coronavirus mask outbreak virus pandemic COVID-19
(Image: Pixabay)

Interrupted educations. Vanished jobs. Lost social lives. No sport or travel. Young people are bearing the brunt of the virus shutdown and its economic impacts, to an extent that most people over 30 are unlikely to understand.

For those of us with established careers and financial resources, the luxury of being able to work from home, who are partnered up, who are too old for sport and busy social lives, for whom a lost six months is a tiny fraction of life, the lockdown is an inconvenience (or, if you’re an introvert and already work from home, business as usual).

For younger people, and especially 18-21 year olds, it’s far worse. It’s a delayed year of uni or an uncertain HSC year or a late graduation. It’s a missed job opportunity, a lost chance to begin a career, which will have to be restarted amid an economy recovering from deep contraction. It’s no income, it’s being forced to rely on parents when independence was beckoning. It’s no socialising, potential partners never met, travel plans deferred for who knows how long. It’s a pause in life at a time when you live it the most.

Unlike traditional recessions, the lockdown recession is hurting young people first, because we’ve shut down the industries where they disproportionately work — hospitality, retail, tourism — while severely limiting education, the other primary component of the lives of the young.

That’s only the start of decades of life affected by the consequences of the virus. As the taxpayers of the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s, young people will bear the burden of paying the hundreds of billions of dollars of debt we are now incurring, through higher taxes and less government spending.

It’s true that they are also the primary beneficiaries of that spending, since it is designed to keep them employed or at least keep them going through the months of likely unemployment to come. But it’s all in aid of a massive public health measure to protect older generations from the potentially lethal impacts of the virus, which on average has little impact on the young.

As Crikey has noted repeatedly, Australia has engaged in an extended war on its young people.

Our refusal to take action on climate change or try to lead the world on the issue means our children and future generations face a significantly worse economy and less stability.

Our refusal to address tax rorts that favour wealthy older voters has shifted more of the tax burden on to younger, productive workers.

Our tax system that subsidises property investment has locked hundreds of thousands of young people and low-income earners out of the housing market, to the benefit of older property owners and investors. The private health insurance system is a scam to transfer funds from the young and healthy to the old and sickly.

Now the young are being asked to put their lives on hold, face significant economic disruption and pay the bill for decades to come to help out older Australians — something they’re willing to do, despite the ludicrous finger-wagging engaged in by the media and politicians toward them, and despite the low priority that policymakers have accorded their interests in recent years.

There’s a basic societal contract here. We’re already asking young people to make enormous economic sacrifices for the wellbeing of older Australians. Now we’re asking for more. There has to be a recognition of that sacrifice.

Last week, The Australian’s Adam Creighton urged that the debt we’re racking up be paid for by targeting the tax breaks and other benefits that wealthy seniors enjoy — like superannuation, franking credits and the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card — on the basis that “the young and poor have little say in society but they are incurring the bulk of the costs from the shutdown”. Brave stuff for a newspaper primarily read by wealthy seniors.

That won’t be enough. Part of the contractual price we need to pay is to take demands for climate action seriously. A return to the absurdities of “meeting Paris targets in a canter” and donation-wielding fossil fuel companies dictating climate policy is unacceptable. The government must embrace genuine emissions abatement targets — not the joke ones currently official policy — and meaningful policies to achieve them, and use that as the basis for real international leadership on climate.

Taxpayer subsidisation of investors to compete against young and low-income people needs to be ended, along with a reliance on rising house prices as a de facto arm of economic policy, which both the Reserve Bank and Josh Frydenberg were using prior to the crisis to address wage stagnation. And there needs to be a significant reduction in the level of debt young people are being forced to accumulate in order to obtain the kind of education that a 21st century economy demands — debt that constrains their spending and ability to save to enter the property market.

That all of these happen to be sensible policy no matter which perspective you examine them from merely reinforces the case for action.

For too long Australian policymakers have treated young people as second-class citizens, with interests that can safely be ignored in favour of more influential, wealthier older people. Now we’re again demanding they make sacrifices. There’s a price that must be paid for our constant demands of them.