The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Canadians of all ages, but not everyone was affected the same way. Older Canadians likely felt the greatest isolation during prolonged lockdowns. Middle-aged Canadians were juggling remote work with online learning for their children. Younger adults had their transition from education to the workplace interrupted, making it harder for them to launch their new careers.

All of these experiences are important, but each should be met with tailored policy responses to ensure that the coming economic recovery leaves no one behind.

Our latest survey confirms that the pandemic’s impact has been felt more acutely and more persistently among young adults aged 18 to 34. In the labour market, the greater insecurity of younger workers translated into a greater likelihood of losing jobs, work hours or income in the pandemic.

Educational plans were disrupted as well. Among those aged 18 to 20, one in four stopped or postponed their post-secondary studies due to COVID-19. And while the pandemic may have increased seniors’ sense of isolation and working parents’ stress, it is younger Canadians who report the poorest levels of mental health.

On the education front, three groups who historically have faced barriers in school — Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and Black youths — are much more likely to have stopped or postponed their post-secondary education due to the pandemic.

The pandemic has been particularly challenging for new post-secondary graduates entering the workforce. Historically, a post-secondary education has helped insulate workers from the worst effects of recessions. But for recent graduates, that has not been the case this time. Among those aged 18 to 24, the pandemic’s negative impact on employment was actually worse for those with higher levels of education.

This sense of lost opportunity has disproportionately affected specific groups of young adults already facing systemic discrimination. Indigenous youth, for instance, are among those most likely to have lost jobs, work hours or income due to COVID-19; youth with disabilities are also more likely to have faced those experiences. On the education front, three groups who historically have faced barriers in school — Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and Black youths — are much more likely to have stopped or postponed their post-secondary education due to the pandemic.

A key question is whether these setbacks are temporary or will be longer lasting. Youth lack the work experience, resources and connections that more seasoned workers can rely on to help them rebound economically. Governments, educational institutions and employers must recognize this and act to help younger workers catch up as quickly as possible.

Colleges and universities should expand recruitment to reach not only this year’s high school graduates, but also those in the classes of 2020 and 2021 who may have drifted away from education. Education and training programs should create pathways for those whose learning was disrupted by the pandemic, prioritizing those most likely to have a compromised learning experience.

An inclusive recovery strategy should also include better career advice within the skills development process. Younger workers in particular will need guidance to connect them to new opportunities and help them navigate changes accelerated by the pandemic, such as technological change and a growing focus on communication skills.

Employers can begin to focus on what youth bring to the table rather than what they lack. They should commit to overlooking gaps in resumés and to hiring young workers despite a lack of previous summer or part-time work experience. Training programs should be redesigned specifically to help younger workers acquire the skills they might otherwise have gained in class or on the job.

Moreover, governments and employers should expand their support for work-integrated learning for young people (notably Indigenous and Black youth and those with disabilities), particularly in key sectors facing labour shortages. Measures such as tax incentives, grants and social procurement can encourage more employers to invest in work-integrated learning and skills-training opportunities, and foster greater co-ordination between employers and training providers.

In the end, the point is not to argue about whose pandemic experiences were worse, but to recognize how they differ. Experiences of fear, loneliness, stress, anxiety, uncertainty and insecurity cannot be compared and ranked. But different experiences must be met with tailored responses. Policies that focus on helping young Canadians make up for lost time are crucial to ensure that the pandemic’s negative impacts do not rob a whole generation of the educational and employment opportunities needed to ensure their longer-term success.

Author(s)

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Pedro Barata is the executive director of the Future Skills Centre.

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Wendy Cukier is the founder and academic director of the Ted Rogers School of Management’s Diversity Institute and Academic Research lead for the Future Skills Centre.

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Andrew Parkin is the executive director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research.