Winning the recovery for our young people

By Rowan Light June 02, 2020

The government’s recent welfare package provides an important 12-week bridge for New Zealanders who find themselves suddenly out of work because of the Covid recession. The initiative, however, offers little for our young people who haven’t even began on the pathways of work.

I’m thinking especially of our “Zoomers” – members of Gen Z preparing to leave school to pursue work, training, or education in uncertain times, as well as tertiary who are graduating into a shrinking job market that is increasingly hostile to hiring new workers.

The initiative offers little for our young people who haven’t even begun on the pathways of work

First jobs set the scene for a life of work. In bad times, businesses tend to adopt a line from the “last in, first out” playbook; those crucial first rungs on the ladder of work – graduate roles, internships, entry-level jobs, casual contracts, apprenticeships, work placements, and so forth – are the first to go. Because young people take time up-skilling and integrating, it’s natural that businesses would look to simply lean on their current employees more or recruit mature New Zealanders with established CVs.

It’s increasingly clear that young people are being hit hard by the recession. MSD data shows nearly a 50% increase in the number of 18-19 year olds claiming the jobseeker-workready benefit. Initial indications by ASB are that nearly a third of all job losses are being shouldered by those ages 15-29. Worldwide, ILO data shows 1 in 5 young people are now unemployed. Those still hanging on have precarious or limited work prospects.

It’s increasingly clear that young people are being hit hard by the recession

Although we might think of young people as adaptable, they need work experience to flourish. Early work experience provides social networks and cultural capital to build careers.

Without this, our Zoomers face “scarring” – playing catch up in terms of salaries, productivity, and security. Young people are already feeling the anxiety that comes when these opportunities disappear: a recent survey found that Gen Zers are markedly more anxious, less resilient, and struggling with mental health compared with older New Zealanders.

If we can invest in “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects like rail and roads, we can invest in the “infrastructures” of work for our young people.

To make sure our COVID response helps our young people equally,  we need to see new kinds of partnerships that connect key stakeholders into the lives and needs of our young people: schools, communities, and businesses, in tandem with local and central governments.

Early work experience provides social networks and cultural capital to build careers

I’m thinking of local community partnerships, like the Māori Futures Collective – Tokona Te Raki, a collaboration between Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and the J R Mckenzie Trust which brings together private sector, iwi authorities, and the wider community to help young Māori pivot to new opportunities in the post-Covid economy.

Such initiatives are small, intensive, and local, making them difficult to replicate through large government programmes, but it’s precisely the sort of creative, local thinking we need to be supporting.

We only have a small window of opportunity to turn the tide before we’re having to deal with the long-term effects of disengagement from employment, at a time when our economy is going to need innovation and responsiveness.

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