Back in May, 30 percent of the UK workforce was on the government furlough programme, introduced to “save jobs and help people back to work” during the coronavirus lockdown. The scheme, which helped 8.9 million people at its peak, comes to an end next month. And while Rishi Sunak has unveiled new plans aimed at minimising further unemployment as stricter COVID-19 restrictions come in, millennials across the country are nervous for what comes next.
The younger workforce is more likely to have been furloughed due to the industries that have suffered the most: hospitality, retail, tourism and the arts. According to HMRC statistics, 45 percent of workers aged 25 and under have been furloughed at some point since the start of the pandemic, compared to 29 percent of those over 25. With this in mind, young people are struggling to pay rent, forced to move back in with parents, sign up to Universal Credit and even contemplate leaving their industries altogether – just to survive.
But with the prospect of losing their jobs completely in October, how are millennials feeling about the months ahead?
“Oh my god, I’m absolutely terrified,” says 25-year-old Ellena, based in London. “I started looking for jobs as soon as they started to ease lockdown and I don’t really want to go back to hospitality, but have to be realistic that nobody is hiring [in other industries]. Hospitality is all I know.”
Due to its size, the Soho restaurant where Ellena works can’t reopen while adhering to current social distancing guidelines. “It makes me feel really sad,” she says. “I just enjoy working so much. Not even having the opportunity to work makes you feel useless.” She finds it especially tough because she is the only one without a job in her shared house.
Luckily for Ellena, her boyfriend helps out with rent but the biggest impact for her has been not earning her own money, and being at home all day: “The sheer boredom of it is driving me crazy.” She has been applying for jobs for the past few months but finds that positions are either highly competitive, or that she is overqualified.
Cost of living is the biggest worry on Deborah’s mind, a 30-year-old who runs a part-time fashion business funded by the full-time day job she is furloughed from. “I've been very anxious every single day and I'm not sleeping properly,” she says. “The other night, I had a bad dream that I broke my laptop and phone and I can't afford to replace these things.” This nightmare could very well turn into a reality, as Deborah’s employer announced 250 redundancies last month. Since then, she says that she has sent out over a 100 job applications.
Not only does Deborah feel bad about not being able to pay the people she employs in her business, but she has also experienced shame about applying for Universal Credit. “I feel like I failed, even though it's not by my own doing,” she says. “I think I get some comfort in knowing there are other people that are experiencing the same thing as me.” She hopes that one of the many job applications she has filed will be successful in time for next month when furlough ends.
Like Deborah, 26-year-old Charlie has been receiving Universal Credit for a few months now. Before the pandemic, he worked in a popular London nightclub for three years, but can’t see the industry bouncing back in the coming months. “Best case scenario is they extend furlough, worst case is being in this limbo,” he says. “I am very fortunate to have Universal Credit and stuff, but my mental health is suffering. It’s not like there’s anything to do anyway.”
Job uncertainty over employment is making Liz, who works as a part-time assistant manager in a pub, suffer from stress. “I’m in limbo,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ll keep the job next month or not. Everyone in the company is applying for Universal Credit. I’m applying for other part-time jobs, but I have no idea. There are people in much more vulnerable positions than me.”
Faiza Shaheen from the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) acknowledges this too. She says that BAME groups and low-paid workers will be among the most affected when the furlough scheme ends – particularly those who are young. Furthermore, being out of work could have a long-lasting impact on their wellbeing.
“Young people are disproportionately in low-paid work on precarious contracts so are going to feel the hit more than others,” Shaheen says. “The issue is not just the short-term impact, but the so-called 'scarring' affects of being out of work for a notable period of time during your early career. Research from previous recessions suggests that it takes over a decade for you to catch up in earnings – and of course, some never do.”
But there are actions that young people can take to fight for their rights as a worker.
You should join a union that’s either best for your profession, or one that’s already recognised in your workplace, suggests Alex Collinson who is an economic policy expert at the Trades Union Congress. “Workers are more powerful as a collective,” he says. “Throughout the pandemic, unions have been fighting to protect jobs and ensure safe workplaces.”
But it seems that ultimately, most of the help has to come from the government. “The furlough scheme has saved millions of jobs, and given the current situation, now isn’t the time to end it,” Collinson continues. “Doing so could lead to millions losing their jobs and levels of unemployment last seen in the 1980s. The government also needs to start looking forward by creating a plan to boost employment by creating good public sector jobs and heavily investing in green jobs. It’s also vital that we overhaul the social security system.”
With the beginnings of a second coronavirus wave, the UK job market remains increasingly uncertain. Furthermore, the months of economic inactivity have exposed and widened the pre-existing cracks in our social security infrastructures. More needs to be done to support young people out of work next month, because the long-term financial and mental effects of unemployment will outlast the pandemic.