Post-school transitions to employment in the age of COVID-19

| August 28, 2021

The pandemic has amplified feelings of uncertainty in young people’s lives. Its spectre looms over their ability to plan, be it for travel, finding and securing affordable housing, attending a wedding (perhaps their own), or whether their small children are going to school. Uncertainty is coupled with insecurity.

These disruptive forces also unsettle their post-school transitions to employment.

Evidence about the full impact on young people is still emerging, but we can think about the effects by looking both at longer-term trends and recent data.

Take career-planning as an example. We’ve seen a shift from linear pathways from school to study, training and work in what might be a severing of the bargain that more education and training will lead to secure and desirable work. This trend has been growing since the 1990s.

Expectations have shifted

The conventional way we think about careers has been disrupted. Expectations have shifted at three levels.

Firstly, full employment as a 20th-century target of government policy has taken a back seat to focus more on getting some (any) form of work. But in the past few years, youth underemployment (that is, part-time workers who are available to do more work) has reached an all-time high. Many want to work, but can’t.

This isn’t to suggest that young people aren’t planning for a career, but that the typical stepping stones to a career have shifted.

This shift can be understood in terms of this move away from explicit full employment as an explicit policy target, and an expectation that employers will provide the means and training for staff to move up within their organisations.

Instead, what we see is a shift back on to individuals to gather the work experiences, skills and qualifications necessary to get into the employment of their choice and an ever-changing field.

A second related shift has been away from planning for work destinations towards building clusters of skills that are seen to be necessary to get into the employment of one’s choice.

Soft skills such as creativity and innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication – rebadged as 21st century skills – have been the renewed focus of education and policy.

This focus is problematic for a number of reasons – one of which is that skills reflect only part of what is desirable in relation to work. A career identity, sense of vocation and purpose remain important to young people, but are increasingly elusive to achieve. Deep knowledge also remains important. But planning for career trajectories is often disrupted.

Learning Concept. Human hand with a black marker on a white background

Consideration of wider psychological and social dimensions of these disruptions are unclear. But recent data such as that provided by Mission Australia’s annual youth survey provide some clues.

Its 2019 youth survey found about one in five young Australians were highly concerned about financial security. The 2020 survey indicated that COVID-19 was the second-most frequently cited issue of national importance and concerns raised in relation to the impacts of COVID-19 and associated lockdowns, including education, isolation, and mental health.

Equity and discrimination was the top national issue for young people, increasing by more than 60% since 2019. Social inclusion and belonging are foundational to feelings of security.

Elsewhere prior to the pandemic, research from BehaviourWorks Australia found the highest levels of prejudice in Australia continue to be directed against religious minorities, racial minorities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, LGBTI people, and young people aged 18-24. Imagine life for young people at the intersection of these forms of prejudice.

“Our job as educators is not just about developing in individuals the skills to navigate uncertainty, but to work with our students to imagine and create the conditions for better, more secure and sustainable lives.”

There are some common threads woven throughout the varied experiences of young people. What emerges from youth research in recent decades is that young people show consistent concern in relation to planning and security. These are disrupted by the experiences outlined above in ways that arguably stack the odds against young people.

Given the confluence of factors and forces shaping the uncertain futures of young people, is being young a disadvantage?

The new Monash Centre for Youth Policy and Education Practice (CYPEP) has started exploring this in a discussion paper, Life, disrupted: Young people, education and employment before and after COVID-19.

Later this year, CYPEP will bring together existing indicators of how young people are faring with a survey of, and interviews with, young people. This youth barometer will examine the pressures felt by young Australians across social, political, economic and wellbeing indicators, and how education policy and practice might respond.

Our job as educators is not just about developing in individuals the skills to navigate uncertainty, but to work with our students to imagine and create the conditions for better, more secure and sustainable lives. Life need not be one of perpetual disruption and uncertainty.

CYPEP wants to start a conversation about young people based on a language of possibility. Ideally, we want to work in collaboration with researchers throughout the University, as well as through surprising alliances with stakeholders beyond. Most importantly, we want to work with young people themselves, and our newly-formed Youth Reference Group will play a key role in paving the way.  This article was published by Lens.