World-changing events have a tendency to leave deep marks and memories on those who live through them. This is never more true than for young people, whose lives and prospects are shaped by the big moments in which they come of age.
It was with this in mind that SpunOut.ie, Ireland’s online youth information service, as part of a partnership with the Irish Examiner, decided to conduct a wide-ranging survey of young people aged 16-25 to learn more about their hopes, fears and experiences of life in a society grappling with COVID-19. All told, we received 1,084 responses from young people all across Ireland, telling a story of a generation under lockdown.
Health and wellbeing
One of the most stark findings of our survey was that a majority of young people consider their family units to be ‘especially vulnerable’ to COVID-19. Almost 3 in 5 (57%) respondents said they have a member of their household with a heightened risk of infection, with just 15% reporting themselves as immuno-compromised. This anxiety for the health of loved ones and their own, understandably feeds into the overall impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health, with a third of respondents saying they will need extra counselling or other supports as a result of their current circumstances.
Yet with access to ordinary means of support so limited, young people are more reliant than ever on coping mechanisms they can engage with at home. When asked how they are dealing with anxiety or stress, some of the most popular answers are also the most familiar: 68% are listening to music, 67% watching TV or movies, and 59% going for walks when they can. However, a fifth of respondents also report using alcohol to get through the crisis.
While the majority of young people are engaging in healthy coping mechanisms, policy-makers would be wise to note the increased desire for mental health services which will become apparent once social distancing guidelines have been lifted or relaxed. Ireland’s youth mental health budget lagged far behind those of comparable countries before the pandemic, so a decision to scale up our support capacity now will be necessary to prevent the system’s capacity being overwhelmed in the coming months.
One of the great causes of stress for young people is, of course, the Leaving Certificate. Approximately a quarter of those surveyed were due to sit their final exams this summer. More than most, their lives have been thrown into flux as plans for postponed written exams slowly filter through causing confusion and uncertainty. The clear need these students have is for information and support, as our survey indicates there are many questions about the exams which have yet to be answered to their satisfaction.
A huge number (88%) of Leaving Cert students report they fear the prospect of catching COVID-19 while sitting their exams. We must see more urgency from the Government as to how the Department of Education intends to hold nationwide examinations in a way that is safe for all. Also troubling is the number of students – twelve percent – who have had no online classes since their schools shut their doors. Even among those who have had engagement with their teachers, a significant cohort report not having the necessary technology to fully engage with remote learning. Just less than half of Leaving Cert students say they do not have a reliable laptop, and 40% describe their WiFi connectivity as inadequate for learning.
Against this backdrop, the Government’s plans to increase the supply of information technology to students is welcome – but it will require substantial investment if there is any hope of bridging the digital divide between those students who can learn at home with ease, and those who cannot.
Work and income
Another understandable finding is the effect the pandemic is having on young people’s incomes, both personally and on a household level. Just over a third of respondents report having lost full-time (8%) and part-time (26%) work since the crisis began. Yet even these figures obscures the true impact, given that half of young people were already not in work due to unemployment or status as full-time students prior to lockdown. The impact on young people who were in work when the crisis started is therefore severe, with 37% telling us they are currently reliant on the state’s emergency COVID-19 support payments either personally or through their family.
Again, there are clear lessons for the Government here when it comes to the post-crisis rebuilding of our society. As always, the rate of youth unemployment is primarily influenced by the general performance of the economy, and young workers are suffering through no fault of their own. Those in power must focus on reflating the economy so that jobs are once again available, and not fall victim to lazy stereotypes of young people being unable or unwilling to work.
In particular, the existence of a large group of young people who would work if circumstances allowed should spur a major investment in apprenticeship places and back-to-education funding. In this way, the coming recession need not become another lost period for younger workers. It could instead be a moment in which they are supported to increase their skills and develop new qualifications for when economic growth returns.
And what do Ireland’s young people make of the caretaker Government’s crisis management? In general, our survey indicated that most young people are supportive of the Government’s handling of the pandemic: 73% indicate a high level of satisfaction. However, Leaving Cert students are significantly more likely to show displeasure than young people in general.
An overwhelming majority of respondents (92%) also indicate that they have been following social distancing guidelines since their introduction. In terms of when the current restrictions might be lifted, young people generally anticipate a long wait. Most feel that life will not return to normal until after the end of summer, with nearly 30% thinking it may be next year before normality resumes.
Yet views are not all negative, and most young people see some upsides to the current situation. More than half of all respondents cite lower carbon emissions and higher government support for the vulnerable as two features of lockdown they would like to see carried forward into post-crisis Ireland. Ultimately leaving us with an interesting, and hopeful insight into the values of young people in Ireland today.
Jack Eustace is Governance & Policy Officer with SpunOut.ie