Coronavirus pandemic job losses shift from youth in hospitality to white-collar professionals
Since being made redundant in March, legal assistant Sinead Simpkins has applied for 600 jobs.
“It’s extremely hard and very damaging to my self-esteem,” she said.
“I will often just feel very depressed because, although I want to work, it’s virtually impossible for me to work simply because the jobs aren’t there.
“I want to earn a living and I simply can’t do that anymore.”
The bad news for jobseekers is more people can expect to share Ms Simpkins’ experience.
Job losses at the start of the coronavirus pandemic were linked to enforced closures necessary to stem the spread of the virus.
Restaurants, gyms and theatres were forced to close. Airlines and the travel sector virtually stopped due to international and state borders closing.
Now redundancies are spreading to the broader economy, with sectors including accounting, retail and the media shedding thousands of jobs.
Brendan Rynne, chief economist at consulting firm KPMG Australia, said the latest workforce data showed young people had borne the brunt of job losses since the pandemic, but that was now changing.
“Something like 450,000 of the [800,000 initial] job losses were associated with people under 30,” Dr Rynne said.
“Now it’s moving into the older workforce.
“The concern there is it’s a high-skill older workforce that are losing their jobs at greater rates than the other skill levels for the same ages.”
As an example, KPMG Australia and the ABC are themselves among the large white-collar employers currently reducing the size of their workforces.
It is an echo of a difficult past.
In Australia’s last recession, in 1991, unemployment hit 11 per cent and did not return to its previous level for almost a decade.
That downturn slammed older workers. Many, like Robert Heywood, never worked full time again.
His son Jeremy Heywood remembers the time vividly.
“My dad was in his early to mid-40s, like I am now. He was a graphic artist, like I am,” he said.
“He got made redundant in the 1991 recession and never worked in the industry again. He was going to job interviews with the people … he used to manage.”
Young people carry recession’s scars
The scars economic downturns leave on the lives and careers of young people are real.
They are confirmed in a new report from the Federal Government’s economic think-tank, the Productivity Commission. The report, Climbing the jobs ladder slower: Young people in a weak labour market, suggests this crisis will reshape the workforce, just as previous downturns have.
Examining the decade after the global financial crisis, it found the careers of younger workers were “scarred”.
“From 2008 to 2018, young people had more difficulty getting jobs in the occupations they aspired to. And, if they started in a less attractive occupation, it was even harder than before 2008 to climb the occupation ladder,” it said.
“This suggests that poor initial opportunities could have serious long-term consequences.”
The data in the report pre-dates the COVID-19 recession, but the report said its findings were “of heightened salience in our present circumstances” because many young people were unemployed and were “likely to face a reduced set of job opportunities” because of it.
The scars are deep. After the global financial crisis, employment for people aged under 35 recovered within five years. But it was at lower pay, with more casual work and fewer stable full-time positions.
“Workers aged 20-34 experienced nearly zero growth in real wage rates from 2008 to 2018, and workers aged 15-24 experienced a large decline in full-time work and an increase in part-time work,” the report observed.
Jeremy Heywood has been living through that tough decade. He lost his job in the previous crisis and has struggled for work since.
“Even the three jobs I have had has since, the first one was on 50 per cent of the wages. The closest I got was about 75 per cent,” he said.
“[It’s] nowhere near the financial level I was on.”
Mr Heywood’s former colleagues have endured lower pay, worse conditions and weak job prospects.
KPMG Australia’s Dr Rynne said the impact would be lasting.
“The issue is going to be how the scarring plays out, on what skill levels different young people have.”
Working from home could favour tech-savvy young people
More grim news could be coming.
The nation’s enforced period of working from home has turbo-charged the use of technology in workplaces. One of the side-effects is that some companies will find they can work at the same rate with radically fewer staff.
“That’s clearly a risk, and it’s obviously a risk the [Federal] Government is worried about as well,” Dr Rynne said.
“The whole design of the JobKeeper [wage subsidy] package is trying to keep businesses with their staff.
“The moment you make it easier for them to break that connection, the harder it is going to be for people to find those jobs back in the workforce.”
For jobseekers, there are no easy answers. Ms Simpkins cannot see herself owning a home or paying off the HECS debt she incurred when gaining multiple degrees.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be buying a house for my children to live in,” she said.
“I’ll be renting. I’ll be struggling just to gain steady employment.”