The Shaken Future of a Generation

By Nina McNicol

Citizens of all ages have undoubtably been hard-hit by the lash of Coronavirus, yet the young Generation Z will be the most fatal casualty. Being the youngest in our society, ‘Gen Z’ children and young adults have faced a series of misfortunes: an increasingly intense job market and months of altered (or even missed) schooling.  Strains such as these could lead to a reduction in lifetime earnings of school children by an average of 3%, and countries globally could face at least a 1.5% drop in estimated GDP throughout the next century; illustrating the beginning of a domino effect of economic inequality and hardship for the remainder of the century.

Firstly, the eldest of the Gen Z’s – students and recent graduates who may be in search of a graduate job or internship – do not have it easy. The ISE (Institute of Student Employment) conducted a survey in March 2020 questioning “firms’ responses to COVID-19 in their recruitment process”.  The report found 72% of all firms had outright cancelled their scheduled careers fayres – where many students make plans for future employment, and learn more on how to conduct their career pathway – and a further 63% cancelled all work experience opportunities. If it is often the case that students are expected to partake in work experience to be accepted into favourable employment, how will students ever overcome the shortage of work experience as a result of the pandemic?

Students are entering what was an already arduous job market, but now with ample qualified individuals putting themselves forward for jobs that would normally attract only a handful of applicants, their chances of success are even more constrained.  Nowadays it only takes a few minutes of scrolling through LinkedIn to be inundated with the anecdotes of graduate’s recent triumphs in securing a work placement, only after applying to 70 other jobs beforehand and at best receiving one or two interviews.  While this is often the case for students, it is suggested that employment prospects for non-students (young people who chose not to attend higher education) are more so at risk.  

The ISE report previously mentioned also shows firm’s “anticipated change in hiring number due to COVID-19”, and separated results of graduates and non-graduates.  It shows 42% of firms are to hire graduates as planned, in comparison to only 37% of firms taking on non-graduates, as planned.  Not only that, 38% of firms admitted they didn’t yet know what the impact would be on the number of non-graduates hired, which was over 10% higher than the corresponding figure for graduates.  Logical reasoning behind these figures may point to the unwavering desirability of student applicants, over less experienced or less educated young people who did not attend higher education.  Seeing a degree on a student’s CV ticks one more box for recruiters than a non-student would, and will lead the recruiter to believe the student is more qualified for the role.  Therefore, if there is a job vacancy, it will most likely be filled by a ‘more qualified’ young person with a degree.

Student or non-student, consideration should be given to those who did not pick themselves up, and dust themselves off once it seems their employment prospects have hit a stand-still on their twentieth failed application. Near the time of entering a recession when employment is scarce, there is a certain phenomenon that occurs.  Individuals in search of work are motivated by financial necessity, rather than their desire to pursue a career path, and so will take pretty much any job.  A study from the ONS revealed 28% of young people believe they will have to “take any job I can get”, and 35% “would give up my dream job for any job”.  Even so, employment in the sectors most popular with 16-25’s as first-time employment, and reputedly easier to infiltrate, has been made substantially more difficult.  Namely hospitality, ‘gig-economy’ and even retail sectors have been the hardest-hit economies throughout.  If businesses within these sectors decided to impose redundancies to free some capital, those effected were most likely be less experienced, young people, who may have worked for the business for only a short period.  Subsequently, unemployment in economically active 16-24 year olds is increasing following lockdown, with the latest figure reaching 13.4%.  

If this trend continues, it could spell disaster for the future of Gen Z’s.  Their pride is understandably being hurt by the numerous application rejections, and lack of internships or work experience opportunities, causing them to have a lack of ambition.  Evidence of young disheartened individuals comes from recent figures of the ONS, unveiling 38% of 16-24’s believe they will “never succeed in life”.  If sustained, this mindset could lead to prolonged unemployment, or contribute to failure in young people reaching their full potential.  This August, figures released by a UK job board, CV-Library, confirmed that job applications dropped by 8.2% despite an increase in job vacancies.  If this is truly the case, we may lose a significant proportion of the future qualified workforce due to unemployment and young people not reaching their full capability, and jeopardising young people’s potential to be upwardly socially mobile (that is, to climb the socio-economic ladder).

The younger counterparts of Generation Z (schoolchildren) are also under threat of worsened inequality as a direct effect of school closures over lockdown.  The IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) reported better-off pupils had access to more resources for home learning in comparison to poorer pupils, and better-off pupils spent on average 30% more time on home learning than their less financially equipped classmates.  Without considering even the quality of teaching, it has been made clear that the home set-up of education throughout lockdown acted as a catalyst for educational inequality.  The UK lockdown represented around one third of a year’s education loss, which equates roughly to a 3% reduction on the estimated lifetime earnings of the schoolchildren.  This figure is but an average, and will differ dependent on socio-economic status.  Even though one third of a year sounds trivial when showed as a fraction of the total time spent in education, for younger ones this is when important skills are developed.  Without this time of development, of social interaction with other children in the classroom, or efficient educational materials, the gaps in children’s learning will follow them through secondary school and beyond.

If not addressed, educational inequality of our youngest generation, coupled with a lack of professionals in the workforce due to social immobility in the coming decades could lead to a ‘brain drain’ effect here in the UK.  If our country moves forward through the next few decades with a less-skilled workforce, it will inevitably lead to lower economic growth.  According to the OECD, an average loss of 1.5% of estimated GDP throughout the next century could be lost, purely resultant of the loss of primary education in school pupils.  

The UK Government must now take hied of the employment and educational inequalities that are impacting Generation Z before the effects become irreversible, and better-off individuals have a permanent advantage.  Perhaps one solution could be an in-person, pre-paid weekend school for the greatest financially disadvantaged children who were most impacted over the lockdown, to compensate for the gap created between them and their more financially fortunate equals.  Another could be paid internships and work experience in leading firms, paid for by the Government to alleviate financial strain on students and businesses.  If the issue is not acted upon in a timely fashion, the relentless effects of Coronavirus will shadow the children and young adults of Generation Z, and our country, through the remainder of this century.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

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