In its new global consumer insights study Beyond 2020: Global Youth – Voices & Futures, ViacomCBS delves into how people aged 16 to 24 in 15 countries, including South Africa, were affected by the chaos and disruption of 2020.

This research shows that the events of 2020 denied young South Africans many milestones and defining moments like graduation ceremonies and matric dances – and the pandemic continues to inflict multiple disruptors upon them. It is not only putting pressure and uncertainty on them economically, but also disrupting their education and training, and having a serious impact on their mental health, lifestyle and wellbeing.

Young people around the world are struggling to cope with stress and anxiety due to the impact of Covid-19. This research shows that in South Africa, young people were even more affected, with more stringent lockdown rules to contain the virus. Furthermore, the pandemic exposed South Africa’s vast societal and economic inequalities. While private schools and many suburban public schools were able to switch to online learning, most public schools lacked the requisite infrastructure, resources and access to data.

During this unprecedented year, young South Africans were inspired to unite and amplify their voices with purpose-led initiatives to campaign for social issues. Three-quarters of the those surveyed said they were affected by issues beyond Covid-19, including antiracism movements and protests against police brutality like the #EndSARS riots in Nigeria, natural disasters and climate change protests, political events, and terrorist attacks. This is the year in which youth activism gained significant ground globally. It also inspired young people to reflect on their financial, social and mental health wellness. Some 43% of South African youth were prompted to make changes in the direction of their education, while 36% adjusted their career paths.

In the lives of young people, mental health has taken center stage. South African youth recognize that mental health will be a problem and a priority in future, with 89% agreeing that both physical and mental health will continue to be a huge focus even beyond 2020.

Beyond the challenges, the events of 2020 have also been a catalyst for positive change and an opportunity for innovation. Young people remain optimistic and continue to see themselves as part of a better world. South African youth are leading the pack in exemplifying resilience and optimism as the change generation, with 53% feeling hopeful for ​change in the future.

Looking ahead, young people feel optimistic about an improved world and want to see action for sustainability, as well as elevated diversity and inclusion in society. Compared with their global peers, South African youth are more concerned about jobs, finances and crime. This is because the youth unemployment rate in South Africa is 34.1% and rising. Therefore, improving their employment prospects remains their key priority. In other parts of the world, young people are mostly concerned about climate change and the environment.

The chaos of 2020 provoked a desire for stability in South African youth, as well as a sense that they will need to work harder than ever to achieve their goals. While their futures remain uncertain, young South Africans are excited and eager to make the most of what comes next.