The lockdown generation: Disarming the time bomb

Youth were hit hardest by the pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean. Unemployment, informality and unprecedented departures from the labour force can become sources of discouragement and frustration. Now is the time to address this challenge, says ILO Regional Director Vinícius Pinheiro* in this article.

News | 12 August 2021
Vinícius Pinheiro  
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on youth triggered a time bomb that could affect social and political stability in Latin America and the Caribbean. The components of this explosive mix include unemployment, informality, and unprecedented reductions in labour supply among the 15-24-year-old population.

The young population is among those most severely affected by the social and economic consequences of the pandemic in the region, and will face the effects of the pandemic in the coming years of their working lives, running the risk of becoming a "lockdown generation".

This generation has experienced the impacts of COVID-19 in several ways such as the interruption of their educational or training programs and bridge to the labour market (apprenticeships and internships), the loss of employment and income, and the prospect of facing greater difficulties in finding an occupation in the future.

On this International Youth Day, it is important to bear in mind that it will be necessary to have strategies specifically aimed at improving youth employment if we are to defuse the profound impact of the pandemic on young women and men. Otherwise, the consequences will last a long time.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are about 107 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24, according to recent demographic estimates, of which about 48 million are part of the labour force, meaning that they have a job or are actively looking for one.

By the beginning of 2021, the average regional youth unemployment rate would have reached 23.8 per cent, according to available data from nine countries. This is the highest level recorded since this average began to be compiled in 2006 and represents an increase of more than 3 percentage points compared to the level of 2019 before the pandemic. The unemployment rate among young people is more than double the overall rate at the regional level. This means that some 11 million young people are looking for a job without getting one.

At the same time, the youth labour force participation rate contracted, falling about 3 percentage points to a level of 45.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2021. This drop in the participation rate means that in the first quarter of this year between two and three million young people were left out of the labour force due to the difficulty of finding jobs because of the crisis.

Even if the demand for employment begins to show more favourable conditions alongside greater economic dynamism, employment opportunities for young people will continue to be severely restricted.

In this context, the already high incidence of informality among these workers, which affected six out of 10 young people before the pandemic, is in danger of increasing further.

It should not be forgotten that the measures to face the crisis also had an unprecedented impact on education and training activities, with the closure of face-to-face classes and difficulties in continuing virtually for those who do not have the appropriate equipment. Many of the apprenticeship and internship programmes and other mechanisms for transition to employment were interrupted, making it difficult for future vocational integration to take place.

The sum of these factors profoundly affects a key moment in people's lives, the transition from education to work. With schools and universities closed, and difficulties to get a job, with millions of businesses going bankrupt or on the verge of bankruptcy, it is also likely that a significant number of young people have joined those who do not study or work, called "ni-ni", which causes great concern in the region.

There is still no data for the region as a whole on what is happening to this subgroup of young people in times of pandemic, but even before COVID-19 it was estimated to include about 23 million people, about 20 per cent of the young people in the region.

The lack of youth employment opportunities is worrisome because it can affect people's career paths and limit their chances of accessing decent work in the future. Starting a precarious working life, under the siege of unemployment and informality, can have persistent effects on access to jobs, working conditions, and income.

But we must also consider the importance of youth employment for the stability of societies. The lack of adequate employment opportunities is a source of discouragement and frustration, which can lead to conflict situations and even affect governance at various levels. The protests that had erupted in various countries in this region before the pandemic were led by young people. After a ferocious crisis that has left many people hopeless, we have already seen how in some countries these young people are once again coming out to demand a future.

Addressing the challenge of youth employment requires a combination of policies specially designed to address a structural and complex problem. The current moment will demand strategies to increase the supply of jobs, to stimulate the recruitment of young people, to support companies and entrepreneurs, and to promote education and training so that they respond to the new requirements of labour markets, including those of the digital revolution.

The political will to move forward along this path also requires social dialogue in order to have consensual policies.

There is one fundamental aspect to keep in mind when designing strategies to promote youth employment after this atrocious pandemic: we cannot do without the contribution of young people, it is essential to build prosperous and inclusive societies in our region. Nor must we forget that young people are, without any doubt, the protagonists of the future of work that we want.

*Vinícius Pinheiro is Director of the ILO Office for Latin America and the Caribbean.