Generation Z: Zeal, Zoom or Zombie? How our economic response to the pandemic is degrading our young people

Generation Zest

We are in limbo. We have one foot swamped in a remote-educational wasteland, the other sinking in financial uncertainty. We hesitate to take a step forward in the dark, where prospects of employment wilt in the hands of a rapidly withdrawing economy. This is the current reality for many young people who often suffer the most personal and financial tolls within the crucible of an economic recession.

Young people are vital to our economy. Young people complete university and tertiary education. Young people look for apprenticeships and internships. Young people earn, innovate, and toil. In doing so, their ‘zest’ and ambition in achieving their vocational and employment goals is what ensures that Australia maintains economic growth and a sustainable labour market.

But what happened to Generation Zest?

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Well, the reality of the looming deficit in apprenticeships and internships has accumulated into a collective, pooled sense of dread. Data from the Global Apprenticeship Network revealed a two-thirds decrease in apprenticeships advertised in the month of April 2020 compared to 2019, with NSW vacancies halved from 408 to 238. Considering that around 150,000 young people complete traineeships annually, this vacuum in opportunity not only starves graduates of quality work experience, but also enlarges the national skill shortage gap.

Generation Zilch

Furthermore, while young people are often last place in the employment rat-race, they are often the first candidate to be considered to be let go during times of economic uncertainty. I’ve seen countless friends and acquaintances temporarily and permanently stood down in their casual positions, from retail workers in David Jones and H&M, to tutors and even café hands in my local coffee shops. This is unsurprising considering that 40% of our casual workers are young people who heavily populate the hospitality and retail sectors.

But you might be thinking – what about JobKeeper? What about the billions of dollars in wage subsidies and stimuluses that the Federal government has injected into our economy to support our most vulnerable? While these subsidies are a great start, the reality is that young casual employees are less likely to have stayed with their employers for more than 12 months, their employment often dislocated by exchange and study leaves.

Currently, we are not investing enough in the future of our young people, not enough, ‘zilch’. Young workers are our nation’s greatest return investment. During times of economic instability, we need to provide them with as many opportunities to remain resiliently in work, rather than let them go.

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It is clear that the Federal Government is cognizant of this, with the recent announcement of $2 billion in “JobTrainer” subsidies to help support school leavers and graduates. The support package has been aimed at increasing vocational training and courses, that is expected to help over 340, 000 trainees develop skills needed to flourish on the side of recovery. As details of the new package remain to be seen, we need to continue to be vigilant as to whether this cash injection will have substantial practical effects.

This is because recessions are not just ‘phases in time’ for young people. They will end up bearing the brunt of an invariably bruised economy in the future where unemployment and investment inertia will remain rampant. This has been termed the ‘scarring effect’ by economist Jeff Borland who suggests that misfortune will follow this ‘lost generation’. They will experience delay in finding employment, stigma from potential employers and atrophied motivation and skillset.

“They may never be able to afford to buy a house. If people delay having children, it may be that they never have children. That could well exacerbate what we’re already seeing in terms of the aging crisis, and the skills crisis in Australia.”

Generation Zoom

The situation is exacerbated for young people whose life choices are being mandated by funding cuts and rising educational fees. With universities increasing fees for Humanities courses and cutting funds to Arts faculties, it is hard not to see universities being rebranded as ‘job factories’, filled with assembly lines that force students down pre-planned paths of employment. University of Sydney lecturer Robert Boncardo laments the attack on our next generation’s artists, creative thinkers and researchers, which poses a dangerous threat to the intellectual future of our labour force and developing economy.

This comes as student satisfaction and enrolment rates are rapidly declining, as our own grievous faces are reflected back to us via our computer screens and Zoom lectures. Remote learning in itself, may have ripple effects for future workers. The lack of a ‘full academic experience’, buttressed by the loss in motivation and productivity may leave future graduates deprived of real-work learning opportunities and skills.

Generation Zombie

Ultimately, young people have delicate minds. The personal toll of losing opportunities, skills and employment culminates in a substantial detriment to the mental health of young graduates and workers. A survey by Headspace demonstrated that almost 50% of young Australians have experienced some kind of psychological impact as a result of the pandemic. We need to avoid condoning a “Generation Zombie”, both governments and educational institutions need to take responsibility for the personal costs of economic downturns on young people’s wellbeing. This is to nurture the future sustainability and productivity of our budding workforce.

Generation Zeal

Australia’s young workers and students will inevitably experience growing pains.

Within our current economic hardship, we need to ensure that we stabilise the futures of young people who teeter in the liminal space between employment and educational tragedies. This will mean investing in and creating a stronger social foundation, that prioritises accessible education, housing and social security. This is how we can build a productive labour market that thrives on creative and intellectual zeal.

As Sydney Morning Herald writer Caitlin Fitzsimmons suggests: “There is no better way to repay our debt to young people than to give them a future.”

This is so we can continue to champion Generation Z as the resilient, and perpetually ambitious Generation Zeal.