural factors that contribute to NEET prevalence’, including a greater focus on employers
And in response?
How far then have current policy interventions given attention to these kinds of messages with their at least implied advocacy of more radical responses to young people’s labour market struggles?
A ‘National Youth Cohort…
Launched in an open letter in The Observer signed by twelve people describing themselves as having ‘experience of working with young people’, this initiative quoted evidence that ‘30% of university students have lost their job or offer of a job’ and that ‘one in three (young people) is receiving less pay than they were in January’. Its base-line conviction is that the COVID-19 generation ‘can be transformed into a powerful engine to create a UK that is “more innovative more economically dynamic, but also more generous and more sharing” . To tap into this potential it proposes that the government to set up a ‘National Youth Corps’ which, ‘in effect’, would offer ‘a work guarantee’ to all 16-25 year olds who apply by ‘guarantee(ing) at least the minimum wage in a wide variety of work and training opportunities…’ ‘Employers and institutions’ would also have the choice ‘to offer a top-up wage for particular skills’.
Seen as ‘crucial’ to the programme – predicted to attract up to a million applications – is its aim to ‘embed Britain’s most ambitious ever mentoring capability’. Through this, ‘Youth Corps members will be guided and supported to acquire the knowledge, network, skills, experience and confidence they need to succeed in this “new normal”’ and so ‘ensure that young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are able to fully participate and benefit from the scheme’. The letter asks a wide range of ‘British-based employers’ to ‘pledged a range of job offers depending on their financial circumstances’, with ‘third sector organisations that specialise in working with young people … eligible for tailored investment to enable them to build capacity to participate in the programme’.
With the government urged to ‘announce its intent to create the Youth Corps along with the necessary funding as soon as possible’, by late June over 2150 of a targeted 2500 people had signed a petition supporting the proposal.
… a ‘Civic Army’…
At about the same time a second proposed initiative came from the UPP Foundation  – a body which gives grants to universities, charities and other higher education bodies. Backed in this case by a ‘coalition of youth work groups’ with some overlap with the Open Letter signatories, it stresses that ‘the (pandemic’s) economic and educational impacts on young people go much further than immediate issues of school closures’ and includes ‘the job market for young people disappearing (and) apprenticeship(s) … plummeting’. However, given what it calls the ‘disruption to university terms’, it particularly focuses on the need for universities to work ‘collaboratively’ to support young people so that they ‘engage with, or remain in, higher education’ – a goal to be achieved, it suggests, through ‘tutoring or catch up academic support, or other pastoral provision’.
The UPP proposes that to provide these services a ‘Civic Army’ be established, described as a ‘Community Leadership Academy scheme’. Costing £500 million a year, this would create 75,000 six-month paid placements for work in communities which, though open part-time to university students, would again particularly target ‘disadvantaged’ young people. The offer would also include ‘20% off-the-job support for (young people’s) own development…’ and ‘additional Pupil Premium funding for wrap around support’.
… and more government ‘gesture policies’?
Though neither of these initiatives attracted any explicit response from government, some of its own policy proposals focused specifically on the youth labour market and the pandemic’s impacts on it. In a speech on June 30th the Prime Minister flagged up an intention to introduce an ‘opportunity guarantee’ to provide young people with an apprenticeship or an in-work-placement ‘so that they maintain the skills and confidence they need to find the job that is right for them’. More detail on this came from the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on July 8th in his summer statement to Parliament. In this he acknowledged that ‘young people bear the brunt of most economic crises, but they are at particular risk … because they work in the sectors disproportionately hit by the pandemic’. He also recognised that their experience of unemployment would have ‘long-term impact on jobs and wages’.
The most substantial of Sunak’s proposals for dealing with these threats was to establish a job creation scheme, to start in the autumn with £2 billion funding. This will enable employers to offer six-month placements or jobs to 350,000 18-24 year olds ‘claiming universal credit and at risk of long-term unemployment’. With employers again able top it up, the funding will, for a 25-hour-week, cover 100 per cent of the minimum wage – that is, for apprentices £4.15 an hour and for 16-17 year olds £4.55 an hour. (The current adult minimum wage is £8.70).
The Chancellor’s statement also promised:
- An extra £111 million in the current year for tripling participation in traineeships for 16-24 year olds in England with a view to funding ‘high quality work placements and training’.
- For six months from August, a new £2,000 payment to employers in England for each new apprentice they hire aged under 25. This will be in addition to the £1,000 already available for new 16-18 year-old apprentices.
- For the 2020-21 academic year £101 million to enable 18-19 year olds in England who are having difficulties finding a job to study on ‘targeted high value Level 2 and 3 courses’.
Extra money is also to be allocated to a range of support and advisory services for job seekers .
But… the ‘absences’
When looked at from a young person’s perspective, proposals like these can’t simply be dismissed as irrelevant. Why in the emerging ‘new normal’ might a 16 year old school-leaver not look favourably on an apprenticeship or even a temporary job which pays the minimum wage (plus perhaps an employer top-up and an additional Premium Payment) and which may even offer some time off for training? Or an 18 year old who’s been working towards getting into university for two years or more not welcome extra support and advice to make that happen?
And yet, once again policy responses like these focus mainly on providing limited (and indeed mostly temporary) forms of individualised support. They therefore do little if anything to address those ‘wider and more structural factors’ which the YEF evaluation identified as underpinning what it called ‘NEET prevalence’. They also miss important more positive priorities – and opportunities.
Thus, as the chancellor made explicit, the government’s main priority is not to refocus or reorient the labour market in any radical way but to ‘kickstart’ it so that it again begins to operate in its historic ways. The references in the Observer Open Letter to ‘green initiatives’, ‘infrastructure improvements’ and an ‘industrial strategy’ do suggest some significant trigger points for more far-reaching aspirations. However, by getting merely glancing and unexplained mention within a diverse list of suggested routes for implementing its suggested ‘Youth Cohort’ scheme, their potential for seeking more fundamental structural changes is left entirely unexplored. Similarly, while repeatedly endorsing ‘the renewed civic action inspired by the crisis’, the UPP proposal has nothing to say on how this bottom-up upsurge of collective energy and enterprise might be converted into permanent jobs for young people (and indeed others) focussed not on private profit but on radical social (again including green) regeneration.
For thousands the often tragic personal consequences of this moment of major rupture to our society’s everyday activities and relationships are stark. Moreover, as the emerging evidence is also revealing, the age dimensions of the fall out highlighted in the piece are as ever closely interwoven with inequalities of class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and region. And yet, from an economic perspective, this moment has also been described in more positive terms – as for example ‘the most benign borrowing environment imaginable to invest in the future’ . By breaking decisively with that neo-liberal ‘payment by (financial) results’ mind-set, could it also therefore be used to pursue more strategic and systematic aims? Such as an assault on a labour market which, for young people particularly, has always be constraining and often exploitative and which the pandemic is threatening to make even less accommodating?
For some heartfelt accounts of the pandemic’s personal effects on young people see Sirin Kale, ‘The class of Covid-19: meet the school-leavers facing an uncertain future’, Guardian, 16 July
Bernard Davies July 2020
1 Maja Gustafsson, 2020, Young workers in the coronavirus crisis, Resolution Foundation, May
2 Kathleen Henehan, 2020, Class of 2020: Education leavers in the current crisis, Resolution Foundation, May
3 Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin, 2020, Covid-19 and social mobility, Centre for Economic Performance/LSE, May
4 See also for example Denis Campbell, 2020, ‘Racism contributed to disproportionate UK BAME coronavirus deaths, inquiry finds’, Guardian, 14 June
5 John Ronicle and Kate Smith, March, 2020, Youth Engagement Fund Evaluation: Final Report
6 Kathleen Henehan, 2020, p 6
7 Will Hutton and others, 2020,
8 change.org, 2020, ‘Support the launch of a Youth Corps to create employment and speed recovery’, accessed 27 June 2020
9 Richard Brabner, 2020, ‘Recruit a “civic army” of 75,000 young people…’, 29 May,
10 GOV.UK, 2020, ‘PM Economy Speech’, 30 June.
11 Larry Elliott, Phillip Inman and Heather Stewart, 2020, ‘Summer statement: Rishi Sunak plans temporary job creation scheme for under-25s, Guardian 8 July; Richard Partington and Kate Proctor, 2020, ‘Summer statement 2020: the chancellor’s key points at a glance’, Guardian, 8 July; HM Treasury, July, 2020, Plan for Jobs,
12 Larry Elliott, 2020, Low interest rates offer a rare solution that left and right can agree on’, Guardian, 22 June