Decent Work for a Decent Life: The Youth Agenda in Times of Uncertainty

09 September 2020

The COVID-19 crisis is systemically, deeply and disproportionately impacting the lives of young people: particularly young women, younger youth and youth in lower-income countries. These are some of the key findings of a recent study by the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth and partners, based on a survey answered by about 12,000 young people from 112 countries, between April and May, 2020.

Echoing the strong collaboration between the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth  and partners of the Youth & COVID-19 survey, Betty Barkha, Emmanuel Emechete, Lucia Burtnik, Paula Isturiz, Waziha Raquib and Winnie Mutevu of the Global Youth Caucus for Decent Work and Sustainable Economies Coordination Team reflect on the results of the survey and share their key takeaways.

Overall, the survey results make visible the myriad impacts on young people and serve as an aid to constitute precise solutions to guide us from where we are currently to where we need to be. One in six young people aged 18-24, who were employed before the outbreak were pushed out of the workforce, while two out of five (41 per cent) young workers have experienced a reduction in work hours and income. Approximately 65 percent of the students reported that they learned significantly less since the pandemic began and one out of two (51 per cent) believes their education will either be delayed or fail. HALF of all respondents stated mental health and well-being challenges, with mental well-being scores being lowest for women and younger youth aged 18 to 24.

These results should be helpful for governments ready to take action, but we reiterate that all action to aid youth must be taken in meaningful partnership and consultation with young people themselves; you cannot pick and choose. Our reflections centre around three key points: (i) Gender Inequality, (ii) the Digital Divide, and (iii) the Need for Systemic Change.

Gendered Impacts

“A rapid assessment by ILO in the Pacific found that of the 26 per cent of Samoan workers who had lost jobs, 64 per cent were women”

As with all crises, the impacts of this pandemic are experienced differently across the gender spectrum. Findings from the survey reiterate that, while the pandemic has been drastic for all young people, young women (particularly from lower-income countries) are disproportionately affected. Young women are already disproportionately affected by double or triple burdens of care, and this was further exacerbated by having to take care of extended families, the elderly, and children, which then impacted young women’s ability to actively work from home. As this UN Women brief points out around 243 million women and girls were victims of sexual and/or physical violence by their partners in the 12 months prior to the pandemic, and the figure is only likely to increase due to lockdown measures.

These enormous impacts on women threaten to undo the recent gains made in poverty reduction and gender equality in the labour market, and to exacerbate gender disparities even further. Responding to COVID-19 is an opportunity for advocating gender equality in the workplace and beyond. As we rethink work during the pandemic, we must ensure domestic work is not stigmatized to a gender, that parental leave is available regardless of gender, and that care work at home is distributed equally amongst all genders.

Closing the Digital Divide

Due to the effects of COVID-19, 1 in 8 (13 per cent) of young people are left without any access to education, teaching or training, with those in low- and lower middle-income countries disproportionately affected.

Many communities in Africa are severely impacted as they lack digital tools to continue school or work online. We need more youth who are already digitally literate to help educate others. Though the government and the private sector have a major role to play, all should not be left to them. Around three out of four (73 per cent) of young people who were studying full time or part-time were unable to transition smoothly to online or distance learning; governments and the private sector alone are failing us. Access to the internet must be a public service, and equitably regulated investments in digital infrastructure are essential to ensure this.

Initiatives need to be taken to ensure the quality of education provided to the affected youths. Digital and technical training is crucial for young people now, more than ever, to progress, but how could you have known that if you didn’t work with young people with no internet?

The importance of access to the internet can be seen in the participation of African youth in the survey. Participation compared to population size was lower than for other world regions and skewed to the better educated (for which survey analyses tried to compensate for). Regardless, without access to the internet, access to devices, and digital literacy, we can’t bring everyone to the digital table. Often touted as an equalizer, we must ensure that these technologies don’t further marginalize young people and exacerbate existing inequalities.

Systemic Change

COVID-19 has further heightened the vulnerabilities in our lives. Although the sample from this specific study constitutes youth with secondary and tertiary levels of education, giving us only one part of the bigger picture, it is clear that labour policies and training for young people need to change if we are to get over our current crisis.

When talking about decent jobs for young people, it is important to recognise that the matter is multidimensional and thus requires systemic change. This pandemic and the report findings are shedding light on just how much we need to rethink the way not just employment policy is conceived, but all interrelated macroeconomic issues, as well.

The connections between physical and mental health with living wages and social security urgently need to be taken into account in order to build a better future. This should also encompass the meaningful participation of young people in the elaboration and revision of economic policies - including economic crisis response mechanisms - as these are decisions that closely affect their future.

We have seen our friends actively participate in coming up with infrastructure to address the gaps highlighted in different sectors as the world battles COVID-19: One in four youth actively engaged in volunteerism or making donations to COVID response mechanisms, but we also have far less wealth than any other generation, so young people giving their extremely limited time and money is not a sustainable solution. We need to instead be focusing on the fact that the richest man in the world more than doubled his net wealth during the pandemic, yet denies decent work to those who made him that money.

When we talk about building back better, we talk about not waiting for antiquated engagement mechanisms which tokenize us. We fight for decent work and a liveable environment: not out of altruism, but out of solidarity and survival. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t empathetic and collaborative; young people are designing solutions for the world we want to live in: and there is room for all generations in our world.

Will you join us?

by Betty Barkha, Emmanuel Emechete, Lucia Burtnik, Paula Isturiz, Waziha Raquib and Winnie Mutevu of the Global Youth Caucus for Decent Work and Sustainable Economies Coordination Team, UNMGCY.

This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact


United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth is the space for children and youth to engage in UN policy processes.

Year of publication

09 September 2020