One of the key casualties of COVID-19 has been the economy and in particular fewer employment opportunities. This is likely to particularly effect young people who are less established in their careers. Job losses among Sri Lanka’s youth is projected to top 100,000 this year, according to a new report, driving the country’s already high youth unemployment rate above 30%.
A joint publication of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) titled ‘Tackling the COVID-19 youth employment crisis in Asia and the Pacific’ released this week projected that Sri Lanka’s youth (15–24 years) could lose 102,000–151, 000 jobs this year with the impact of the pandemic, adversely impacting the country’s economic output and increasing pressure on the Government to provide public sector jobs.
Sri Lanka already had high youth unemployment of 21.1% before the COVID-19 crisis, which increased to 26.8% at the end of the first quarter. The ADB-ILO joint study projects a sizeable jump in the country’s youth unemployment and could rise between 32.5% and 37.8% at the end of this year, doubling current rates.
Changing labour regulations and providing incentives to companies to recruit more people will be a key part of helping the economy recover. Recommendations including youth-targeted wage subsidies and public employment programmes, and measures to mitigate the impact on students of the disruption to their education and training have been presented in the report. But as a country with constrained fiscal space the Government cannot simply hand out jobs to resolve this issue.
Government should also consider balancing the inclusion of youth in wider labour market and economic recovery measures, with youth-targeted interventions to maximise effective allocation of resources. Youth will be hit harder than adults in the immediate crisis and also will bear higher longer-term economic and social costs. Before the pandemic, young people were already facing challenges in the labour market. These are worsened by the COVID-19 crisis, and its multiple effects threaten to create a “lockdown generation” that will feel the weight of this crisis for a long time.
Nearly half of young workers in the region are employed in sectors hit hardest by the crisis such as tourism, apparel and remittances. This is one of the reasons that young people face greater labour market disruption and job loss than adults due to COVID-19. And it is compounded by forced suspension of education and training, which will affect youth’s transitions to and within labour markets and could result in “scarring effects,” as seen in previous crises.
Effective COVID-19 mitigation measures are needed to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable youth are reached and that young people are meaningfully engaged in policy and social dialogue. Prioritising youth employment and maximising youth productivity in the COVID-19 recovery process will improve Sri Lanka’s future prospects for inclusive and sustainable growth, demographic transition and social stability.
When young people feel empowered to earn a living through fulfilling work, and their energy, creativity and talents are nurtured, they can take up their roles as active, engaged citizens. This contributes to a positive cycle of economic growth, investment and social justice. These are the heavy responsibilities before Government and its multitude of bodies engaged in addressing youth issues. It is precisely for this reason that competent people need to be appointed to these positions.