The COVID-19 pandemic has affected young people across several life domains, many of which are interrelated.
- During 2020, rates of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those aged 20–24 and those aged 25–29 (168 and 183 per 100,000 people, respectively) were higher than all other age groups, except 85 years and over (279 per 100,000). Between January and 16 June 2021, there were 187 cases among young people aged 15 to 24, making up 9.7% of the total 1,929 cases during this period. In 2021, across all 5-year age groups in the population, rates of confirmed cases have been highest among those aged 30–34, followed by those aged 35–39, and those aged 25–29.
- Of the 910 COVID-19-related deaths in Australia since the pandemic began 1 was in the 20–29 age group.
- In July–August 2020, among young people aged 13–17, 42% said the pandemic and response had negatively affected their social connectedness, a drop from 70% in April 2020. The proportion for young people in Melbourne was higher, at 55%, but still lower than April levels. The easing of restrictions across much of the country at the end of June 2020 brought more structure and connectedness to young people’s lives.
- Compared with February 2017, psychological distress worsened in April 2020 for those aged 18 to 24. In April 2021, psychological distress of young Australians was significantly below what it was in April 2020 but was still higher than in February 2017.
- The proportion of young people not in education or employment rose from 8.7% in May 2019 to 12% in May 2020 and has since decreased to 11% in February 2021, a similar rate to February 2020 (10%).
Between March 2020 and May 2020, the proportion of all young people aged 15–24 who were employed (the employment ratio) dropped by 10 percentage points (60% to 50%, a decrease of 329,000 young people). From May 2020, the employment ratio of young people aged 15–24 generally increased. As at April 2021, the employment ratio of young people was 61% compared with 60% in March 2020.
- The monthly unemployment rate for young people aged 15–24 rose from 12% in March 2020 to a peak of 16.4% in July 2020. The unemployment rate was 11% in April 2021.
- Of all employees who received the JobKeeper Payment in April 2020, 12% were aged 24 or under. Young people were under-represented in JobKeeper coverage, which may reflect their considerably higher receipt of income support payments than other age groups.
- In May 2020, just over 1 in 4 (28%) young people aged 18–24 reported not being able to pay their rent and/or mortgage on time in the previous 3 months. This compares with 15% of Australians aged 18 and over.
While some effects of COVID-19 on young people are emerging, it is important to note that the full impact is complex and not yet fully understood. The effect of COVID-19 can also be dynamic—outcomes change quickly (for instance, mental wellbeing and social connectedness) when conditions change (such as introducing or easing restrictions). Many of the effects of COVID-19 will be interrelated and could take some time to become apparent.
Many life trajectories are set in place during adolescence and young adulthood. Hence, there is a need for ongoing comprehensive monitoring of the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s wellbeing. Areas of particular interest for monitoring include:
- wellbeing, including mental wellbeing
- access to educational choices after secondary school, education attainment, achievement and outcomes
- longer term outcomes for young people; for example, the potential consequences of unemployment on their long-term employment prospects and finances, their access to secure housing, and their mental health
- the longer term impact of COVID-19 on child protection services
- experience of domestic violence
- variation in outcomes for different population groups.
Since early 2020, COVID-19 has emerged as a major health threat in 2020, substantially disrupting almost all parts of society worldwide. This section provides an overview of what is currently known (as at May 2021) about the impact of COVID-19 on Australian young people for selected topics where data are available. These topics are presented within the domains of the Australian Health and Welfare (AIHW) people-centred data model that underpin this report:
- Social support
- Education and skills
- Employment and work
- Income and Finance
- Justice and safety (for information on the AIHW people-centred data model, see Introduction).
COVID-19 is a disease caused by the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. It is predominantly a disease of the respiratory system, particularly in the early stages of the illness (AIHW 2020a). For more information on its key characteristics and its prevention, control and treatment, see Australia’s health 2020: data insights.
COVID-19 in Australia
The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia were recorded on 25 January 2020 (see Box 1 for more details). For simplicity, this report refers to the period from March 2020 as ‘during COVID-19’ as this is the point at which restrictions and other responses to the coronavirus began. It is recognised, though, that the pandemic continues, and that the impacts of COVID-19 have varied considerably across different parts of Australia and over time since March 2020.
In 2020, rates of confirmed cases of COVID-19 were higher among those aged 20–24 and 25–29 than most other age groups, except for those aged 85 and over, see Confirmed cases and deaths due to COVID-19. COVID-19-related deaths among young people have been much lower (see Infectious diseases for information on the vaccine roll-out and young people). While the direct impacts of COVID-19 on the physical health of young people has, to date, been limited, young people have been particularly affected by the associated restrictions on movement and the impacts on labour markets.
Box 1: COVID-19 timeline in Australia
The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Australia on 25 January 2020 (Figure 1). As the disease spread, restrictions were put in place to control its impact. By the end of March 2020, restrictions had impacted all non-essential businesses and activities, with Australians urged to stay at home (Grattan Institute 2020). Restrictions started to ease from late April, although with state and territory differences.
In Victoria, COVID-19 cases began to rise again in June 2020, in what became known as the ‘second wave’. Various restrictions were introduced in July, with the highest level of restrictions introduced on 2 August (Melbourne to Stage 4 and regional Victoria to Stage 3). On 26 October, Victoria reached zero cases for the first time since June 2020 (Victorian DHHS 2020).
Clusters emerged in various parts of Australia at different times; for instance, a cluster emerged in South Australia in late November 2020, leading to a brief period of restrictions. Over the Christmas–New Year 2020 period, clusters emerged around the NSW Northern Beaches area, leading to restrictions in certain suburbs and widespread interstate cross-border closures. In 2021, clusters continue to emerge.
Figure 1: Overview of Australian COVID-19 timeline, January to December 2020
Source: World Health Organisation, as at February 2021.
Effects of COVID-19 on Australia’s young people
While COVID-19 affects people in different ways, the social and economic impacts on young people have been substantial. Compared with older age groups, young people have experienced high rates of psychological distress, loneliness, educational disruption, unemployment, housing stress and domestic violence.
COVID-19 is a major source of concern among young people. The 2020 Mission Australia Youth Survey of young people aged 15–19 (conducted between April and August 2020) identified, in response to a free text question, the top 3 biggest personal concerns of young people:
- education (34%)
- mental health (17%)
- COVID-19 (9.3%).
Of the 9.3% who reported COVID-19 to be a top concern, the top 3 related concerns were in respect to education (33%), COVID-19 in general (31%) and isolation (21%). Other COVID-19-related concerns reported were mental health (17%) and financial problems (7%) (Tiller et al. 2020). The 3 most important national issues in Australia today as identified by young people were equity and discrimination (40%), COVID-19 (39%) and mental health (31%) (Tiller et al. 2020).
Young people are also concerned about their lack of voice in decision making and in being negatively stereotyped (UNICEF Australia 2020). Findings from 2 of UNICEF Australia’s 3-phase national survey showed that, among young people aged 13–17, in July–August 2020, the proportion who think there is no clear way for children and young people to feed into the national discussion rose from 26% in April to 65% in July–August (UNICEF Australia 2020).
While some of the effects of COVID-19 on young people are emerging, it is important to note that the full impact on them is complex and not yet fully understood. The effect of COVID-19 can also be dynamic—outcomes can change quickly (for instance, for mental wellbeing and social connectedness) when conditions change (such as introducing or easing restrictions).
There may also be longer term outcomes for young people; for example:
- adverse effects from temporary disruption to education
- the potential consequences of unemployment on their long-term employment prospects and finances
- their access to secure housing
- their mental health.
The social determinants of health and wellbeing are all connected and interact on many different levels. This means that many of the effects of COVID-19 could take some time to become apparent.
An ecological approach
This report takes an ecological approach to youth reporting. This means it considers how factors that shape people’s health interact within and between different social and ecological ‘levels’. The specific approach taken is derived from existing frameworks for children and young people used in Australia (Victoria Department of Education and Training 2018; Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services 2018). The young person is at the centre and their development and wellbeing occurs within dynamic concentric circles of influence exerted by different settings (see also Introduction).
Availability and limitations of COVID-19-related data
Where data relating to the COVID-19 period are available in routine national collections used in this report, they are included. Since the pandemic began, a number of new surveys and data collections have been developed, specifically aimed at assessing the impact of COVID-19.
This section draws on relevant data sources with a national focus, which were considered the best available at the time. However, the nature of data collection during the pandemic means that there are some limitations for some surveys, including:
- differences in the age range used to define young people
- lack of national representativeness, due to non-random sampling
- limited sample sizes, particularly in relation to young people, which can limit the robustness of findings
- potential volatility in reporting over time.
Information about the data sources used, including the nature and size of the sample, is provided in the Technical notes.
This section includes the following comparisons where data are available:
- before and during COVID-19, noting that the time period compared varies depending on the availability and nature of data
- young people and other age groups during COVID-19
- experiences during COVID-19, including comparisons at different time points.
Disaggregation of data by sex are limited due to sample size issues. In most cases, disaggregation by specific population groups is not available.
While the focus of this section is on national data, consistent with the approach taken for the whole report, where data were readily available, some comparisons for young people in Victoria—which experienced a lengthy second period of restrictions (see Box 1)—were included. International comparisons, where available, could be included in future updates.
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