Catching the tide for “the lockdown generation”

By Rowan Light September 15, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, we must attend to the needs of our young people, our taiohi. “Taiohi” in te reo Māori comes from the term “tai,” referring, in one sense, to the turning of the tide. This meaning captures the ways in which young people are defined by change: a process of “becoming” full members of their community and society through new experiences, relationships, further education, and steady employment.

What happens when young people “miss the tide” and lose these transitions to adulthood? School-to-work pathways have become increasingly fragmented over the last few generations and young people face more temporary, limited, and precarious work than ever before. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc with these opportunities even further: the UN’s International Labour Organisation warns of a “lockdown generation” currently experiencing a “triple shock” – the virus destroying employment prospects, disrupting education and training, and putting obstacles in the way of taiohi.

What happens when young people “miss the tide” and lose these transitions to adulthood?

The impact – and costs – of this fragmenting world of work is evident in New Zealand’s persistent rate of young people not in employment, education, or training (NEET). Our youth NEET rate sat at around 69,000 young people towards the end of 2019. Māori and Pasifika communities are over-represented in our NEET rate. Most concerning is increasing numbers of “long-term” NEETs, those stuck in patterns of NEET for six months or longer – around 10% of this total. Data from the June 2020 quarter suggests we’re already starting to see a spike in these statistics, one that is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Disengagement from work can wreak economic, social, and personal devastation. Economically, youth NEET lose productivity and earnings overtime. Socially, they also lose work places to build relationships that are crucial to future employment. “Work readiness” isn’t just about the scripts and skills of a work-place; it’s the myriad unspoken habits and attitudes we absorb as an employee, which you can’t get from Zoom meetings. This has personal implications: NEET disengagement becomes a vicious cycle of failure and social stigma. Policies aimed at “booting lazy youth off the couch” might make for good populist rhetoric, but it doesn’t actually get at the complexity of the lived experience of our taiohi who face these compounding challenges.

Will-power is not enough in this policy space, as University of Pennsylvania Professor of psychology Tess Wilkinson-Ryan points out. Instead, our first response has to be to take on the challenge of helping those who are disengaged from employment as a responsibility for all New Zealanders. Solutions require an intergenerational approach to the “world of work” our young people must enter; drawing together whānau and the other “moving parts” of a young person’s life, such as educators, agencies, and employers.

Disengagement from work can wreak economic, social, and personal devastation.

“Catching the tide” means, on the one hand, seeing young people at a crucial stage of their life when they need support not opprobrium. On the other, it also means that the challenges of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic are an opportunity – to look afresh at the needs of young New Zealanders, and craft policy and act decisively for their future.

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