The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic downturn are having staggering effects on young adults. Young people are typically among the hardest-hit groups during recessions, and getting off to a bad start in the labor market can have long-term negative effects. The COVID-19-fueled recession is also severely disrupting postsecondary education, with college enrollment dropping as students face financial hardship or don’t have access to the technology necessary for remote learning. Disconnection from both work and school at this phase of a person’s life can cast a long shadow.

This is playing out amid sharp social divisions and mistrust among people of different political beliefs, races and ethnicities, and economic circumstances. Moreover, widespread joblessness and economic hardship is likely to breed more alienation and a sense that the economic system—and the political system supporting it—is unfair.

An expanded national service program can help address these problems. National service programs such as AmeriCorps, YouthBuild, and conservation corps put young people to work on a variety of socially useful activities: tutoring children, building affordable housing, assisting with disaster response, maintaining public infrastructure, and restoring the environment. In return, they earn a modest living allowance and a small educational scholarship. By working together on shared, concrete endeavors, young people from different backgrounds can build trust with one another in a way that more abstract calls for mutual understanding cannot accomplish.

We should greatly increase the number of positions available through these programs to mobilize young people to meet urgent community needs, both those related to COVID-19 as well as more long-standing ones.

When the COVID-19 crisis abates, we should continue to grow national service opportunities. A more robust national service infrastructure will address key issues predating the pandemic, such as the need for more stability and guidance to help young adults gain a foothold in the labor market, and the need for structured opportunities that allow people to interact and work with a diverse group of peers.

Read the full article about increasing national service opportunities by Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman at Brookings.