The Covid-19 Crisis ‘Scarring’ Young People in Poland


What had begun as a health crisis, quickly turned into a profound economic recession and social crisis severely disrupting the lives of all people, including European citizens. Now, the Covid-19 Pandemic continues to affect the economies of all the European Union member states. Poland is not an exception. One of the most important effects of the crisis has been a sharp increase in unemployment, especially among young people. Notably, the increase was not as dramatic as in other countries due to the fact that the Polish labour market was characterized by a relatively high level of youth unemployment prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. There are similarities between the effects of the current pandemic and the 2008 global financial crisis related to youth unemployment. In 2008, in the midst of the global financial crisis, youth unemployment rates in the EU Member States increased to historic levels, deeply affecting the financial and mental state of European youth. 

Sadly, the Covid-19 crisis will have a long-lasting impact on society at large, from the economy to employment to the way we interact. Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, European countries have struggled to incorporate young people into the labor market. In recent decades, young people have been more vulnerable than other age groups to economic crises. Like other EU member states, the Polish government started implementing restrictive measures to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic, including lockdowns and social distancing requirements. School closure was mandatory, and gathering in public spaces, with certain exceptions, was prohibited. As expected, the limited social interaction increased feeling of loneliness, which is associated with mental health problems. The closure of the educational institutions hindered Polish youth’s opportunities to accumulate skills and human capital, while restrictions on social activities had effects on young people’s social development and participation. 

The impact of the pandemic on young people in Poland is systematic, deep and disproportionate. It has been particularly hard on young women and younger youth.  In Spring 2021, International Labour Organization (ILO) and its partners in the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth (DJY) conducted a global survey on the impacts of Covid-19 on the lives of Polish young people (aged 18-29) with regard to employment and mental well-being. The survey was completed by 2168 young people, providing a reliable picture of the situation of this population category in the country. As the study indicates: “Almost 28 percent (i.e. more than one in four) of those who were employed before the outbreak stopped working altogether, most notably those engaged in services, sales, crafts and related trades. This is higher than the global average of one in six people.”

Notably, the changes in unemployment in the context of the crisis have a clear gender dimension. In Poland, female unemployment has consistently been higher than male unemployment. According to ILO, among those workers who remained in employment, the fall in hours of work has been higher among young women. The pandemic caused a significant reduction of income for one in three young women and one in four young men.

Amid the Covid-19 crisis, severe disruption of learning and working resulted in deterioration in Polish young people’s mental well-being. Many young people have seen their futures impacted by the pandemic; schools and universities have been closed, Jobs have been lost, the economy is continuously recessing. The constant fear and worry of the unknown can have detrimental consequences for youth. Young people whose education or work was either disrupted or had stopped altogether were almost twice as likely to be affected by anxiety or depression as those who continued to be employed or whose education was on track. This shows the interlinkages that exist between mental well-being, educational success and labour market integration. Without a doubt, the high levels of youth unemployment have long-lasting 'scarring' effects. This 'scarring' means that affected young people have lower relevant skills and lower levels of confidence than other age groups, which could result in even fewer employment prospects and lower lifetime earnings than those who did not face the same employment challenges. The unsuccessful search for opportunities for work and relevant training can produce in young people feelings of loneliness, powerlessness and dependency, as well as anxiety and depression, creating a severe psychological burden. In Poland, 46.2 percent of survey respondents claimed to be possible, and 14.6 percent to be probably affected by anxiety or depression. The crisis is exposing young people’s mental well-being to serious risks. Mental well-being will not recover as quickly as economic indicators, highlighting the urgent need for greater policy attention.

This global pandemic is poised to deepen a learning crisis that already existed, with millions of young people not developing the skills that will enable them to get a good job, start a business, and engage in their community. As a general rule, the most valued characteristic of a candidate is job experience, this puts young workers entering the labour market at disadvantage. Even before the onset of the crisis, the social and economic integration of young people was an ongoing challenge. In terms of education, a shift to online services has been made. However, young people experience difficulties with distance learning as educational institutions and service providers struggled to move to teach online. Inequalities, particularly affecting disadvantaged students and young people with disabilities, and demotivation were mentioned among the main challenges experienced by providers. Unfortunately, so far, no adequate solution has been found for this issue.

It is important for Polish policymakers to ensure investment in youth is at the top of the Polish policy agenda. Unless urgent action is taken, young people are likely to suffer severe and long-lasting impacts from the pandemic. Prioritizing long-term measures over temporary solutions is crucial. Urgent and targeted investments in decent jobs for youth must be made. The EU institutions adopted a range of support measures for the Member States to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic and speed up recovery. The main recovery instrument is the NextGenerationEU package, worth €750 billion in loans and grants to the Member States. In general, this crisis had a disproportionate impact on young people’s life satisfaction and well-being compared to older groups. Yet, young people’s trust in institutions overall remained higher than other groups despite being the hardest hit in terms of employment and mental health.