Across the Health Science departments in Trinity, researchers have been carrying out an impressive number of research projects, designed to deal with the implications of the coronavirus on health and society generally. But a new study is set to focus on the experiences of one vulnerable sector of society in particular: 2020 graduates and leaving certificate students in a post-coronavirus world.
In The Generation COVID research project, carried out by the Department of Social Work and Social Policy at Trinity, academics are interviewing 2020 graduates, aged 25 and under, to analyse the challenges they face when attempting to enter the workplace and how they will navigate university after the pandemic.
This project, in collaboration with Tampere University in Finland, seeks to figure out what has helped and hindered these young people during lockdown.
Pre-pandemic, the department already had the aim of carrying out a research project on young people’s experiences finishing education and moving into the world of work. However, the coronavirus added a new element to the project, making an already important piece of research even more essential by allowing them to expand their research beyond Dublin.
Young people’s voices are notably absent from the media, therefore compounding the need for a research project focusing on school leavers and graduates during the pandemic. While it’s true that the coronavirus is much more fatal to the elderly, the disease also damages the education and future career achievements of young people globally.
Virpi Timonen, principal investigator of The Generation COVID research project and a professor in social work and social policy in Trinity, says that “the changes for older people have been very drastic and happened in the short term, [but] the consequences for some young people are also of massive magnitude. They will unfold over a very long period of time”.
Her work focuses on the sociology of ageing and social policies as they are unfolding in ageing societies.
The changes for older people have been very drastic and happened in the short term, [but] the consequences for some young people are also of massive magnitude. They will unfold over a very long period of time
Indeed, while COVID-19 is most fatal to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, the economic, social and cultural changes to society in a post-coronavirus world will undoubtedly affect young people the most. Given that this is the first fully global pandemic in modern times, the shifts in various areas of life – most notably education and employment – will have an impact on the entire lives of young people, spanning six to nine decades.
This long term impact is most concerning when one takes a look at economic studies which indicate that school leavers and graduates who enter the workforce during a recession have much lower combined lifetime earnings than their peers who gain a job during a time of economic expansion. This is an economic feature known as scarring.
Timonen points out how scarring – although already damaging to young people’s prospects – can be easily exacerbated by other factors. This, she says, could prove fatal: “The consequences, particularly for the kids with weaker family supports and from lower socioeconomic positions, will reverberate for decades.”
In order to expand its scope further, the team hopes to try to communicate the findings in a way that gains the attention of some policymakers as well. The hope is that by gaining an understanding of graduates’ own experiences and their quest for work during the coronavirus pandemic, the academics can feed into a wider conversation about what future labour market policies will look like, particularly pertaining to young people.
This message is crucial and its delivery essential. The magnitude of the situation that faces the new government cannot be understated, with Timonen stressing that it is “potentially the biggest social policy challenge that this country will have faced since independence”. Indeed, with thousands of highly educated young people leaving schools and universities, youth unemployment is set to become a major issue for the government.
Historically, however, youth unemployment has been an issue that has been exported, with immigration being “the number one labour market policy of this country.” With Ireland now experiencing a continued growth in population, it’s clear that this is no longer a solution to the high unemployment rates among young people.
That, really, is what makes this project so important. A teaching assistant in Trinity studying her Master’s in applied social research, Jo Greene, a teaching assistant in Trinity who is studying for a Master’s in applied social research, has a son who is a leaving certificate student and from my conversation with her, it is clear that for Greene and the students like her son, the Generation COVID research project is more than just practical: it’s personal” “Working on this research is really important to make sure that the voices of young people are heard and not overlooked.”
With so much confusion and uncertainty surrounding the futures of leaving certificate students during lockdown, the students’ abrupt end to their educational journey has meant that they, along with this year’s university graduates, are “missing out on a suite of milestones.”
Greene says that it is important to document the experiences that they are going through and the kind of long-term effects those experiences will have on them. However, conducting an interview-based research project during a global pandemic to document these experiences obviously presents some advantages, as well as new challenges.
Working on this research is really important to make sure that the voices of young people are heard and not overlooked
When asked about this, Greene says that as a result of lockdown, “people are much more comfortable now actually using this kind of technology to engage in a research interview”. The use of apps such as Zoom, Skype and House Party have made people a “little bit less self-conscious of the camera” and that it’s now a “much more acceptable medium”, she adds.
Dr Ayeshah Emon, a Teaching Fellow, says that reduced non-verbal communication and triggering events can cause problems: “During the course of the interview, some things come up which might be triggers for the participant.”
Although conducting data collection through online interviews has its pitfalls, the academics are aware of these scenarios and have been looking at ways in which to overcome them. Emon assures me that the team has a list of resources that they will be able to provide to the student if an issue that distresses the student arises.
But where there are pitfalls to online communication, so too are there many perks. Applications such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom that have allowed the researchers to carry out the interviews have also allowed them to expand the range and variety of participants they can include in their study. Lockdown restrictions have facilitated what would have ordinarily been a Dublin-based study to become a multinational one. The interviews can now be conducted with graduates from Irish universities no matter where they live in the world.
But this too poses its own challenges. As Timonen says: “I think research has to learn a lot about how the reliance on remote mechanisms and whom does it include and whom does it exclude. Different methods always have inclusionary and exclusionary effects. We just have to understand those better.”
Emon neatly captures the overall goal of the project in one sentence: “It is a holistic study about the social, political and economic aspects of what’s happening to young people because of the way things have changed with COVID-19.”
Indeed, the present has never felt so surreal and the future so precarious. But if this research achieves anything, it is representing and learning more about the experiences of young people in this challenging time so we can be better equipped for the future, in whatever shape that may take. Because after all, the youth of today are the future of tomorrow.