• Young people in Southeast Asia have shown remarkable resilience in the face of COVID-19.
  • The pandemic has ushered in a permanent digital transformation for young people, according to a study by the World Economic Forum and Sea.
  • ASEAN youths have used lockdown to learn new skills.
  • And young entrepreneurs have accelerated the move to e-commerce.

If COVID-19 has been a test of resilience and adaptability, young people in South East Asia have passed with flying colours. By turning to the digital world to stay connected, they have emerged as more creative, skilled and ready to grasp opportunities in a post-COVID world.

The World Economic Forum surveyed more than 68,000 people aged between 16 and 35 living in six of the countries from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to find out how they had fared during the pandemic.

In spite of difficulties with poor internet connections in some areas, the picture that emerges is of a digital transformation that has created a tech-savvy generation which, the Forum says, will be “a key driver for ASEAN’s inclusive and sustainable growth”.

The survey, conducted in partnership with Sea, the Singapore-based global consumer internet company, found that young people in the region had adjusted to lockdown restrictions by increasing their digital footprint.

The switch to digital

Nearly nine out of 10 young people said they had increased their use of at least one digital tool during the pandemic, while almost half (42%) had picked up at least one new digital tool. Young people in the region also reported making greater use of online shopping, food delivery services, e-banking and e-wallet apps.

And it wasn’t just buyers who went online. Sellers, too, turned to the digital world. A third of young entrepreneurs said they had increased their use of e-commerce and a quarter of them said they had used it for the first time as a result of the pandemic.

Asian teenagers learning digital skills during COVID-19 coronavirus
Over 50% of young people learnt digital skills for social media during COVID-19.
Image: World Economic Forum

A learning mindset

Among those who had increased their usage of digital tools, there was significant growth in the use of online education, even among those who had completed their school and university studies. Almost two-fifths of workers said they made more use of online education.

The report said the findings confirmed “ASEAN youths’ strong aspiration for lifelong learning and growth mindset”. Those between 16 and 25 were most likely to say they had learned new skills which the report says “speaks to their nimbleness”. Overall, 44% of women said they had learned new skills as a result of lockdowns, compared to 39% of men.

Social distancing learnings Asia COVID-19 coronavirus
Washing hands and budgeting were the key learnings from socially distancing.
Image: World Economic Forum

A clear majority said their switch to digital would be a permanent feature of their lives from now on. Nearly half said their experience of the pandemic had taught them to be more resilient in the future and 38% said they had learned to think creatively.

Connectivity challenges

And all this was achieved despite significant challenges. Nearly seven out of 10 said they found it hard to work or study remotely. Poor internet connections and high costs coupled with household distractions and lack of motivation were among the top constraints.

Two-fifths of those questioned said poor internet quality held them back from doing more and more than a quarter said their internet access was too expensive. Views on cost varied between countries. In Viet Nam 88% said their connection was affordable compared to 71% in Indonesia.

Inhibitors to remote studying Asia internet quality cost
The cost of internet and its overall quality were the biggest inhibitors to studying remotely for the sample studied.
Image: World Economic Forum

Those with less developed digital skills and young people living in rural areas faced the biggest obstacles to studying and working remotely, the survey found. Those working in education, agriculture, small businesses and the gig economy found it hardest of all.

Staying afloat financially

Lack of money during the pandemic was a problem for just under a fifth of those questioned. Only a third of people in need of financial help turned to banks, with the majority preferring to raid their savings or ask family and friends for assistance.

A further 31% turned to government support to make ends meet, while almost a quarter used online finance services. Informal financing – borrowing from money lenders, friends or other businesses to keep going – was favoured by 14% of respondents.

Almost two-thirds of women in the survey said that social distancing measures had improved their money management skills, compared to half of men.

The report also highlighted the cash flow problems facing young entrepreneurs in the region and called on governments to promote digital financing services and to invest more in financial literacy programmes for young people.

A private/public opportunity

The insights gained from this report call for “timely multi-stakeholder actions to empower ASEAN youth with much needed digital skills,” said Joo-Ok Lee, Head of Asia Pacific at the Forum. He cited the need for improved digital infrastructure and more funding to “capitalize on the unprecedented digital transformation brought about by the pandemic”, so that the region’s youth can “realize their potential” and contribute to a sustainable recovery.

The report calls for more public-private partnerships to help young people, and particularly young entrepreneurs, fund their futures. Dr Santitarn Sathirathai, Group Chief Economist at Sea, argues they also have a role to play in raising digital literacy.

“Our analysis has shown that digitalization has become a necessity rather than a luxury and will play a crucial role in supporting young entrepreneurs and consumers during economic recovery. It is crucial that the public and private sectors come together,” he said, “to ensure that no one is left behind during these challenging times.”