National UN Volunteer Youth Engagement Officer, Johanna Erroba (left), serves with UNDP in the Philippines. Here, she is seen conducting data validation in households for the enrollment of citizens in a digital wallet.
National UN Volunteer Youth Engagement Officer, Johanna Erroba (left), serves with UNDP in the Philippines. Here, she is seen conducting data validation in households for the enrollment of citizens in a digital wallet.

Closing the loop: Can we bring the past into the present and leave no one behind?

Johanna Erroba serves as a national UN Volunteer Youth Engagement Officer with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines. In this blog, she shares her perspective on how COVID-19 has accelerated the transition to, and dependency on, the digital world, and how more needs to be done to enhance intergenerational solidarity. 

A lot has been said about how young people can take action to combat the crisis, from community organizing to innovative startups. Luckily for you, that isn’t what I will do, because, let’s face it, we do not talk about the interdependence of generations enough.

Recently, I was sitting in a circle with colleagues during a debriefing session. A few months back during quarantine, we went from house to house to validate citizen data. The validation was key to enrolling senior citizens to a digital wallet.

In this city in Metro Manila, seniors are treated as important contributors to society. They volunteer for the local government and receive allowances, parallel to internship opportunities for students. The crisis posed an opportunity for this city to digitalize disbursement of allowances instead of having seniors go to the City Hall to queue.

Our selling factor as partners: seniors will also receive their ayuda, or cash assistance, from the government’s Social Amelioration Program (SAP) through their digital wallets. The concept on paper was easy: to knock on the doors of people above 60 years of age, ask them for their personal information, explain what a digital wallet is; and assure them that their SAP would be deposited in so-and-so weeks. In practice, NOT!

The popular and young city mayor suddenly appeared in the room and sat in the circle. Needless to say, I froze, starstruck because of how he’s consistently reported on as charming and intelligent. Thank goodness for the mask! 

Still, I managed to bring to the table my primary observation during the field work. A lot of those I interviewed did not have their own smartphones, let alone know how to use them. Introducing a digital wallet was almost alien to them.

The mayor became curious when I said that those who had to rely on relatives for digital transactions may not trust their relatives enough to receive payments. I told him that while it’s great that we are teaching people to use online tools, it might also be worth looking into young people to see which basket is worth putting our eggs in, especially since we brought financial literacy as our niche.

In reflection, I wonder if there are any underlying clues to these observations. Perhaps the cases were isolated. Perhaps, too, there is a generational divide. Do young people and older people communicate with each other enough? In our circle of influence, as author Stephen Covey called it, are our parents or guardians, teachers and colleagues. Is there space for us young people to truly "influence" other generations in this circle?

Now, I obviously cannot speak for all young people, recognizing that, despite my own struggles, I am still coming from a place of privilege. To some young Filipinos, this might be the longest time they have spent their days and nights at home with family. No playdates. No physical classes. No graduation rites wearing togas, except for those whose schools organized an e-graduation.

Young professionals have a "no work, no pay" policy. Not to mention domestic abuse and violence. Others, like myself, live alone. No family, at least not the immediate. No permanent shelter. No hang out with friends. Loneliness meter skyrocketing. The only way to communicate is through the occasional Messenger chats and video calls when the internet is stable enough.

Before joining the UN as a Youth Volunteer, I had successfully eliminated Facebook and Twitter from my life and only use Instagram and two messenger applications for communication. I cleaned up my digital footprint and even went far as emailing Google to delete some links and content associated to me because I wanted to remain private and rid myself of the risks of cybercrimes.

Not all young people want to be "out there". Now, however, since the lockdown, I cannot keep my hands off my phone, itching to keep up with opportunities and news from young people who are responding to the crisis and to stay in touch with my family.

My attempt to retreat and become a digitally unknown hermit turned into life stuck at home and heavy reliant on the internet to stay connected both at work and in my social life. So no, there is no going back to an old normal for me. There is no turning back to a life without digital technology and instead of resisting, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism suggests proper management of online tools to the optimum.

Now, more restaurants are subscribing to third-party delivery services. Small businesses are transferring transactions online through social media. Parents are becoming adept at online learning platforms to support their children who are studying from home. Students are managing their time to maximize learning between modules sent by teachers to offline assignments. Senior citizens are adjusting to the new normal of receiving and paying money through digital wallets.

The fast-paced life is here, and we have no choice but to evolve. The question is, are we supporting each other enough, old and young? Can the youth extend their expertise in technology to older generations? And can the old embrace this way of life instead of resisting? Today, we see progress. Intergenerational platforms and dialogues have spurted online since quarantine, ranging from topics on social activism to COVID-19 and health. --Johanna Erroba, UN Volunteer Youth Engagement Officer with UNDP, the Philippines

A recent study by the Pew Research Center released on April 2020 found that 94 per cent of Filipinos ages 18–29 say they use the internet or own a smartphone. This means most young Filipinos have access to these platforms.

Just recently, the UN country team in the Philippines held a dialogue with the UN Youth Advisory Board. Young people are experiencing the effects of the pandemic on education, violence against women and children, economy, participation and health, among other things. And again, it was in this dialogue that I found emphasis on the point made earlier about intergenerational accountability.

When we talk about our role as youth, one can argue that the people in our circle of influence must also make it possible for youth-led initiatives to thrive. It can be as trivial as asking my younger sister back home to teach our parents how to use an online bank, so they won’t have to queue to pay for bills. Do my parents accept this proposal? If a young person organizes a donation drive for neighbours who have limited food supply, are there helping hands at home? If students express the discomfort brought about by classes being delivered on screens, are educators able to extend patience and enable this learning curve on both ends? I understand this can come off as a demand for accountability, but it is one that is called for in any generation.

Praise for those "young at heart" in my circle of influence who welcome this discourse, and those who entertain the thought of a better future that requires the interdependence of generations in this modern, digital world. To my fellow youth, we too have work to do! 

This article was originally published by UNDP Philippines as part of a blog series for International Youth Day 2020.