The Covid‑19 pandemic is upending the economic futures of young people across the Asia-Pacific.
As economies across the region plunge into their worst recessions in generations, workers in their 20s and 30s are facing the brunt of lay-offs as workplaces shed employees on a last-in, first-out basis.
The Asian Development Bank and the International Labour Organisation have predicted that up to 15 million youth jobs in the region’s 13 countries will disappear in 2020.
Those who can find work face the prospect of lower earnings for years – perhaps even decades – to come. For many, it is the second catastrophic shock in just over a decade, following the 2007-2009 global financial crisis.
Hanging in the balance are the hopes and dreams of a generation, whose experiences of the pandemic will shape the future of the region and the world. Their stories have several common threads: schooling and fledgling careers, then the pandemic and rapidly dwindling prospects.
This Week in Asia talked to a cross-section of the region’s young and aspirational. With their lives on hold amid a rapidly changing economic and sociopolitical landscape, they shared how they are coping, how their views on life and politics are changing amid the upheaval, and what they think their futures might someday hold.
India: Eyes wide shut
At the beginning of this year, 25-year-old Rajeev Kumar was ready to start making big plans for the future. He had just landed a job as a technical recruiter at an IT company in Noida, a technology hub on the outskirts of New Delhi, after spending more than US$8,000 (S$10,000) on a four-year bachelor of technology course at a private college in the city of Alwar.
His starting salary of 30,000 rupees (S$540) per month was just enough to put a little aside for the wedding he planned to have in 2021 – with high hopes of his monthly wage reaching 50,000 rupees before then.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and in April – weeks after India had entered a nationwide lockdown in a bid to curb the spread of contagion – Kumar’s employer slashed his wages to 21,000 rupees a month.
By July, he was out of work completely – one of the 100 or so employees forced to resign with just one month’s salary as severance pay. Although Kumar managed to find another job with a similar company in September, he remains anxious about his prospects.
“My career had barely taken off when it crashed,” he said. “Now there are barely any job [vacancies]. Even if there are a few, people are hiring at a low salary. I don’t see my salary touching 50,000 rupees any time soon. I cannot think of getting married with such uncertainty in the air.”
Kumar is among the 121 million Indians who lost their jobs in the wake of the country’s coronavirus lockdown, according to an estimate by the Mumbai-based Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy think tank. The worst affected were low-wage informal workers such as agricultural labourers and small shopkeepers, but nearly 19 million salaried employees were also made redundant.
Recruitment, Kumar’s sector, relies heavily on US-based clients and has been hit particularly hard.
Kumar said he expects salaries to stagnate and growth to dwindle “even if jobs open”.
“It’s difficult to predict anything even for the next year,” he said.
India’s economy shrank by nearly 24 per cent in the second quarter, the most of any major country. In mid-September, the country recorded about 90,000 new coronavirus cases each day, as infections surged faster than anywhere else in the world. India’s case tally as of mid-November stood at more than 8.5 million, with over 130,000 deaths.
“The lockdown only killed jobs and people’s livelihoods,” Kumar said. “The way the government portrayed that everything was being done for the welfare of the people was absolutely false because there was no specific strategy to bring down the cases. At the same time, there was no package to save the dying economy.”
Kumar said the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its supporters in the Indian media “want us to shut our eyes to reality”, appearing more focused on issues such as building temples than tackling the unemployment crisis.
“The government and the media want us to believe we only have two problems – China and Pakistan
– there is nothing else we should be worried about,” he said.
Kumar said he had pushed back the date he planned to buy a flat or piece of land until at least 2030. “I am not only cautious of spending money now but also cautious of dreaming big.”
Philippines: Shattered expectations
Abigail Patawaran, who lives in Dasmarinas, about 30km south of the Philippine capital Manila, did not expect looking for her first office job to be so difficult. After all, she had graduated from university with high marks and acquired a license as a psychometrician.
“I had big expectations for myself and my career when I graduated,” she said. “I thought after passing the boards it would be easier for me to find a job I like.”
In March, Patawaran was ecstatic to get a call back from a medium-sized firm. Then the government announced a strict lockdown for Metro Manila that brought everyday life to a screeching halt. “I never heard from the employer again,” she said.
Patawaran admitted the rejection had dealt a blow to her self-esteem. “I’m usually very resilient … but I’ve become very anxious about my future, my career,” she said. “I feel pressured.”
The Philippines’ GDP plunged 16.9 per cent in the second quarter following the lockdown, and Filipinos aged 15 to 34 have taken the biggest economic hit, making up 68 per cent of the 4.6 million unemployed as of July, according to government figures.
Since May, Patawaran, who is the main guardian of her young brother, has taken on sporadic freelance work online in data entry and social media management.
Although the government started easing restrictions and allowing offices to reopen in June, opportunities remain scarce for new graduates like her. “Most entry-level jobs require work experience of at least two years. And with the current situation, even professionals with five years’ experience apply for the same job,” she said.
By November, after eight months of on-and-off containment measures, the Philippines had recorded more than 400,000 cases – one of the highest tallies in Southeast Asia.
Despite surging cases, the government has committed to reopening the economy. Domestic tourism is now encouraged, and even social-distancing restrictions on public transport have been eased.
“I’m enraged. It’s as if they’re taking things lightly,” Patawaran said. “At this point, I can’t even think of my future. It’s draining to think of where I will be in the next [few] years.”
The economic and societal scars of Covid-19 and government interventions such as lockdowns are likely to persist long after the pandemic has subsided.
In one US study, workers who graduated during the recession of the early 1980s were found to earn 6 per cent to 8 per cent less in their first year of employment for every one percentage point rise in the employment rate.
Those who graduated during the downturn were still earning 2.5 per cent less than their peers 15 years after leaving university. In the case of lower-paid workers, some research suggests the hit to earnings can be permanent.
Such reductions in economic opportunity potentially have major ramifications for quality of life decades down the line.
Research by the Northwestern Institute for Policy Research has shown that American adults who entered the workforce during the early 1980s recession were more likely to suffer fatal heart disease, lung cancer, liver disease and drug overdoses beginning in their late 30s. Compared with their peers, they were also less likely to be married or have children, and more likely to be divorced.
Thailand: Dissapearing dreams
Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon, a fourth-year civil engineering student in Bangkok, fears she will never match her mother’s standard of living.
Although her mum left school at the age of 14, she was able to ride the wave of Thailand’s economic boom after the Asian financial crisis of 1997 – known as the “Tom Yum Goong” crisis in the kingdom – to build a relatively comfortable life running food stalls and selling beauty products.
As she nears graduation, Mind sees a bleak future ahead: low-paid work – if she is lucky enough to get hired – as well as no home, no car and no way to pay for her parents’ retirement.
Worse than the death of her middle-class aspirations, she worries about her ability to meet one of the key duties of Thai life – to care for parents as they age. Her mother’s sales business has collapsed while her father, a building contractor, has no work.
“I may not seem like the type but I want to settle down and have a family before I’m 30 like everyone else,” Mind said. “I want to be able to buy my parents a house and a car by the time I’m 35. I want them to be happy grandparents, to stop working and just relax because they deserve it.”
Smart, energetic and articulate, the 25-year-old faced tough odds in her chosen field even before the pandemic.
Her age stands against her in a country where the young are shuffled to the back of the pack by Thailand’s culture of seniority, while her gender is an obstacle as she tries to enter the “man’s world” of civil engineering.
“A girl like me has a very slim chance of finding a job in engineering,” she said. “By work culture they don’t think women can handle being on site. So, they stick us doing paperwork on the desk.”
Her task is all the more daunting after Thailand’s economy shrank 12.2 per cent in the second quarter as the virus wiped out tourism and decimated exports.
About 8.4 million Thais are expected to be unemployed by the end of the year, according to official statistics that suggest 300,000 fresh graduates will join the ranks of a half a million others already looking for work.
“Thailand may never recover from the virus,” Mind said. “Even if we do, it will be a long time from now.”
Even if she does manage to get work, her industry offers a basic graduate salary of only about 15,000 baht a month (about S$670).
“It’s been the same since Yingluck’s era nearly 10 years ago,” Mind said, referring to former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was thrown out of power in a 2014 coup. “Can you imagine that?”
Yet from street food to transport and decent accommodation, the costs of living, eating and travelling around the Asian megacity have surged.
The tough times have sharpened Mind’s political views. She speaks at the youth-led protests that have mushroomed over the last few months and challenged the legitimacy of the ruling military-backed government and monarchy.
“The gap between the rich and the poor is bigger than ever,” she said. “The majority should be middle class because Thailand has abundant resources. It should be easy for people to live comfortably, but people are becoming poorer.”
The anger, disillusionment and despair of a generation facing uncertainty and fewer opportunities has major implications for politics and democracy.
Research by the Systemic Risk Centre at London School of Economics and Political Science suggests that people who experience an epidemic during their “impressionable years” – between the ages of 18 and 25 – are less likely to have faith in their political leaders, governments and even elections.
“Most of these young people have either recently started voting in elections or are just about to start,” said Orkun Saka, a co-author of the study. “Hence, if they lose faith in politics, they may stop engaging with the formal electoral system and start searching for alternative ways to voice their opinions, which may not always be ideal.”
Saka said the effect was especially strong in countries where the government was divided, fragmented or unpopular and seen to “fail to pass the stress tests that are imposed by these epidemics”.
The impact of the Great Recession and its lingering aftereffects has been cited as a reason for the growing support for socialism among millennials and Generation Z. A 2018 Gallup poll found that just 45 per cent of Americans aged 18 to 29 had a positive view of capitalism, a fall of 23 percentage points since 2010.
Gigi Foster, a professor of economics at the University of New South Wales, said major economic shocks had a history of producing unpredictable, sometimes dire, political outcomes.
“Severe economic pain has generated scary political outcomes in the past. Post-World War I Germany is the classic example, but there are plenty of others,” Foster said. “We’ve seen examples in history of the rise to power of both extremes of the political spectrum, fuelled by economic pain, with disastrous consequences for human welfare.
Australia: 'Long-term' scarring
Tim Third, 28, has lost faith in the system since a lockdown in Melbourne, Australia, forced him to put his two event-hire companies on ice and decimated the bottom line of the family-run auto-recycling business. After pouring the last four years into building up his own businesses, Third no longer sees much point in striving to succeed.
“I’m not willing to invest that time and energy again, knowing that at any given moment the government has the power to destroy everything you’ve done in the name of health and safety, which I think is pretty unjustifiable,” he said.
Although Australia has managed to keep Covid-19 fatalities low, with just over 900 deaths, a resurgence of cases in the state of Victoria in July led authorities to reimpose a second lockdown and curfew that shut most businesses and mostly confined people to their homes until late October.
Combined with earlier restrictions in March, Melbourne ultimately spent almost six months under lockdown – one of the longest shutdowns in the world.
While some businesses have called the restrictions disproportionate, medical experts have hailed the measures after Victoria on Friday recorded two weeks without any new Covid-19 cases – a “massive achievement”, as epidemiologist Jodie McVernon from Melbourne’s Doherty Institute told national broadcaster the ABC.
But even before Victoria’s second lockdown, Australia’s GDP had already plunged 7 per cent in the second quarter, sending the country into its first recession in almost three decades. In May, the unemployment rate among those aged 15 to 24 shot up to 16.1 per cent – the highest in almost a quarter-century.
In July, the government-run Productivity Commission warned that many young workers would face “long-term scarring” and “lower salaries than they might have expected in the early part of the century”.
Third said he had “fully lost faith” in the government and would consider emigrating as a result of the restrictions, which he considers excessive and unfair.
“This is going to change the way people go about their lives and want to participate,” he said, adding that other young business owners he knows have similar opinions.
“They know longer want to participate, they no longer want to be part of this system, when at any given time they can put in safety measures – as they call them – and take everything away from you.”
For Jesslyn Tania, a high school graduate who lives in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, the pandemic has made obvious the flaws in a society that was “already broken from the beginning”.
The 18-year-old Indonesian-Chinese, who identifies as queer and uses the pronouns “she/they”, had planned to study politics and economics at Universitas Indonesia this year, but was forced to change tack owing to a lack of funds.
As the child of separated parents from one of the country’s “less-privileged” ethnic Chinese families, Jesslyn said it would be nearly impossible to get ahead in Indonesia without obtaining a university degree.
That fact is compounded by the nation’s “very conservative” outlook, which the women’s rights and gender-equality activist said required people to conform to flawed societal standards if they wanted to succeed.
Jesslyn lives near Jakarta’s Chinatown with their 70-year-old maternal grandmother, who makes a living selling steamed buns and other pastries for around 70 to 80 US cents each.
“The economic system [here] is not sustainable,” they said. “It’s just profits for the powerful, not for us little people. Especially for those like me, people who come from lower-class families, people who go to public high schools, people who depend on the government subsidies for their monthly expenses.
“With the way Indonesia’s economic priorities are going right now, we don’t stand a chance even for acquiring higher education,” Jesslyn said. “This shows the cracks that have always been inside the system, only finally revealing itself now in the light of the pandemic.”
As of June 2020, Indonesia had some of the highest levels of youth unemployment in Southeast Asia – with more than 17 per cent of those aged 15 to 24 out of work, according to International Labour Organisation estimates, second in the region only to Brunei.
As many as 12.7 million working-age Indonesians could be unemployed by next year, the country’s national development planning ministry has projected, with the economy shrinking 3.49 per cent in the third quarter and entering recession after two straight quarters of negative economic growth.
The country has also been one of the hardest hit regionally by the coronavirus, with more than 450,000 confirmed infections and nearly 15,000 deaths as of mid-November.
Against this backdrop, Jesslyn finds little to smile about, despite having secured a paid internship with the Jakarta Feminist Discussion Group.
“Honestly, it’s so bleak and so hopeless. But realising all of this and realising that I never stood a chance in the first place, especially with my fragile identity, is very tiring – like, what’s the point anyway?” they said.
“In the end, we all lose. When the system betrays us, there’s nothing that can help us. There’s nothing that can secure our livelihoods.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.