What future for Generation COVID?

By Lee Elliot Major

As we prepare for a long winter of COVID discontent, a more complete picture of the education and employment losses suffered by young people in the first six months of the pandemic is emerging. Disruption to learning in schools and universities has been substantial. To make matters worse, young people are being disproportionately hit with job losses and lower earnings.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Centre for Social Mobility revealed some initial impacts of school closures in its rapid response research. The research I’m carrying out with Steve Machin and Andy Eyles at the London School of Economics aims to assess the long-term social mobility consequences of COVID-19. Our first findings released this week and covered by a BBC TV Panorama programme focus on the under 25s or ‘Generation COVID’.

The results come from a survey of 10,010 individuals aged 16 to 65 who were contacted between 14 September and 12 October 2020. They were asked about their work and education during COVID-19. Alongside this, we analysed similar outcomes for individuals in April 2020 in the Understanding Society (USoc) Household Longitudinal Study tracking 40,000 households across the UK.

The research shows that learning losses have continued after lockdown. We estimate that four in 10 school pupils received full-time schooling during April 2020 (mainly through online lessons), with a quarter receiving no teaching at all. In early October still only around six in 10 pupils were experiencing full-time teaching. Many pupils are missing school altogether due to local outbreaks of the virus; others appear to be missing out on some teaching because of social distancing restrictions.

Pupils from more privileged backgrounds have been most likely to be insulated at least educationally from the crisis. During April, nearly three quarters (74 per cent) of private school pupils benefitted from full school days – nearly twice the proportion of state school pupils (38 per cent). Parents in the highest quartile of incomes were over four times as likely to pay for private tutoring during lockdown than those in the lowest quartile of incomes (15.7 per cent compared with 3.8 per cent).

These inequalities are echoed in higher education. University students from the lowest income backgrounds lost 52 percent of their normal teaching hours as a result of lockdown, but those from the highest income groups suffered a smaller loss of 40 percent. Nearly two in three students, 63 percent, stated that their wellbeing has been affected by the crisis. Female students were more likely than males to report this concern.

These are tough times for the under-25’s. Young people are also more likely to have experienced job lay-offs and losses in earnings compared with older workers. More than one in 10 people aged 16 to 25 have lost their job, and just under six in 10 have seen their earnings fall since the coronavirus pandemic began.

As we show in our new book, even before the pandemic, the younger generation were facing declining absolute social mobility and real wage decline. But while the COVID crisis has exacerbated inequalities, as we recently argued in the Guardian newspaper, it also offers an opportunity to rethink what we as a society should do to make it fair for all people irrespective of who they are born to or where they happen to grow up.

In my view that should include a wealth tax, basic rights and entitlements for all workers, and guaranteed jobs and training to level-up life’s playing field. As we brace ourselves for the second wave of the pandemic every effort meanwhile should be made to keep schools open. Given the extent of learning losses it will also be grossly unfair on this cohort of students if exams in 2021 are not graded with the same grade distribution as that introduced for 2020.

At the same time we need a national debate about the support we provide for teachers. I welcome the creation of a national tutoring service to provide extra tutoring support – the blueprint for which was set by an Exeter paper at beginning of the crisis. But implementation will be key. We need to also recognise that schools have become as much hubs of social welfare as centres of learning. How is that sustainable under the current system?

Last but not least this research signals to universities that improving the wellbeing of our students is as much a priority as ensuring they flourish academically.


We will be engaging with Government on these issues, while next steps for the research will be to further assess the economic and education scarring effects for the under-25s from COVID-19. We gratefully acknowledge this funding from the Economic and Social Research Council as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.


Useful links:

Research briefing: Generation COVID: Emerging Work and Education Inequalities

BBC coverage: BBC TV Panorama programme Has Covid Stolen My Future?

Book: What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Social Mobility?

Recent public lecture: Apocalypse or new dawn? Social mobility and education in the post-Covid era

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