What’s It Like to Go from a High Salary to Covid Unemployment?

Young high earners are finding themselves in dire financial straits after being made redundant in the pandemic.
October 30, 2020, 1:17pm
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Nathan Raab in the cockpit as a pilot, and at home. Photo: Nathan Raab

Nathan Raab, 24, was working as a pilot until coronavirus hit and the pandemic meant the majority of flights were grounded in March. A few months later, the International Air Transport Association predicted revenues would fall by $419 billion, setting the industry for the worst year on record. Millions of jobs would be lost.  

Having moved to a new £76,000 a year job in June last year, he was made redundant in August. 

“When I moved to [the new job] I was like, ‘Cool, I can get like a nicer place,” says Raab, who lives with his girlfriend. Now? “We can't really afford it. I've got like three grand to my name now, which will keep us going.”

Nathan is one of many young people whose working lives have been turned upside down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 18-to-24-year-olds were most likely to find themselves out of work because of the pandemic. Even when young people were put on furlough, many weren’t protected from job losses, with one in five becoming unemployed anyway. With the furlough scheme set to end this week, more job losses are on the horizon. And if you lose a job, it’s hard to find another one: According to the Resolution Foundation, economically active 18-to-29-year olds are set to see the highest unemployment since the early 1980s, largely due to the difficulty of re-entering the job market.

Following his redundancy, Raab has applied to other aviation jobs but hasn’t been successful. Instead, he’s chosen to start his own plant delivery business, but it’s a difficult time to launch something new. “I'm hoping the business will be in a good enough position just to pay me enough to maintain where we live at the moment,” he says. “I have no idea about the rent. I've got no idea. I think everyone's in the same boat. We’ve just got to kind of see what happens.”

Nathan isn’t the only person whose situation has been made tough by the pandemic.

For James – who withheld his surname to protect his identity – a normal working day would usually begin early at the gym. In his marketing role at a major telecommunications company, earning £60,000, he would attend various meetings across London, usually treating himself to a nice lunch to break the day up. In the evening, there would be dinner or drinks with friends. This was his life until, in January, he was made redundant.

The redundancy came just before the effects of the pandemic became clear and he didn’t think this would be too much of a problem. In fact, he saw the redundancy as an opportunity – maybe he would take a break and go travelling for a bit. Then, coronavirus hit, and the labour market he was hoping to re-enter closed down. Six months later, he still hasn’t been able to find a job. It’s the longest he’s been unemployed since he was a teenager. 

“At the start, you know, there wasn't really much there,” says James. “It's very competitive with how many people are out of work. And so, where there was a sense of optimism… Now I’ve kind of spent the majority of [redundancy] money living, and everything is a bit uncertain.”

For James, finding purpose in his day to day has been the hardest challenge. “It was really, really difficult at the start,” he says. “I've always had a purpose or at least something to do in the morning, and having hours of time ahead of you is tricky.”

Despite applying for both marketing jobs and retail jobs, he’s still struggling to find work.

“I think they've got probably the end of the year to kind of survive on everything,” he says. “If it doesn't work itself out, by the end of the year, I don't get any freelance work or anything then I would have to move in with my mum, which isn't particularly exciting at the age of 30. I'm trying not to think about it.”

In the face of empty job listing sites, many young people who have trained for years in a profession are having to change direction. Jess Royle has trained as a dancer since she was four years old, and in 2020, had finally found a lucrative and consistent job working as a performer. Then, the pandemic hit. 

“I got to the point where I was a freelancer, and I was doing really well,” she says. “And then in March this year, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, there is no festival circuit anymore. There are no live events anymore, and you can't do what you love anymore. And honestly, it was just such a shock to the system.”

“It was just so hard, because I was like, ‘Oh my God, I spent all of my life being a singer and a dancer and a performance artist,” she adds. “And it was kind of taken away from me. I know a lot of people who struggled and not just financially but not knowing what to do next.”

This month, responding to the suggestion that professional musicians and other artists were feeling unsupported by the government’s policies, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “I can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis. And that’s why we’ve put a lot of our extra resources into trying to create new opportunities for people.” Many in the arts took the implication that they should look for new opportunities as a statement that the arts would not be supported.

This is what Royle has decided to do. After speaking to charity Prince’s Trust, Royle decided to launch her own video dance instructor business to compensate for the lack of available work.

“I mean, I would love to keep the door open,” she says. “You know, Les Miserables has been running for 25 years in the West End, and everything was fine. And now it's like, we need to go back to the drawing board.”

With the furlough scheme set to end this week, and data showing that young people are more likely to be affected by coronavirus job losses, stories such as these will become increasingly common. Whether high paid or in zero-hour work, coronavirus has upended the labour market for the young for the foreseeable future.

Does Royle think she will ever return to dancing? “I’d absolutely love to carry on performing,” she says, “but I am not putting all my eggs in one basket anymore.”