The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young adults

July 27, 2021

Nearly one in five British Columbians age 18-30 make up a significant cohort of individuals who, during the pandemic, made sacrifices to protect vulnerable populations, worked frontline jobs that benefitted the rest of us, yet were frequently accused of driving up COVID-19 numbers. They were also among the last to receive the call to be vaccinated. While the pandemic has affected every one of us, young adults are among those especially impacted.

A recent report from the BC Centre for Disease Control titled Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Health and Well-Being of Young Adults in British Columbia paints a picture of substantial and disproportionate impacts on young adults. One such example is how this age group experienced the highest unemployment rate during the height of the pandemic, peaking at nearly 30%. This marked a historic high compared to any previous recession. Young adults were more likely to experience stress over the high cost of rent, live in shared accommodations making distancing and quarantining difficult, and often their jobs require them to work in direct contact with the public. It’s no surprise than that they were also nearly twice as likely to report worsened mental health during the pandemic compared to those over age 65.


These impacts echo previous disruptions such as the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2008. Economists found that layoffs, a poor job market, delayed savings, and impaired career progression continued to disproportionately impact young adults even a decade later. Lessons learned from the GFC contributed to the urgency around interventions during the pandemic such as emergency wage supplements and increased funding for mental health services. However, in spite of these efforts, young adults are still showing signs that the COVID-19 pandemic will have lasting impacts far beyond the disease itself.

As a physician who treats many young people, I am struck by the connection between my patients’ physical and mental health and their social and economic well-being. I saw young adults who lost their jobs, saw their schooling disrupted, and sweated out for months waiting for their turn to be vaccinated, become more anxious, depressed, and increase their use of cannabis and other drugs. I also saw youth withdraw from school, both in spirit and sometimes officially, because the online experience wasn’t cutting it. And I even saw some young adults who seemed to live their best lives during the pandemic – introverts and gamers in particular – grow tired of it all and withdraw as the months wore on.

During the pandemic we rightly focused on the most vulnerable, particularly the elderly. I’ve heard it said by elders that, had the roles been reversed and this virus disproportionately harmed children and young adults, they would have gladly made the sacrifices necessary to shield the young. Given what we are learning about the social, economic, and psychological impacts of the pandemic on young adults, it’s time to focus on how to best support them. The report touches upon a number of health-promoting behaviours such as “reducing physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour, promoting healthy eating, and managing stress” but more importantly the authors also describe issues important to young people that we can consider supporting: opening up more employment opportunities, increasing access to education and training, addressing the run-up in housing costs, and creating safe spaces to gather.

I would summarize this all in one phrase: “nothing about us, without us.” Young adults spent much of the pandemic being told what to do while patiently waiting for their turn to be vaccinated (many are still waiting for second doses). Now, as a group so immensely impacted by this pandemic, it’s time for them to be more deeply involved in decision-making and planning – for the post-pandemic recovery, the socioeconomic priorities of the government, and the design of services and supports for young people.

- Dr Matthew Chow

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