The images of a group of twentysomethings partying on a lake, without wearing masks or social distancing, quickly went viral. In the midst of a pandemic, the voluntary and reckless action these young people took was matched only by the public's outrage. 

But there are other images of young people during this pandemic that no one sees—or at least no one talks about. It’s of the waiter wearing a mask and serving customers despite the dangers to make money for college. It’s of the elementary school teacher wondering if she will have to choose between her personal safety or financial security come September. It’s of the entry-level legal associate going into the office because she needs to cultivate relationships and put in face time if she eventually wants to make partner. 

“A good many young workers are involuntarily and necessarily assuming risks because they need to work,” says Mark Royal, a senior director at Korn Ferry. 

In fact, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis, half of all workers under 25 years old hold jobs that don’t allow for social distancing, the most of any age group. The analysis found three main factors influencing this trend: education, demographics, and the labor market. 

Many jobs available to young people, particularly those without college degrees, are in high-contact sectors like construction, hospitality, leisure, and retail, for instance. Those also happen to be the industries hit especially hard by layoffs due to the pandemic, making employment harder to find for a group whose labor force participation was already declining. Radhika Papandreou, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry and leader of the firm's North America Travel, Hospitality, and Leisure practice, says those dynamics leave young workers having to balance their physical and financial health. “They need both, but the current labor market makes that difficult to achieve,” says Papandreou. 

But even for young workers with college degrees, social distancing still proves difficult. Part of the reason stems from the high proportion of college-educated people under the age of 25 in fields like education, healthcare, and civil service (e.g., police officers) that require close contact with students, patients, and other people. In fields like law and banking, where social distancing should be easier and remote working more feasible, the culture of advancement plays a significant psychological role on young workers, says Deepali Vyas, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry and global cohead of the firm's Fintech practice.

“These are face-time cultures where advancement is built in part on building relationships across the firm,” Vyas says. She points to war room setups for big cases or merger deals where young associates put in long hours together compiling documents and conducting due diligence as an example. “There’s an element of wanting to be seen and being in front of their managers that creates some anxiety for young people,” says Vyas. She also notes that a lot of institutional knowledge sharing happens between associates in those environments and missing out on those shared experiences makes it a lot harder to catch up. 

The inability of young people to social distance at work is even more pronounced among Black and Latino workers, who are less likely to have a college degree and more likely to be unemployed or paid less than their white peers. “Younger employees with jobs that require close contact are likely to be in different situations,” says Royal. “Some may choose to carry out a role because they find it satisfying. Others, however, may not have the option to work in a role that allows for greater physical distancing.”

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