Young workers top casualties in pandemic-related job market carnage

Statistics Canada recently reported that B.C. lost a stunning 132,000 jobs in a single month (March). In April losses doubled as a staggering additional 264,000 jobs disappeared.

While the global economic downturn, the shuttering of much of the domestic consumer-facing economy, and the virtual cessation of air travel have affected workers of all ages, younger people in the early stages of their careers have been especially hard hit.

Employment declines are evident across all three broad age cohorts. Employment for both the 15-to-24 age cohort and the core working age group (25-to-54) tumbled by roughly 50,000 in March. And in both instances, the losses accelerated in April, especially for the 25-to-54 group. At the same time, the number of jobs in the 55-and-over category dropped by roughly 30,000 in both months.

These are all massive losses.  But proportionally, the impact is greatest for younger workers.  The 25-to-54 age cohort covers a 30-year period and represents 4.5 times as many jobs as the 15-to-24 cohort (covering a 10-year period). In percentage terms, employment in the youngest cohort collapsed by 15% in March and then plunged a further 25% in April. The comparable figures for the core working age group are -3.2% and -10%, still significant losses, but a fraction of what young workers are experiencing.

It’s not surprising younger workers have been disproportionately impacted. They occupy a larger share of jobs in sectors of the economy that have been shuttered: food services, bars, theatres and entertainment as well as other segments of the retail industry that are closed.

Younger workers also account for a larger share of part-time employment and have less seniority in most workplaces.

The magnitude of the job market setback for teenagers and young adults is worrisome. In sum, employment for the core working-age group has dropped to levels last seen 17 years ago.  Employment in the 55 and over group declined by an amount equivalent to roughly four years of job growth for this cohort.  But in comparison, after April’s decline, employment for the 15-to-24 cohort slumped to its lowest level since 1976, when consistent data began.

Jobs will return as current restrictions are loosened. But the reopening of shuttered businesses and non-profit organizations will be measured and staged.

And when reopening does occur for restaurants, bars and some retail outlets, service and capacity may be reduced, translating into fewer jobs than in the pre-pandemic period.

There are several reasons to be concerned about employment prospects for younger workers:

•The number of jobs in the 15-to-24 age cohort has fallen to its lowest level on record.

•The experience of younger people in the last recession is also concerning. Jobs for those aged 15 to 24 were very slow to rebound after the Great Recession – employment remained flat for five of six years, and it took a full decade for this age cohort to regain its pre-recession level of employment. While we are confident there will be some revival of employment as the economy reopens, it may take many years to regain pre-pandemic employment levels.

•Job prospects for people 15 to 24 years of age were already deteriorating before the global pandemic. Employment for this age group was trending lower prior to February 2020.

The longer young people are unemployed or out of the labour market, the greater the “scarring” and the long-term damage they suffer as skills atrophy, and they become more detached from the labour market. Getting as many people – including young adults – back to work as soon possible or in new jobs quickly must be a priority for policy-makers.

Achieving this goal will require a concerted government effort to support new and growing businesses and to identify and reduce barriers to job creation and business expansion. (See B.C. needs a better career curriculum, page 14.) •

Jock Finlayson is the Business Council of British Columbia’s executive vice-president and chief policy officer; Ken Peacock is the council’s chief economist.