The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown persistent problems of occupational equity and job security into sharp relief. Pew Research Center’s analysis of Spring 2020 employment data indicates that 25% of young adult workers (ages 16-24) lost their jobs, a much higher rate than other age groups. Hispanic women, immigrants, and those with less education are also disproportionately impacted. Black-White disparities in unemployment rates have also persisted during the pandemic. In addition to existing divisions of class, race, and gender, the crisis is amplifying gaps between generations in their access to economic and educational resources.
The Connected Learning Lab has been grappling with related issues in occupational equity as part of the Equitable Futures Innovation Network. When the pandemic hit, we had just announced a new postdoctoral fellowship program as a catalyst for building a network to capture and share insights from programs expanding occupational opportunity for Black, Latinx and low income youth. The growing economic and jobs crisis, and the movement for racial justice has underscored the importance of this work, while also introducing novel challenges.
The crisis has pushed us to identify new areas of focus where innovation and impact are accelerating due to COVID-19 and to revisit how we will proceed on building our network, while also doubling down on our commitment to youth participation and voice.
Heightened Need and Rapid Response for Occupational Equity Efforts
The crisis underscores both the importance of and vulnerability of occupational equity programs that serve marginalized youth. These programs offer social connections and fill critical gaps in the formal educational curriculum for career preparation and can be a lifeline to marginalized youth in a context of heightened economic and career uncertainty. This “gap filling” nature also means that programs operate at the margins of public and private investments and institutions and can be just as vulnerable as the youth they serve. The role of the Equitable Futures Project in supporting programs, as well as catalyzing an evidence-building and improvement infrastructure has become more important than ever.
Programs geared towards job opportunities are struggling. Those run in schools, universities, museums, and other community based organizations must adapt their place-based programming to pandemic realities. By some indicators, a third of internships were cancelled in May and youth unemployment stood at 28.5%, creating acute challenges in brokering youth workplace opportunities. We’ve seen bright spots, however, in how youth, educators, and organizers are stepping up and are eager to learn more about positive adaptations and innovations emerging from the crisis. We see three areas of opportunity: media for career exposure, virtual professional development, and networked professional development.
Media for Career Exposure
In our earlier report, we identified exposure to occupational identities through role models, media, and instructional content are important influences. It is unclear how various occupations and career pathways will weather the crisis. What is clear is that we will see shifts in how our culture appraises and values different occupations. Programs will need to reassess how to represent occupational identities, role models, pathways, and obstacles to young people. Many career pathways that appealed to earlier generations will appear irrelevant, undesirable, or unattainable to youth in the post-pandemic environment. This disconnect means new challenges for intergenerational mentoring and role modeling. Exposure to ways youth themselves have adapted and persisted may be more relevant to many youths than traditional career role models.
As we shelter at home, media and online content have grown even more central to our daily routines. Media organizations are able to highlight the experiences and challenges confronting today’s youth in the face of rapidly changing and unprecedented conditions. Roadtrip Nation’s Roadmap tool draws from a database of thousands of interviews with diverse professionals about how they found their road in life. Young people can search this database based on their interests, and anybody can share their road. Their documentaries feature interviews conducted by college students exploring topics like the Rerouting: Future of Work Roadtrip or Why Not Us? First Gen Roadtrip.
Youth reporters at YR Media have quickly responded to the multiple crises of COVID-19 and racial violence. The voices and perspectives of marginalized youth are featured in their channels as well as mainstream media. Stories relevant to occupational pathways that they have put out during the crisis include: Facing Canceled Internships and Few Jobs, College Students Ask: What Now?, College Students: 4 Answers to Your Covid-Related Finance Questions, Children of Essential Farmworkers Worry About Their Parents. Even as schools and the economy begin to reopen, we expect media organizations like Roadtrip Nation and YR Media will continue to influence youth perspectives on occupational opportunity.
Virtual Professional Development
Our report also highlighted the importance of programs that offer engagement and participation in professional practices and communities through projects, work experiences, internships, and civic action. The forced shift away from in person schooling towards online and home-based activities is exposing the limitations of traditional curricular priorities and testing. During the crisis, standardized testing was eliminated in many schools, and the University of California eliminated the SAT and ACT from admissions requirements. The awareness catalyzed by COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter underscore the importance of adaptive soft skills, metacognitive strategies, agency, culture, values, and voice.
More holistic programs that engage young people in relevant and real-world activities may acquire new status in this context. This offers an opportunity to highlight project-based, equity-oriented, and community-responsive approaches which develop STEM, problem solving, and collaboration skills. Asset-based and civically engaged programs that call on minoritized youth to solve problems in their communities are likely to be highly valued in an environment of social upheaval and limited economic opportunity. Youth see the value of professionals who serve their communities at the front lines. Leaders are asking citizens to step up.
Community-driven programs using online platforms to offer work-relevant experiences have seen tremendous growth this year. CommunityShare connects teachers and students in Tucson to its “human library.” After it adapted its programming to a virtual platform, the organization began receiving requests from around the world to license its platform to other localities. Project Destined launched four years ago to teach urban youth about finance and community ownership. They moved programs online at the onset of the pandemic and then mobilized their platform to replace lost summer internships for Black and Brown youth nationwide. An organization that Mimi helps lead, Connected Camps has seen over 10x growth in their online, near-peer mentorship programs, and is hiring 100 college students to teach this summer. Practera, built to facilitate the design and development of experiential learning programs, has seen rapid growth in its virtual internship platform.
This spring and summer, young people found themselves with both time and pressing problems to solve. Many mobilized their networks and exercised their digital organizing skills. As internships and job prospects dried up, they directed their energies to volunteerism, combating COVID-19, and working for racial justice.
Pritzker School of Medicine students organized to sew masks and support medical staff. Students at MIT and Harvard mobilized their peers to share their privilege and free time to teach, support, and guide younger students online. As we write, nearly 4000 college students have stepped up to volunteer on their CovEducation site. Youth have given their time and talents to galvanize networks worldwide addressing issues such as voting rights, climate change, and food security. Teens from 19 countries are featured in the World Teenage Reporting Project and school aged kids contributed to a coronavirus online newspaper.
One of the lasting legacies of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement may be young people’s growing awareness of how existing institutions and the adult world has failed them, combined with their growing capacity to organize and build equitable futures themselves.
Youth voice, perspective, and participation
Our network will prioritize youth-driven research, which offers a window into youth experience not possible without a deep level of youth involvement. Youth participatory action research (YPAR), in particular, puts youth at the center of questioning, describing, and analyzing their experience to bring new insights to improving their communities and the institutions that serve them. It represents a mode of problem solving and workforce participation that highlights the kinds of engagement and soft skill development critical in a volatile future. An essential part of the Equitable Futures Innovation Network will be youth involvement in the design, development, evaluation, and improvement of all affiliated youth-serving programs.
Just as older Millennials of the “lost generation” were defined by their career experiences navigating the 2008 Great Recession, our cohort of youth will have identities defined by the COVID-19 crisis and the movement for racial justice. We expect that this generational experience, as well as differences and distinctions between youth, will become central to the work of our youth researchers and postdoctoral scholars. Conflict between generations over the handling of the climate crisis and the value of higher education were already pronounced. Recent failures in the political process and the progressive agenda in the U.S., combined with youth being denied graduations, internships, and other valued opportunities, will bring intergenerational mistrust to a historic high. It will be critically important in the coming years to hear from and empower diverse young people about their experiences, to put their insights into action, and to rebuild trust in our institutions.