Raymond Christie is having sleepless nights. The 18-year-old is worrying about how difficult it will be to find work opportunities as he anticipates an upcoming recession. Christie left school at 16 with no qualifications and went into training on a construction scheme that went into administration during the pandemic. Since then, he has had to rely on his family for financial support.
“My mental health has never been as bad as it has been over the last few months since my mid-teens,” he says. “Losing my place in something that I really enjoyed doing and the overwhelming feeling of uncertainty has made me struggle with deep moods of depression and boredom. Most days, I don’t want to do anything or get up from my bed and I find it hard to motivate myself with nothing to do.”
Christie is not alone in being so worried. The debt charity StepChange has noticed an increase in the proportion of younger age groups accessing its website looking for information about the coronavirus. The proportion of clients aged 18-24 was 17% online and 13% via telephone in May 2020, compared with 14% and 11% last year. Among all clients contacting the charity for the first time, under-25s were most likely to cite Covid-19 as the main cause of their debts. “Financial pressure is a horrible feeling at any time but when you’re young it can hold you back from taking the steps you might want to take to progress your career and your life,” StepChange’s Sue Anderson says.
Papyrus, a charity for the prevention of suicide among the young, told Guardian Money it also had an increase in calls, texts and emails from young people sharing their fears about a loss of income or job. It started shortly after lockdown, with a surge in late May and early June. However, Papyrus emphasised that suicide is a complex issue and is seldom the result of a single factor.
Work experience placements and internships have been cancelled, and many of the casual jobs have disappeared
Dr Marianne Trent, a clinical psychologist, says it is not surprising if people are feeling anxious or despondent as a result of falling incomes. “The financial and lifestyle changes as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have the potential to be massively destabilising for people,” she says. The lockdown of social venues and the barring of visits to friend’s houses have made things worse, she adds, as “many of us have previously had a big focus on activities outside the family home to activate our self-soothing systems”.
With increasing levels of precarious employment, unaffordable housing and higher tuition fees, young people have little discretionary income to put towards savings. Work experience placements and internships have been cancelled, and many of the casual jobs young people and students take on have disappeared. Those that do still exist are being competed for like never before – recently a Manchester restaurant received almost 1,000 applications for a receptionist job it advertised.
According to the Resolution Foundation thinktank, 23% of employees aged 18-24 were furloughed during lockdown and a further 9% lost their jobs completely, while among 35 to 44-year-olds, 15% were furloughed or lost their jobs.
Research from the website MoneySavingExpert found that the number of 18- to 24-year-olds claiming Universal Credit or Jobseeker’s Allowance doubled in the UK in the last three months.
As Christie thinks about his future, he feels: “There is no direction for me going forward.” He says he worries about what he will do next and “How I am going to get myself back into the working world scares me.” He remembers the shock when he found out he was being made redundant. “There was a clear path for me. I knew what I was going to be doing and I was enjoying it and it all sort of disappeared.”
Max Topliss, aged 23, was working in theatre when his income suddenly went to nil in lockdown. He is working at Tesco until the entertainment industry reopens.
With rent and bills to pay, he was having sleepless nights as he searched for supermarket or delivery jobs. “Just having that constant fear until I was lucky enough to secure a job; the fear of if I don’t make the rent, what happens?”
Topliss worries it will be hard to go back after working regular hours at Tesco with a reliable income and has even considered a career change. “I think the arts were slowly making progress towards more representation of diversity on stage and screen,” he says. “That’s going to go out the window a little bit.” He worries that people like him will be expected to take up free work to get their foot back in the door.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
Case study: the politics student turning to the gig economy
Madison Plumridge, aged 20, is a politics undergraduate at the University of Glasgow. She would usually spend her summer holiday bartending at her local pub and working as an administrative assistant to develop her skills and enhance her future career prospects. The jobs mean she does not have to rely on the maximum maintenance loan that she is entitled to. With neither of these available this year, she is spending her summer as a delivery cyclist for Uber Eats. So far she has made much less money than usual and worries she will need to take out more of her maintenance loan for the next academic year and put herself in more debt.
“Accumulating so much debt and interest does weigh me down,” she says. “I wonder how long I’ll be paying this back. I wonder how long it will take for me to be independent and no longer having to fork out thousands of pounds a month to pay back loans rather than putting that towards a house or something else substantial.”
With the reopening of restaurants and the offer of 50% discounts on eating out in August, Plumridge is fearful that as “food delivery work is slowing down, many delivery drivers will be out of work”. Drivers for food delivery platforms earn their money per delivery. “It’s not like retail, where even if it was a slow Saturday, I would still have a shift. If there are no orders, you’re not going to make any money. And it means I just won’t make as much as I would ordinarily in a summer.” With little certainty in sight, she fears “coronavirus will create a whole generation of young workers stuck in the gig economy, with no job security, career prospects or even the basics like sick pay or a minimum wage”.
Expert advice: maximise your income – and hold off anxiety
Johnny Rich, the chief executive and founder of Push, which helps young people find jobs and training opportunities, says students should:
• Maximise income – get as much as you are entitled to, such as grants or bursaries, as not all universities advertise the financial assistance for which you are eligible.
• Make money on the side, clear things out and sell on eBay, and look for jobs that are appearing because of the pandemic.
• Minimise outgoings – live in university-owned accommodation, not private halls.
• If you are not expected to live on campus and can commute there, consider living at home.
• Plan and budget – get advice from your parents or guardians and/or use budgeting apps.
• If you are in trouble, seek help. Universities will have a hardship fund, stay in contact with your bank and keep it updated on your circumstances because it is likely to be sympathetic in extending further finance if it is kept in the loop. Look for agencies that provide free financial advice.
Paula Gardner, a careers psychologist and the founder of Redundancy Recovery Hub, suggests young people:
• Talk with your parents or guardians about moving back in or suspending your rent in return for you doing jobs around the house.
• Keep a journal of your worries.
• Take regular walks with a friend.
• Visit your GP if anxiety is keeping you stuck – they may be able to refer you to cognitive behaviour therapy for free.
• Set aside a specific time in the day when you can worry. If you start spiralling, tell yourself you will think about that at 4pm. Often when 4pm comes and you have the permission to worry, you won’t need it so much.