Coronavirus

Job-hunting in the pandemic: we need a shake up of the world of work

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This article is part of a series exploring job-hunting in the pandemic and the difficulties that face young people in particular. The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect Backbench’s stance as a whole. To find out more about the campaign and how you can contribute, click here

I graduated in 2018 and found it pretty tough to get a job. Pretty tough is actually an understatement – it was a real slog, involving many tears and many fears of lifelong joblessness. Everyone says you’ll look back on how much you panicked and wonder why you worried but that’s not been true in my case. Though I did find a job, conjuring up the feeling of what it was like to struggle through interviews and applications, and see rejection email after rejection email still sends a shiver down my spine. 

I honestly don’t know how I’d cope if I were a new graduate today. 

It’s not so much that I wouldn’t be able to get a job (I’d almost certainly struggle more than I did in 2018 though) – it’s more that the struggle of dealing with the panic of rejections and the anxiety of unemployment would certainly be intensified in the job market as it is now. It’s hard to avoid the news that the number of available roles for graduates is less than 80% of what it was in January of this year, or that there’ll be more than 100 graduates competing for each job vacancy this year. We know that young people have borne the brunt of the job losses in this pandemic, and that sectors where young people are most likely to be employed (such as hospitality) have been hardest hit. 

Even if many of today’s young job-seekers find themselves looking back at this period of time in five years and feeling smug and successful (and I hope very many of them do), they’re unlikely to be able to forget what it feels like to face dead ends at every turn, and to find that setbacks are the norm in a job market where progression is harder and harder to come by.

And of course, while the anxiety and mental health impacts of unemployment are difficult for young people to handle, we also know that the practical and particularly financial impacts of what is happening now will continue to reverberate through the years. Graduates and young workers who secure employment are likely to find that their pay is lower over the next few years than it would have been otherwise. And of course, Brexit is going to deal a double blow to young job-seekers and employees, sparking a greater stagnation of the job market and salaries. We’ll also probably see price rises on everyday essentials – meaning that younger generations will have less disposable income than ever before. Unemployment or low-paid employment will also prevent younger people from moving out of their parents’ homes and from starting independent lives; for those who don’t have the option to live with family, things are going to be even more challenging. 

This is a pretty bleak picture, and I don’t think that resolving these issues is a case of simply ‘creating new jobs’ or helping young people to ‘up-skill’. These are impermanent patchwork solutions to a much deeper issue. ‘Job creation’ rarely scratches the surface of all the new vacancies that are needed, and ‘up-skilling’, while valuable in and of itself, often leads to more and more overqualified people competing for the same jobs. We would be deluding ourselves to think that these initiatives can bring about tangible change. 

The jobs crisis that young people are facing did not come from nowhere. The pandemic has simply exacerbated the conditions that were already present. 

During the pandemic, the world’s billionaires have seen their wealth rise by 27.5% (an overall increase of $1.3 trillion). What this should tell us is that wealth is still being created. Yes, economies around the world are in a recession, but put simply this should not trick anyone into believing that there is no money to go around. A lack of jobs does not equal a lack of wealth. 

But for years, wealth has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a moneyed elite, with less to go round for everybody else. If anybody is labouring under the illusion that somehow these billionaires deserve their extraordinary wealth, do bear in mind that in 2016 it was calculated that British workers on an average salary would need to work for nearly 350,000 years to accumulate the wealth of Bill Gates. 

A society of increasing automation (and now, with fewer job openings full stop) has meant that the labour of humans is far less important than it once was to keep the world running and crucially to ensure that wealth is still being generated. As David Graeber’s theory of pointless work makes clear, many people who appear to be gainfully employed are probably not doing very much at all with their work week – or at least, not doing very much of actual value. Despite all this, money is made by our corporations, and wealth continues to flood into the pockets of society’s richest. 

So, what’s the solution? Well I think the time has come that we really need to stop tying income to employment in its entirety. People always panic about the increasing automation of jobs, but that’s because we keep pretending that without jobs no-one can have or should have enough money to live. Yet this axiom is only ever something that applies to the working and middle-classes of society – the ultra-wealthy don’t have to be constrained by it. 

Multi-billionaires like Hugh Grosvenor didn’t even make a show of earning their money and instead inherited the vast majority of it. Those like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos may be super-duper businesspeople, but they probably don’t work half as ‘hard’ as somebody toiling in untenable conditions in an Amazon warehouse. 

So I guess the answer is really for the entire world of work to be revolutionised. I’m not holding my breath with the current government, but I do think that the solution to the jobs crisis can be brought about gradually. If workers dropped down to a four day week, there would be more jobs to share around all those who need employment. This would then mean that every single one of us would be guaranteed more leisure time. This simple change would redress the balance between work and leisure that has been lacking for so many for so long, and also open up society to the bigger conversations about how much work actually needs to be done, and how we can all share out the wealth that is created more fairly. 

I believe that a future where all people work lower hours and find that wealth is distributed more fairly is possible. This may seem like some utopian fantasy, but if we all get on board, what do we have to lose? The jobs market is not working – especially for young people. We need to be at the forefront of the radical thought and action that is necessary to bring about true reform. 

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