A few things keep me up at night, but at the top of the list is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people, especially young women.
There is an overwhelming body of evidence that demonstrates that women have faced the brunt of the pandemic, from unprecedented job losses to the impact of increasing unpaid care work and the devastating rise in gender-based violence across the country. As coined by economist Armine Yalnizyan, Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers, the “she-cession” has been relentless in reversing decades of hard-fought gains to advance gender equality in the workplace.
Young people have also faced disproportionate impacts because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millennials and members of Gen Z have faced disruptions to their schooling, were often the first workers laid off because of COVID-induced lockdowns, were shortchanged in their earnings, and are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression and social isolation. Job insecurity is on the rise, and young people are unclear of where to take their careers in this time of economic uncertainty. The economic consequences of their departure from the labour market, including reduced lifetime earnings, atrophied skills and erosion of professional networks, could be felt for up to 10 years.
These factors are further compounded for young women, especially Black, Indigenous and racialized women; women living with disabilities; and newcomer women. Statistics Canada highlights that young women are the demographic group that is furthest from pre-COVID-19 employment numbers. An RBC Economics report by Dawn Desjardins and Carrie Freestone found that while Gen Z women make up just 2.5% of Canada’s labour force, they represented 17% of the job losses.
Through my work, volunteering and participation in mentorship programs, I speak with young people across the country every week. They share their hopes, their fears and also their frustrations that their needs are not being considered in pandemic policy-making. I worry that if we don’t take the right steps now, young people will become a “lockdown generation” with limited opportunities to realize their full potential.
So how do we prevent that from happening?
First, it begins with recognizing that we need a robust intergenerational lens on all budgetary allocations. A prime opportunity to put this in action is the upcoming federal budget, slated for April 19. This will be the country’s first budget in over two years and the first one that Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland will put forward in her dual role as Canada’s Minister of Finance. I am hoping for a continued focus on an intersectional feminist approach to recovery, as the YWCA Canada and others have called for, and also an intergenerational approach.
Second, we need to address one of the most pressing challenges: employment precarity. We know that getting into the labour market during times of economic strife is difficult for everyone but especially for those with lower levels of social capital – like young people. We should look at implementing policy measures like a youth job guarantee, similar to what exists in the European Union: within four months of leaving education or becoming unemployed, every young person under 30 is guaranteed to have a good-quality job, continued education or free training.
This could build on the federal government’s investments in the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy. It will be vital for young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEET). During the pandemic, the number of NEET youth has grown to unprecedented levels – currently one in four young people in Canada.
Finally, beyond the workplace, we need the 2021 budget to include targeted solutions to address the other issues that are disproportionately affecting young people, including the pandemic-induced mental health crisis, housing insecurity, the staggering burden of tuition fees and post-secondary education debt, as well as the digital divide that makes it hard for everyone to be connected online.
This is just the beginning. Much more needs to be done, but it must start with the recognition that Canada won’t have an economic recovery without an action plan that addresses the immediate and long-term impacts of this crisis on young people.
The decisions made during this time, both good and bad, will be felt for generations to come. If we want an economy that works for everyone, we must prioritize and maximize opportunities for millennials and Gen Z. So let’s make sure we invest in younger generations to have a real shot at building back better.
Our collective future depends on it.
Anjum Sultana is the national director of public policy and strategic communications at YWCA Canada. She was recently named one of Canada’s Top 30 under 30 Sustainability Leaders by Corporate Knights. Sultana will be moderating a panel discussion to look at the 2021 federal budget through an intersectional feminist and youth equity lens on April 22.