Blame­less youth

The young are not so much the per­pe­tra­tors of Covid mis­ery, but its for­got­ten vic­tims Rachel Cun­liffe

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - RACHEL CUN­LIFFE

Young peo­ple are fu­elling the rise in coro­n­avirus cases. So claimed the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion this month, spark­ing a spate of head­lines about the self­ish­ness of the young. Pre­ston’s coun­cil even warned young peo­ple “don’t kill granny”, as though Bri­tain’s feck­less youth were di­rectly to blame for Covid-19 deaths through their in­sis­tence on work­ing and so­cial­is­ing even in the midst of a global pan­demic.

Such gen­er­a­tional war­fare may be com­mon­place, but it is far from ac­cu­rate. The young are not the un­pun­ished per­pe­tra­tors of the Covid cri­sis. They are its for­got­ten vic­tims.

Let us start by re­mem­ber­ing that the eco­nomic im­pact of Covid-19 and lock­down mea­sures has pushed UK na­tional debt above GDP for the first time in 60 years.

It now stands at a stag­ger­ing £2 tril­lion – a sum fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will be re­pay­ing for decades, in the form of in­creased taxes and re­duced pub­lic ser­vices.

That bur­den may seem ab­stract now, but it will fall hard­est on those who have al­ready been left des­ti­tute by this cri­sis: the young.

When lock­down be­gan, re­search from the In­sti­tute for Fis­cal Stud­ies found that un­der-25s were two and a half times as likely to work in a sec­tor that had to shut down – such as re­tail or hos­pi­tal­ity – as other age groups. They were par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble, in terms of both sec­tor and ex­pe­ri­ence, to the job losses that fol­lowed.

As vast swathes of the econ­omy were forcibly closed, com­pa­nies made sweep­ing re­dun­dan­cies and with­drew en­try-level job of­fers. Small won­der, then, that the num­ber of peo­ple aged 18-24 claim­ing Uni­ver­sal Credit dou­bled dur­ing lock­down.

This is not a blip. Stud­ies from mul­ti­ple coun­ties have found that those en­ter­ing the labour mar­ket dur­ing a down­turn don’t just en­dure lower wages in the short term – their earn­ing po­ten­tial can be scarred for a life­time.

Ac­cord­ing to the Res­o­lu­tion Foun­da­tion: “The corona class of 2020 could face years of re­duced pay and lim­ited job prospects, long af­ter the cur­rent eco­nomic storm has passed.”

For those who have been lucky enough to have jobs, lock­down re­al­ity bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to the gush­ing nar­ra­tives about re­mote work­ing.

While CEOs and man­age­ment con­sul­tants wax lyri­cal about the joys of work­ing from their spa­cious houses and home of­fices, mil­lions of mil­len­ni­als and Gen­er­a­tion Z have been con­fined to their bed­rooms.

Far from “work­ing from home”, lock­down has been an ex­er­cise in liv­ing at work, balanc­ing lap­tops on beds and spend­ing 23 hours a day within the same four walls.

In fact, re­cent re­search from the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics and hous­ing de­vel­oper Pocket Liv­ing found that young Lon­don­ers in house shares have had on av­er­age just 9.3 sq m of pri­vate per­sonal space dur­ing lock­down – about the size of a garage or prison cell.

And while se­nior lead­ers may be in no hurry to re­turn to the of­fice, the young do not have that lux­ury. Those on the open­ing rungs of the ca­reer lad­der have not yet had the op­por­tu­nity to forge pro­fes­sional net­works and are miss­ing out on vi­tal in-per­son ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Covid gen­er­a­tion are not only start­ing their ca­reers in the mid­dle of what the Bank of Eng­land warned could be the worst re­ces­sion in 300 years, but are be­ing denied the pro­fes­sional tools and work­place de­vel­op­ment nec­es­sary to progress.

Their health is at risk too. Last week, the Of­fice for Na­tional Statis­tics re­vealed that one in five adults re­ported symp­toms of de­pres­sion, but shock­ing as this fig­ure was, it rose to one in three among those aged 16-39.

There are count­less rea­sons why de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety may have spiked in this co­hort in par­tic­u­lar, but re­stricted space to live and work and a lack of work­place sup­port are surely tak­ing their toll.

To­day’s bosses can­not ig­nore the plight of their ju­nior work­ers. Em­ploy­ers have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to recog­nise that work­ing away from the of­fice can be hugely detri­men­tal to the men­tal health and fu­ture prospects of their young staff, and find ways to sup­port them.

As for the Gov­ern­ment, we need a new strat­egy that pri­ori­tises young peo­ple. Health pol­icy has rightly fo­cused on pro­tect­ing the old and vul­ner­a­ble, who are most at risk from Covid-19. Eco­nomic pol­icy should do the same for the young, who have suf­fered the sharpest fi­nan­cial hit.

This needs to go be­yond tar­geted ini­tia­tives to pre­vent mass youth un­em­ploy­ment. Rishi Su­nak’s Kick­start Scheme, which will pay the wages of newly hired un­der-25s for six months, is a good start – but it’s not enough.

The eco­nomic cost will not just be borne by those strug­gling to find a job now, but by fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of work­ers and tax­pay­ers. Safe­guard­ing them means en­sur­ing the econ­omy is dy­namic enough to bounce back, re­think­ing reg­u­la­tion to al­low

‘Young peo­ple are not reck­less in­di­vid­u­al­ists who are risk­ing pub­lic health with their self-serv­ing ways’

busi­nesses to adapt and en­trepreneur­s to find new ar­eas for growth.

It also means keep­ing a con­stant eye out for ways to bring the spi­ralling debt un­der con­trol. With the state pen­sion fore­cast to in­crease by 7.6pc over the next two years – more than five times pre­dicted earn­ings growth – it would be un­con­scionable not to re­think the triple lock. Strug­gling young work­ers have al­ready put their fi­nan­cial well-be­ing to one side to pro­tect their el­ders; they should not now be forced to fund dis­pro­por­tion­ate pen­sion rises too.

And de­spite calls to ex­tend the fur­lough scheme, there is lit­tle jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for ar­ti­fi­cially pre­serv­ing jobs that are sim­ply un­vi­able in a post-Covid world, not when it costs £14bn per month to do so.

Most fun­da­men­tally, though, the nar­ra­tive needs to change. Young peo­ple are not reck­less in­di­vid­u­al­ists who are risk­ing pub­lic health with their self-serv­ing ways. On the con­trary, they have sac­ri­ficed ev­ery­thing – their so­cial lives, their well-be­ing, their fu­ture ca­reers and fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity – to pro­tect the na­tion from a virus which gen­er­ally is not a dan­ger to them. If this sac­ri­fice is not widely ac­knowl­edged, it is be­cause they have done so without ques­tion or com­plaint.

Gen­er­a­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity should work both ways. Now is the time to recog­nise the price the young have al­ready paid – and en­sure they are not pay­ing it for the rest of their lives.

The young have al­ready paid a high price for the Covid lock­down

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