Two years of COVID-19: the pandemic, young people and what next?

Almost two years have passed since COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency by the WHO. IF’s digital campaigns officer Liam Hill analyses how the pandemic, the lockdowns and other restrictions have affected young people in the UK, and asks what can be done to address the issues they face.

Two years of turmoil

It is almost two years to the day since the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a public health emergency, with only a few confirmed cases of the new disease present outside of China at the time. 

By now there have been over 350 million confirmed global cases (and many more unconfirmed), and slightly over half of the world’s population has had two doses of one of the vaccines available.

We are all going to be living with the consequences of the pandemic for years and decades to come. It is imperative that there is clarity about the social, education and economic effects of the pandemic and the lockdown. While older people are generally at a greater risk of serious health consequences from COVID-19 than the young, the pandemic has had profound impacts on the lives of different cohorts of young people.

Education and development

Let us consider the very youngest in our society, born since the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 or in the few years before it. Many of them simply won’t remember a time before lockdowns, masks, distancing, and regular testing. Whether we return to “‘normal” or settle into a “new normal” these children will be growing up into a world that looks and feels quite different from the one we all inhabited before, as well as very different from the years of pandemic from which we will be emerging.

COVID-19 and the lockdown have had a significant developmental impact on young children, with studies suggesting the temporary shutdown in early years education had a major impact on some young children’s educational and emotional development.

Only slightly older, most school-aged children have lost a lot of learning time. While there is no doubting the sacrifices made by many parents, guardians and teachers to keep children learning, available evidence suggests that educational inequality has been significantly exacerbated within these cohorts during the pandemic. 

Without addressing this issue, that growth in educational inequality will translate into a catastrophic increase in inequality of opportunities and wealth in what is already a highly unequal country.

Results, value and university life

On top of this, people experienced the farcical and hugely damaging GCSE and A-Level fiasco in 2020, with many people’s results downgraded by two or more grades. Young people bore the brunt of the government’s indifference, with a toll on their wellbeing and, in some cases, on their university choices. 

With just over half of young Brits likely to go to university, it was difficult enough before the pandemic to justify over £9,000 per year in tuition fees, let alone the dreadfully-designed inflation multiplier which sees student loans grow, in many cases, faster than they can be paid off through indirect taxation.

Perhaps in no year have students received less value for their tuition fees than in 2020: not just because most teaching went online, but because students were unable to access so many of the facilities that they need – such as laboratories, studios and libraries – on top of the lack of contact with their fellow students. In-person socialising was severely restricted at a time when people could be making lifelong friendships with classmates and creating communities which will help them navigate their way through their lives and careers. To add insult to injury some university students spent time literally locked inside their halls, to the detriment of their physical and mental health.

Financially vulnerable

For young post-graduates and non-graduates, the rising cost of living and of housing has been one of the greatest struggles. The government’s furlough scheme provided some security, but still didn’t provide a full safety net for people with significant ongoing expenses. 

IF research from April 2020 showed that younger adults were the most financially vulnerable group, the least able to withstand a 25% drop in their income for three successive months. This is partly because young people have less in savings, which in a classic vicious cycle is primarily because of the high cost of living. Our report on intergenerational fairness over the last decade found that one in seven renters aged 18 to 24 had built up rent arrears within the first nine months of the pandemic, as had one in ten 25 to 34 year olds. 

Lessons to learn

The pandemic has impacted every age group, every family and every community across the country – and across the world. People’s sacrifice has gone a long way to protect older and clinically vulnerable people, but it is vital to recognise that every sacrifice comes at a cost. Society must recognise that cost and the government should act to correct it. 

What does that mean? It means massive investment in education is necessary for young people who have lost education and fallen behind, which the government has so far been reticent to provide in full. It should mean, at the very least, a significant tuition fee reduction for anyone in higher education during the pandemic. And it should mean an all-out assault on the housing crisis and the cost of living crisis facing millions of young people.

In the longer term, we also need systemic changes to how policy is made and who gets to make it. IF has been calling for intergenerational impact assessments in every government department, so no policy which unfairly disadvantages younger and future generations goes unscrutinised. There is much more that can be done to centre future generations in policymakers’ thinking too, such as appointing future generations commissioners and youth councils.

The challenge is clear: we can’t let young people’s sacrifices go unrewarded, nor the problems they face go unaddressed. The onus is on ministers to make the next two years brighter and better for young people in the UK than the last two.

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Photo by Oakville News on Unsplash