Voice, choice and partnerships

Reimagining the future of adolescents in a post-COVID world

By Roshni Basu, Regional Advisor on Adolescent Development
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09 June 2020

Not so long ago, at the start of 2020, young people across several countries in East Asia were gearing up for the Lunar New Year celebrations. Travel plans with family and friends were being finalized, there was excitement over extended school breaks, friends were meeting up to attend concerts and sporting events, and young workers in cities were waiting to go home to their families. COVID-19 dramatically changed those plans and has changed the future landscape for adolescents across the region.  

COVID-19 is forcing us to see the world differently. Stepping into a different world will require us to live with the virus, embrace uncertainties, and reshape some of our health, education and other social welfare institutions. It will include rethinking priorities, visualizing how the world of work and occupations can be rejuvenated through our collective strengths and through our diversity of ideas, without allowing fear and stigma to take over.

We know that investing in adolescents builds strong economies, inclusive communities and vibrant societies, but without the right vision and investments, a generation of leaders, of thinkers, of voices could be lost. This is why we not only need to focus on how we recover today, but how we can rebound from this pandemic and reimagine a world where we fully tap into the potential of adolescents.

“The world cannot afford a lost generation of youth, their lives set back by COVID-19 and their voices stifled by a lack of participation.”

UN Secretary General, António Guterres

The impacts of COVID-19

While COVID-19 impacts everyone, this generation of adolescent girls, boys and those of other genders will be largely carrying the repercussions into the rest of their lives. Lockdowns and containment measures are taking their toll on the mental health of young people, some 325 million children and adolescents are missing out on school, and incidents of domestic violence, forced marriages and unplanned pregnancies are on the increase. Economies and job markets have shrunk dramatically, making it even more challenging for young people to find work.

Adolescence marks a critical period of transition during which experiences and exposures – both positive and negative - can have a lasting impact on one’s future. That is why timely investment is needed to ensure this generation is not lost. Evidence shows that investing in adolescent girls and boys is central to human capital development and equitable growth, especially in low-income and middle-income countries with high youth populations. Yet, investments in adolescents were far from sufficient pre-COVID 19, and in many cases, mitigating efforts have inadvertently put their lives at further risk.

The impact of mental health is an area that has come into spotlight, with frequent reports of anxiety, stress and self-harm emerging from countries. But these are early days; the medium to longer-term impact of COVID 19 on the overall well-being and mental health of adolescents and young people is yet to be fully acknowledged. Emerging research from South East Asian countries reveal that even those countries that have a low case rate are bracing for economic hardships and sharp slowdowns in growth. For the relatively young workforce in the region, the slowdown of the economy has already resulted in loss of jobs and livelihoods, and there is limited indication of how severe the impact will be over the medium to long term.

Youth in action across East Asia & Pacific

Notwithstanding challenges, innumerable stories have emerged on positive action and engagement led by young people across the region and globally, stressing on resilience, care and empathy, communication, dialogue and unity as governments and communities respond to COVID 19.

Youth action has taken myriad forms; through volunteerism, peer-support platforms, social innovations and inventions, solutions have been created at the local, community level to raise awareness on the virus, particularly around personal hygiene and sanitation including handwashing; support individuals requiring mental health support and counselling; provide vulnerable families with critical supplies; or deliver frontline workers with protective gears. Artistic endeavours through music, dance, poetry and drama have brought young people together on the virtual space. Young people have also been using their time well, uniting in their efforts to protect the environment by raising awareness and demanding action.

Voice & choice

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UNICEF/UN0248894/ Preechapanich

Reflecting on the issue of participation and voices, we must envision the type of community, society, and state we wish to rebuild as we think of a post-COVID world.

Our businesses and governance models may not continue to thrive if we are merely instructing young people to be quiet, passive learners who must perform well in formal examinations. There is no real growth in human capital if young people lack the ability to think creatively, reason well and apply complex analytical skills towards modern-day problems.

To support young people to overcome the trauma of COVID-19, we have to create safe spaces for dialogue and engagement, where young people come together in a spirit of collaboration to design, ideate and develop solutions that enable societies to move ahead.

Participation starts at home, where parents and family members understand and respect the ideas and opinions of adolescents. This includes addressing harmful socio-cultural norms that deny the voices of young girls, those of other genders, and young people with disabilities. Participation can become transformative when it extends through schools and community networks to legitimate planning and governance mechanisms, when governments and decision-makers work with young people to create valuable partnerships, especially where there is scope for young people to lead.

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Reimagining the labour market of the future

From the perspective of the labour market, even prior to COVID lockdowns, industries and organizations across the globe reiterated the importance of 21st century skills for successful workforce. In post-COVID world, the need for young people who are tech-savvy, digitally proficient, creative and innovative when it comes to problem-solving will only increase. However, the risks of digital divide remain a real threat– for many young people who do not have adequate access to digital devices as well as optimum learning environment and resources, learning and skills acquisition will become a greater challenge.

As we imagine our world post COVID 19, we must recognize the significance of building the resilience of young people, and promoting learning through experience, where failure is seen as an integral part of an adaptive learning process. Importantly, we cannot ignore the civic engagement rights of young people. COVID 19 has shown us that the future of jobs also hinges on a strong care economy, green jobs, people and culture. Thus, by encouraging community-based youth-led organizations and initiatives, investing in local participatory planning processes, and supporting youth volunteers, young entrepreneurs and start-ups, we will gradually emerge stronger and better as a region. Let us not lose this opportunity to reach out, engage, and empower, and build inclusive societies where our youth take us forward.