The coronavirus pandemic is ravaging more than just the supply of toilet paper in this country.
With waves of government-mandated lockdowns, businesses big n small have shuttered across industries. It’s resulted in mass job loss, and young people are some of the worst affected. If getting a job before coronavirus was already going to be a competitive shitfight, what will it be like after?
According to Ashley de Silva, the CEO of the youth mental health resource ReachOut, “Even before the Coronavirus, a 2019 report by ReachOut and EY found that almost one in five students didn’t feel confident they would be able to find work. The COVID-19 pandemic is adding to these levels of stress.”
While the possibility of slinging a resume around at the moment is essentially cancelled for most of us, the anxiety about getting a job in our ideal fields in a post-pandemic world is palpable. “I’m pretty stressed,” says Dafna, who is 18 and currently completing a degree in visual communication. “Sometimes I’m not sure what I’m studying for anymore. The design industry is pretty hard to break into already and I feel like coronavirus is making it even worse.”
But recessions have happened before right? And we’re all still here (sort of). Syrup sat down with the economics experts to work through what getting a job after coronavirus will look like. Brace yourself, it ain’t the best news.
How is coronavirus going to affect youth employment?
“Young people have been facing a hard time in the Australian labor market ever since the global financial crisis in 2008,” says Professor Jeff Borland. Borland is the Truby Williams Professor of Economics at the University of Melbourne and two of his main research focuses are the operation of labour markets and the economic history of Australia.
Borland explains, “since the global financial crisis, we’ve had slower growth in employment, and a trend of older workers staying in the labour market longer.” Now that older people’s superannuation (their retirement funds) have been devalued because of stock market losses, it’s not going to improve. “Young people are going to continue to be crowded out of the labour market.”
Professor Bob Gregory, the Emeritus Professor in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University and former member of the Reserve Bank of Australia Board agrees. The problem of youth unemployment and under-employment is something that began well before this year and is something that has been exacerbated (rather than created) by coronavirus.
“The way I think about this question is that the post-virus world, and by that I mean two or three years away, will be a continuation of the trends that we’ve observed before coronavirus,” says Gregory. “I don’t see coronavirus changing the long-run world as it were, but what’s going to happen at the end of this year and early next year is going to be dominated by coronavirus.”
Young people are in essence held captive to overall labour market conditions. Until the market recovers, there’ll be increasing competition for the available jobs. And unfortunately, whenever there’s a downturn, young people are hit hardest. “If you look at the statistics on unemployment rates, whenever there’s a downturn the unemployment rate in the whole economy might go from around four to seven percent, but the rate for young people will go from say six percent to anywhere up to 15 percent,” says Borland.
How difficult will it be to get a job in a post-coronavirus world?
“Looking at the short run, it’s going to be really tough for teenagers and young people to find jobs. It’s not just because of coronavirus itself, but because the economy is going to be very bad,” says Gregory.
As well as older Australians staying in the jobs that they have longer, Borland notes that we’re hearing anecdotally about firms who would have had new cohorts of workers starting this year to delay until next year, “the prospects for graduates at the end of this year are going to be somewhat diminished.”
The knock-on effect of older Gen Zs who would have likely been moving into entry-level full-time work, grad roles or rotations not being able to will also impact the younger ones. Without full-time employment, they’ll likely take part-time roles. Those roles, likely things in the hospitality and retail industries will already be more scarce as they slowly recover from the lockdown’s impact on their industries.
How can young people adapt to deal with higher unemployment and fewer jobs?
Because of the increased competition, Borland says that we’re likely to see an “intensification of what we’ve seen in recent years—a gradual build-up of young people needing to do more and more to distinguish themselves to get “solid” and “good” jobs.” He notes that “performing well in school and internships might be key.”
But internships (especially the unpaid kind) and work experience may not be an option for people with fewer financial and familial privileges. “When you restrict overall access to employment, that introduces inequities in a variety of ways. For example, we know there’s a lot of competition to get into internships, especially because of the work opportunities and the value of established networks. Those increase when you’re in an environment like this.”
For people who need to take any job to be able to stay afloat and couldn’t afford to do an internship, or young people with carer responsibilities, or people outside metropolitan centres, Borland says the evidence shows it can cause a disadvantage in the long term, compared to someone who could wait and prepare for the best opportunity.
“An element where young people could be strategic is in recognising there’s going to be industries that are positively and negatively affected,” says Borland. “We all want to end up doing stuff we feel is intrinsically valuable, but we also just want to work. Working out where new jobs will be created will be important for getting into employment.”
What does this mean exactly? Essentially, while nearly everyone is a loser in the coronavirus world in some way, some industries have been less affected than others. “It’s one of the distinctive things about this downturn that it’s been very asymmetric: traditionally construction gets hits hard, but in this downturn, it’s been holding up pretty well, and a lot of that work has been in public projects.”
“We’ve had some sectors closed down by governments, and some that are booming because of the circumstances, for example, retail grocery supply, healthcare, logistics.” While they may not have been your dream fields, it’s worth noting that most people now will have about five career changes throughout their life, and you can always pivot once you have a foot in the door somewhere.
Gregory stresses that one of the most important things you can do is to stay in school (kids). “As a general rule, the more education you’ve got the easier it is to get through life and get a decent income. It’s very, very noticeable.” (Putting aside for the moment the problem of actually being able to attend uni in a cost-effective and educationally meaningful way.)
“If you have a degree, you tend to do better than somebody who leaves school 16 or 17. While staying in school doesn’t guarantee anything for any specific individual, the general trend says it helps immensely.”
His advice to all young people is to stay in the education process as long as you can, “unless you have some way of getting apprenticeships in plumbing and electricity and that sort of thing. Those jobs are still going to be there, though they’re not jobs that everybody finds that they want to do.”
An aside, experienced electricians in Australian can make up to $137,000 a year. I, on the other hand, picked a degree that gave me a certificate that says, “I hate money.”
Could the government have a role to play in supporting young Australians through this?
“The best thing governments can do is just get the economy running and creating new jobs again, as quickly as possible. Everything else is really like tinkering around the edges,” says Borland. “The way you get young people into work is by increasing the amount of new job creation.”
Borland added that because we’re likely to see young people delaying their entry into the labour market, that a “HECS holiday,” and ramped up government support of internships and work experience programs “would help to keep people in contact with the labour market.”
As for the current welfare and social safety net, we’re already witnessing how inadequate the current Centrelink system and services are. “One of the things that has really personally disappointed me in the last few years is the unwillingness of the government to increase NewStart,” says Gregory.
Even though it’s been definitively shown that the NewStart-come-JobKeeper payments were well below a feasible amount of money to live on, “They did not choose to increase [JobSeeker] on a permanent basis, what they did was add all these supplements to last maybe six months.” Gregory posits that because unemployment will be much higher than it has been before, the government will need to make more permanent adjustments moving forward, but we can’t be sure of anything.
Could there be a move away from a hyper-individual, capitalist mode of thinking about work?
Given we’re already seeing increasing popular understanding of concepts like a universal basic income, Syrup also asked whether it might signal a shift in how we approach working entirely. If you’ve been on Twitter in the past month you’ll have seen at least a few think pieces about how we’re watching the end of empire (Amurrica) and the death of capitalism.
Could the future hold a shift back even slightly to ’80s Australian labour policies? Could a rent strike actually get off the ground? It’s hard to say anything for certain though Borland does say that “Historically, big events have big effects on people’s approaches to living.”
“You hear discussions about The Great Depression generation, people who were growing up in that and the impact that it had on their attitudes to things like wealth and risk, or the idea that there should be a strong social safety net if a country could afford it. The effect of this episode will depend on how it plays out.”
Gregory is less convinced of a potential shift: “Younger people and people with visions of change might see that, but I don’t think myself that it’s going to have much of an effect.” He explains, “I believe strongly in trends. And all in the trends we can see, it’s not that coronavirus is going to change the world, but that it’s going to speed them up and make them stronger for a while. For example home delivery, or remote working, or online services.”
“Looking ahead, this is going to be more uncertain, that’s normal. Things that were a good thing to do in the past, whether that’s further education or a part-time job or an internship, even if it’s not ideal, grab them firmly.”
If you’re struggling to deal with the bizarro simulation we’re living in, you’re not alone. Syrup put together a guide to managing coronavirus anxiety, and you can also use the COVID-19 resources and forum at ReachOut.
Lead image via NBC’s The Office.