‘It really knocks your confidence,’ says 22-year-old graduate Samantha Tolley.
‘To put so much effort and so much energy into something that you thought would be hugely influential to your career, and then struggle to find any employment whatsoever. It’s so disheartening.’
Although it’s been more than three years since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, young people like Samantha are still reckoning with its complex legacy, in addition to the cost of living crisis.
According to new research from The Prince’s Trust, almost half of young people in the UK feel anxious about their future on a daily basis – and many are still feeling the repercussions of the pandemic on their education, employment and wellbeing.
While the government is currently focused on the economic inactivity of the over-50s, and is considering scrapping income tax for this demographic, the under-25s still face long term economic scarring effects, which are impeding their ability to build adult lives.
In fact, approximately 2.8 million young people across the UK believe their job prospects may never recover at all from the pandemic – and the happiness and confidence of 16 to 25 year olds has flatlined at a fourteen-year low, according to The Prince’s Trust NatWest Youth Index 2023.
The research, conducted by Censuswide with 2,002 16 to 25-year-olds across the UK, also found that more than a third feel their life is spiralling out of control, and half agree that their aspirations for the future are lower now as a result of global events since 2020.
‘Graduating during Covid was really difficult,’ Samantha tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Even though mine was towards the end of the pandemic, the effects were still being felt. Businesses still had employees on furlough, so they weren’t really looking to recruit anyone. There were so few jobs out there, especially ones with decent living pay, and competition was really high.
‘I remember there being roles advertised that could only offer basic salaries for jobs that actually required more than five years’ of experience. People were simply having to accept what they could, as it was such a struggle to find work. There was a consistent level of uncertainty in young people’s lives. You just couldn’t predict what would be around the next corner.
‘You worked so hard for a degree, but it couldn’t help you get onto the career ladder because of how competitive it was. There were so many ups and downs throughout that time.’
Samantha adds that it was also a hugely isolating time for young graduates like her. ‘The Covid crisis had a huge effect on our wellbeing,’ she says. ‘More needs to be done to support the development of socialisation skills in young people post-pandemic. You couldn’t just freely turn up at places or meet whoever you wanted – and I remember when things did open up again, it was such a huge shock to the system.’
24-year-old Yi Kang tells Metro.co.uk that coronavirus and current cost of living crisis have forced him to abandon his long term ambitions of becoming a lawyer. ‘The pandemic changed my trajectory a lot,’ he admits.
‘Many entry-level internships were cancelled and there were more barriers to securing big corporate jobs. I was intending to become a lawyer when I graduated, but a lot of internships were cancelled during my second and final year. That was a pivotal time. It really impacted my timeline, and I felt lost and confused.’
Yi now works in London as a charity programme coordinator, and feels grateful to be in full time employment. But admits life hasn’t turned out how he imagined.
‘When I was at university, I thought I would follow my dreams… I’m still very much interested in law, and being able to qualify is still an aspiration of mine,’ he says. ‘But ever since the pandemic, my finances have been so tight. Qualifying is very expensive, and a long process. I would need to get a job first or a training contract, and find someone to sponsor me, if I were to qualify.’
Now the cost of living crisis is a constant worry.
‘I’m earning the bare minimum and struggling to save,’ adds Yi. ‘London is really expensive and there are so many hidden costs, which affect my daily spending, and whether I can go and have a social life. After rent, taxes, energy bills and basic living expenses, there’s nothing left.
‘If I were to find a new job or chase my dream, I would be really conscious of not having an income for a while, because I have no buffer to fall back on. I can’t bear to think what would happen if I lost my job. It’s stressful. I have got used to really planning my budget, but long term plans, such as a mortgage, feel out of reach. With the current cost of living crisis, I can only survive moment to moment.’
Jonathan Townsend, UK Chief Executive of The Prince’s Trust tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Young people in the UK today are facing a unique set of repercussions from the pandemic, impacting their education, employment and wellbeing, and leaving them destabilised and debilitated. As the economic climate continues to change around us, we must not turn our back on this generation.
‘Having already lived through one of the most turbulent times to be young, post pandemic, young people’s wellbeing has not recovered. For this generation – the Class of Covid – economic uncertainty is having a profound impact on their wellbeing and confidence in achieving their aspirations in the future.’
For Jill Matters, being at university during Covid was a ‘devastating’ time – but now the ‘extortionate’ cost of living has forced her to boomerang back home with her parents.
‘When I first started my job as a junior account executive, I lived between Liverpool and Chester – two cities that I really loved, but unfortunately could not afford to live in any longer due to the cost of living,’ she explains. ‘The cost of rent, household bills, fuel expenses and food were just too much for a recent graduate in my first full time job.
‘At 23 years old and after finishing my degree, I’d have hoped I would have been in a position where I could be financially stable enough to live away from home and have enough money to enjoy the fruits of my labour, while being able to save for a secure future. But since moving back home, the cost of living has only increased exponentially. I cannot fathom what kind of financial state I would be in if I were to still live away.
‘When I lived alone in Chester, it was very hard to maintain a social life as money was tight,’ adds Jill. ‘Luxuries such as going for dinner, or even shopping and simply grabbing a coffee were very limited, as I needed the money for everyday living. I feel that having those responsibilities and managing finances was a big step for someone just out of university.
‘As this country continues to struggle, and with the housing market through the roof, I really hope something can change for my generation, so we can live to work, and not just work to live. This certainly wasn’t the path I had hoped to follow. I sometimes wonder if the pandemic hadn’t hit, whether I would still be in the position I am now, or if I would have taken a different route.’
Nevertheless, Samantha, Jill and Yi are some of the luckier ones, as ONS statistics reveal a 13% increase in the number of young people not in any form of education, employment or training (NEET) at all. At 788,000, this level hasn’t been so high since December 2020.
‘The Covid generation deserves better,’ Barry Fletcher, CEO of Youth Futures Foundation, tells Metro.co.uk. ‘The alarming 13% year-on-year rise in young people who are not earning or learning risks long-term scarring effects. Increasing mental ill health needs to be addressed urgently, alongside joining up a fragmented employment support system.’
Likewise, The Young Women’s Trust reports that 62% of young women feel their future prospects have got worse over the last six months, according to a survey of 1,015 young women aged 18 – 30 in England and Wales.
The organisation campaigns for economic justice, and is calling on the government to support young women during the cost of living crisis.
‘You just never know when the next big energy bill is coming and when things are going to skyrocket,’ adds Samantha. ‘I think people have resigned themselves to trying to take any job that gives them a steady income, even if they might be being undervalued, purely just because it offers security.’
She feels that the current economic situation is merely a continuation of the same uncertainty that robbed her of her university years.
‘I’ve had to grow up a lot faster because of the pandemic,’ she reflects. ‘I was forced to be more independent, because of all the isolation and restrictions. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position now that I can go out socially, but I know lots of people who just can’t do that. Nearly everything costs these days, so it limits the social interactions we can have as young adults.’
Meanwhile, Golo Henseke, Associate Professor at the UCL Institute of Education, believes the long-term impact of the pandemic on graduates remains to be seen.
‘At the start of the crisis, youth employment was hit harder than employment in other age groups. But regarding financial uncertainty, the cost of living crisis beats the pandemic,’ he explains.
‘One of the key takeaways is that governments can address social issues and mitigate hardship when they agree to do so. Ultimately, to help young people, the UK needs to address the persistent problems that affect youth. These include unequal opportunities and outcomes, slow productivity growth, complex and uneven options for post-16 education, or deteriorating mental health.’
Yi agrees, adding: ‘Covid took away so much of our time and our experiences. A lot of people want to fill in that gap and are now lacking social experiences and the skills gained from meeting new people. The virtual studying was simply not the same. Ultimately, I don’t think employers really took it seriously.
‘When dealing with big companies now, there is still this sense that Covid is in the past. But those two years of lockdowns really slowed down young people’s education and our employment – and we’re not back to normal.
‘I just try to remember, once you’re in a job. It’s just a starting point. Things might have been delayed, but hopefully one day, I can still make my dreams happen.’
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