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Are graduates doomed? University leavers face uncertainty that may blight their entire professional careers

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

September 29, 2020   5 mins

This is quickly turning into a lost year for many of us, a suffocating interregnum between normality and whatever semblance of our old lives we can claw back in 2021. Until there is an effective vaccine for Covid-19 — or at least until effective anti-viral treatments are able to reduce its impact on vulnerable populations — there is unlikely to be any return to the life we took for granted a mere six months ago.

This paralysing lack of certainty means carefully laid career plans have gone out the window. Owen Griffiths, a graduate who recently achieved a first in his degree at Bournemouth University, had a job lined up at a communications company but he tells me the employer “pulled the plug last minute because of budgetary uncertainties”. He has since sent off more than 150 applications and had numerous interviews for PR/public affairs firms. But so far to no avail.

Graduating during a recession can leave a lasting impact. According to the Brookings Institute, the combined graduate classes of 2008, 2009 and 2010 in the United States lost more than $330 billion in earnings over the 10 years following the global banking crash. On average, workers who graduate into recessions have lower earnings and worse professional prospects than their peers who finish university during better times.

My personal story resembles that of many other millennials. I went to university during the great expansion of higher education in the mid-2000s. I entered university during a time of boundless economic optimism when Tony Blair’s New Labour government had proclaimed an end to “boom and bust”. And yet, a few years later I emerged from university into the biggest recession since the Second World War. The subsequent wage slump saw workers taking home less pay in real terms than they had when Blair won his second general election victory in 2001. Between 2008 and 2013, the real median hourly wage for 25-to 29-year-old UK graduates fell by just under 20%.

Moreover, while increasing numbers of people are going to university — in 2017/18, 50.2% of English 17- to 30-year-olds had participated in higher education — the median wage differential between graduates and school-leavers has stayed at around 35% for the past 20 years, leaving some, such as the writer David Goodhart, to question whether university is the best career route for many young people. As Goodhart writes in his new book, Head, Hand Heart, some young people who end up taking obscure subjects at second-rate universities “are not suited to higher education and would do better going straight into jobs”.

After finishing university myself, I managed to secure my first journalism jobs off the back of dozens of painstaking applications. There were nearly 70 graduates competing for each vacancy at the time and I felt more than a little lucky. Like many others of my generation, I spent the proceeding years accumulating a modest material stake in society. By the final three months of 2019, average weekly pay for British workers adjusted for inflation had risen to £512 — the highest since March 2008. But the rising tide did not lift all boats at an equal rate. Pay for workers in their thirties remained at 7% below the pre-crisis peak in 2019.

With hindsight, perhaps workers such as me should have been more grateful. Just two months into the new decade and Covid-19 was surreptitiously spreading among the British population. Six months on and Britain is tentatively leaving a recession so severe that it is without historical precedent. With winter approaching and further lockdowns on the cards, we don’t yet know whether the economy has hit rock bottom. And with so much economic uncertainty in the air, students are having to reassess their futures as graduate schemes are postponed or cancelled.

“I had secured myself a good position in a graduate programme but because of the current economic circumstances around Covid-19, my position was cut,” one recent graduate tells me.

The graduate, who asked to remain anonymous, says he lives in one of Scotland’s “most impoverished council areas, Inverclyde, and so [the] general outlook around here is pretty poor”. He’s since taken up a temporary job as a customer service adviser because he has a young son — “so being out of work just isn’t an option”. He tells me he is “really not enjoying it” and is considering applying for work at a nearby Amazon warehouse.

Elsewhere, jobs that would have attracted perhaps a dozen applications before the pandemic are today attracting thousands of job-seekers as unemployment climbs (the biggest rise in unemployment so far has been among 16- to 24-year-olds, 76,000 more of whom are unemployed compared to 2019). This figure is expected to rise significantly as furlough finishes at the end of October.

Every graduate I spoke to for this piece had seen offers of work placements vanish since the start of the year. Sabrina Miller, a journalism graduate who at the beginning of 2020 had several work experience placements lined up, has seen them all cancelled.

“I’m nervous about the fact that I haven’t had much work experience,” she tells me, “and nervous about the uncertainty and instability in the print journalism industry at the moment.”

Sabrina is realistic about the situation but disappointed nonetheless. “People are dying, I’m not pretending that graduates have it worse at the moment,” she admits. “[But] it’s annoying and frustrating for people on the bottom rungs.”

Previous recessions bear out the lasting damage downturns can do to a person’s long-term career and earnings prospects. As the Resolution Foundation recently noted about the aftermath of the 2008 crash, “many of those who entered the labour market during the crisis have seen their pay packets permanently scarred”.

In contrast to the politics of a decade ago, there seems to be a broader consensus today among policymakers about the need for the government to make fiscal interventions to shore up the flailing economy. The austerity approach that followed the 2008 crash had already gone out of fashion by the time of the 2016 Brexit referendum, replaced by a new awareness in Westminster about the plight of the ‘left-behinds’ in the provinces.

Covid-19 has ripped up what remained of the old neo-liberal economic consensus — though what will replace it we do not yet know. However it seems likely, as I wrote for UnHerd in June, that the post-Covid landscape will resemble the post-World War Two era more than the economic status quo born of the 2008 recession. Boris Johnson has already promised that workers will not face another round of austerity in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Another major difference between the class of 2011 (the year in which I graduated) and the class of 2020 is the crippling uncertainty facing today’s cohort of graduates. Even during the worst days of the 2010s when Eurozone economies teetered on the brink, there was a sense that normalcy would soon return in the form of economic growth.

The resultant inability to plan ahead has arguably contributed to a rise in mental health problems among Britons of all ages since lockdown began in the Spring. Young people are being blamed for the recent spike in coronavirus cases. Yet it is the young who are arguably making the greatest sacrifice in putting their prime years on hold for the sake of older generations who enjoyed those same opportunities — unencumbered by draconian lockdowns — in the past. According to a recent study, young people, women and those with young children, saw their mental health worsen the most during the recent lockdown.

“There’s no sense of progression. I think the stagnation has really, really hurt a lot of people,” says Owen Griffiths when I ask how his friends have been coping.

To the government’s credit, Johnson has promised to help young people with a £2 billion scheme to get them into jobs. This represents a welcome break with the policies of the previous decade when it felt at times as if slogans such as ‘The Big Society’ were deployed to offload problems back onto local communities.

But for the graduates I spoke to it is the prevailing uncertainty that’s having such a brutal impact on wellbeing as we head into winter.

“I’m not fussed about not being able to make enough money to live on,” says Thomas Hollands, a 2019 graduate who was furloughed from his consulting job in March and who tells me he’s been doing “various random things” since then to bring in a modest income.

“The thing that stresses me out is not being able to see three or six months into the future. That’s the scary thing. You’re looking forward and there’s nothing.”

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.


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