Adapting to Connect Young People to Opportunity
We Will Have to Do It in a Post-Pandemic World
“Adapt.” That’s what we’ve been advising young people for years — since the Great Recession, really — as they have sought footholds in an American economy increasingly defined by precarity. It’s a refrain that echoed through the first year of the COVID-19 crisis as classes went online, jobs vanished and even the most carefully laid plans fell apart for what is now the pandemic generation. “Adapt,” we said.
But are we asking the same of ourselves? Governors, school superintendents, employers and philanthropy: Have we adapted to design education and career pathways that lead young people to opportunity? The challenge in these unprecedented times is not just to shore up these opportunity pathways, but for us to expand them and build new and supportive on-ramps. We are in a moment of enormous opportunity to drive change — with the promise of additional federal funding for post-secondary education and work-based learning. We need to invest in equity-focused school and work strategies to support the success of young people.
Youth and young adults are enduring extraordinary levels of disconnection from opportunity right now. Surveys in 2020 and the first part of 2021 showed that between 50% and 60% of 18- to 24-year-olds had lost household employment income as the pandemic unfolded, often because youth are overrepresented in low-wage industries and fields such as retail and hospitality most affected by social distancing practices. Moreover, there was only modest improvement from August 2020, when eight in 10 households with postsecondary-education plans reported canceling or changing them, and March 2021, when the figure was still seven in 10.
Even before the pandemic, 8% of Latino, 10% of Black and 11% of Native American youth ages 16–19 were not in school and not working compared to 5% of white youth. While we may not have definitive data on how different racial and ethnic groups have fared during the pandemic, we know anecdotally that young people of color are facing some of the steepest obstacles.
These data are daunting, but not discouraging. What they do for us is bear out the need to adapt: Institutions and systems simply must create more supportive environments where older youth can access the benefits and relevance of education — like in high-quality apprenticeships — and are supported to succeed as they pursue opportunity.
Principles for Working With Young People
The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential (LEAP)™ initiative was at work in this area well before the pandemic began and has identified some core principles for increasing engagement and persistence in employment and educational opportunities for young people, including those involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Three of these principles have emerged as essential to supporting the young people who are searching for ways to thrive in the aftermath of the pandemic:
Youth need help meeting basic needs and navigating systems
The education piece alone isn’t enough. Consider this: Even by the summer of 2021, as the economy had begun to improve, one in seven people ages 18–24 said they had little or no confidence they’d be able to make their next rent or mortgage payment and one in 10 didn’t have enough to eat in the past week. These youth are urgently seeking real avenues to supports, income and careers. Fostering deeper student connections to supportive adults and peers, such as through peer navigators, mentors and on-the-job supervisors, may make educational environments more supportive of and relevant to them in this complicated moment. For example, the Coalition for Responsive Community Development in Los Angeles has co-located education and workforce services for youth in subsidized housing so young people can connect with adults to access supports to help them stay in school and persist with paid work experiences, which were adapted to virtual internships during the pandemic.
Inclusive, equity-centered environments are vital
Organizational audits and other processes can identify barriers and address inequities, informed by data that are disaggregated by race, gender, system involvement and parenting status. Public systems and workplace cultures that prioritize equity, promote inclusion and value all racial and ethnic backgrounds are a must.
Young people themselves should have a say
One young mother shared a story about how she barely made it through her postsecondary classes because teachers would not adjust test-taking times. She often had to bring her child in a stroller to an exam or pause her education to earn money for food or diapers. Integrating young people into leadership and decision-making processes enables them to identify solutions to the barriers to success we can’t see — and ensure that such solutions are grounded in equity and experience. Working with young people, colleges and nonprofits around the state, for example, the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation has helped colleges integrate family-focused supports for foster and parenting youth such as flexible scheduling, family housing and on-campus childcare.
The pandemic has clouded the visions many young people had for their futures as contributors to our economy, our society and families of their own. You can bet they’ll seek to adapt to the new circumstances. Tomorrow can be as bright as the next generation deserves if state and local governments, employers, school districts, philanthropy and other stakeholders work just as diligently to adapt in all the ways that we can.