Living, working, and COVID-19: how the lives of women and young people have changed

Pitcure of a woman working from home with children

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

 Since COVID-19 arrived in Europe, Eurofound has been researching how the pandemic is changing the way we work and live. Here they summarise some of their findings on gender inequalities and generational divides. Who has fared well and who has not? How can we use those findings as we try to rebuild?

by Anna Gallinat

It has been over a year since COVID-19 hit Europe. The health crisis quickly turned into a crisis that dramatically impacted almost all aspects of everyday life. The economic, social, and work-related effects of the pandemic continue, with no end yet in sight.

Since the onset of COVID-19, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) has carried out specific research on the effects of the pandemic on people across Europe to assist policymakers bring about a just recovery. In particular, the three rounds of its unique e-survey, Living, working and COVID-19, in April and July 2020 as well as March 2021, captured the pandemic experiences of a sample of 138,000 Europeans.

The latest repetition of the e-survey found that existing inequalities are widening. This is because of the unequal impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups. Between declining levels of mental health and job losses across Europe, it was women, young people, unemployed people, and low-income groups who suffered the most under the measures put in place to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Gender inequality

The impact of COVID-19 on women has many aspects. On the one hand, the Living, working and COVID-19 e-survey highlights poorer work–life balance for women with children during the pandemic compared to men and to women without children. As the pandemic progressed, the biggest increase among parents reporting they were ‘too tired after work to do household tasks’ was among women with young children. Women with young children who worked only from home felt this most strongly. It is important to remember that women shoulder most care and other unpaid work.

Living, working and COVID-19 e-survey Table_ parents reporting they are too tired after work to do household jobs
Proportion of parents reporting that they are too tired after work to do household jobs, EU27 (%)

On the other hand, Eurofound research has found that more women than men lost their jobs. They are also more likely to be among furloughed workers. Due to the segregated nature of the EU labour market, female workers tend to be overrepresented in those sectors and occupations that were most affected by lockdowns and business shutdowns. This includes tourism and hospitality. In addition, many of the women laid off or furloughed are low-paid workers. Women at the higher end of the pay scale have tended to continue to work, and been able to do so from home.

Taken together, these developments paint a bleak picture of gender equality in Europe. A recently published joint policy brief of Eurofound and the European Institute for Gender Equality (Upward convergence in gender equality: How close is the Union of equality?) underlines that the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis threatens to roll back past achievements in gender equality, particularly in countries with lower levels of gender equality where the biggest advances had been made in recent years.

Living, working and COVID-19 e-survey : Employment shifts (in thousands), by gender and job–wage quintile: Comparing the global financial crisis and the first phase of the COVID-19 crisis, EU27
Employment shifts (in thousands), by gender and job–wage quintile: Comparing the global financial crisis and the first phase of the COVID-19 crisis, EU27

Generational divide

Living, working, and COVID-19 Risk of depression by age group and e-survey round, EU27 (%)
Risk of depression by age group and e-survey round, EU27 (%)

Apart from low-paid women, young people disproportionately lost their jobs due to COVID-19. This is because they are more likely to be on temporary contracts and have atypical forms of work. They are also overrepresented in the sectors hit hardest by the restrictions, such as retail, travel, and hospitality. According to the Living, working and COVID-19 e-survey in July 2020, 11% of respondents aged 18–29 lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, compared to 8% of workers over 30.

The mental health of young people has emerged as another issue of concern. In spring 2021, mental well-being reached its lowest level across all age groups since the onset of the pandemic. Young people and those who have lost their job faired the worst. Almost two-thirds of people (64%) in the youngest age group (18–34 years) are at risk of depression.

Moreover, the closure of schools and the shift to online learning are likely to reinforce inequalities between the most privileged and the most vulnerable. The substantial disparities in knowledge and well-being across families will also affect the help given to children and young people with learning. Young people with supportive families and access to the internet and computers at home will fare better than those without such resources.

With greater labour market insecurity and deteriorating mental health, there is now a real risk of permanent scarring of young people. We also risk seeing a decrease in the employability of a generation. A generation who already paid a high toll in the previous recession.

Conclusion

It may be tempting to chalk down all our modern-day woes to the impacts of the Coronavirus. But the truth is that, despite broad progress, long-standing inequalities in Europe were already festering before COVID-19 shook our lives. A recognition of the need to address those inequalities led to the 2017 European Pillar of Social Rights. This was followed by an action plan for its implementation in March 2021. Now the Pillar serves as the EU’s compass for achieving better living and working conditions. It also has an important role in supporting the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eurofound’s role is not to simply establish what has taken place, but to also provide evidence-based analysis that can assist with policy formulation. Its work highlights that COVID-19 could be a catalyst for fundamental change that will define the future of Europe, and that rather than ‘recovering’ from a crisis, like we did a decade ago, we can instead reset our expectations for our lives and reshape our understanding of what we can achieve in cooperation.

Further reading

Anna Gallinat
EuroHealthNet | + posts

Anna Gallinat is Communication Project Officer in the Information and Communication unit at Eurofound since February 2018. She supports and works across the various teams in the unit to ensure a coordinated and strategic approach in Eurofound’s outreach activities. She also drafts communication outputs on various cross-cutting topics, such as gender, COVID-19 or EU policy.

Previously, Anna worked at EuroHealthNet in Brussels, where she was responsible for communication and project management for EU health-related projects. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Twente in the Netherlands. She is also a graduate in Gender and Media Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences.

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