2020: The Year That Destroyed The Career Ladder?

Amy applied for 110 jobs before landing her role as a manager at a city train station. Prior to COVID-19, she’d travelled abroad to work as a sound engineer at festivals, and worked in production at big live events venues in her home city of London. After spending months on furlough and seeing her industry decimated by the pandemic, she tells me she feels “very lucky” to have a job at all.
The 22-year-old was already used to working gruelling hours in a male-dominated industry but she describes her first few months managing a team of mostly male rail workers as “a baptism of fire”. When she was interviewed for her new role, Amy says her manager thought she was much older than 22, later telling her she has an “older persona”. As well as supervising some staff members with over fifteen years’ experience, her new gig also involves dealing with abusive customers, assisting passengers experiencing suicidal feelings and engaging with homeless people. “This time last year, I was doing a festival in Saudi Arabia, and this afternoon I was kicking a man out of the train station for swearing at me and the team,” she tells me.
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Amy says the sudden collapse of her industry and the transition to shift work has left her feeling “lost”. “I'm just trying to live for the weekends at the moment,” she explains. “Events was something that I enjoyed as a hobby and for work as well. And now that I don't have that... I don't really know what to talk about anymore, or what to do with myself.” 
Last month, as the end of the furlough scheme approached, more and more employees found themselves in a similar position to Amy, having to figure out what work they could secure using skills they’d acquired in industries which are (for the time being, at least) near-defunct. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), redundancies were at their highest level since 2009 in the three months to August, and research from the Resolution Foundation found that young people and those from ethnic minorities were more likely to be made redundant after furlough. 
While some, like Amy, have managed to make a transition from industries like events, arts, tourism and charities to less affected sectors like deliveries, healthcare and cleaning, the government has been criticised for its approach to workers whose industries are struggling. The culture secretary Oliver Dowden distanced himself from a government-backed campaign poster featuring an image of a ballet dancer with the caption “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (She just doesn’t know it yet)”, describing it as “crass” after it went viral. 
With hundreds of people applying to the same entry-level jobs, securing any kind of work - or keeping the job you have - is even more of an achievement than usual. But for young women who had previously told “you are what you do” and been encouraged to define themselves by their careers, to hustle, to be “girl bosses”, dealing with the grief of watching the sector they’ve devoted their lives to disappear, alongside the stress of losing their job and source of income, has been especially painful. 
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“One of the things that is difficult for people to figure out at the moment is how much that idea of pursuing what you wanted to do forever is really a good strategy, because there are areas that may not come back or may not come back at the same size,” says Tristram Hooley, professor of career education at the University of Derby. “A lot of people are going to have to be in a process of changing career, and perhaps giving up things that they thought might have been their career for life.”
A wider and not entirely welcome trend appears to be emerging, though. Ambition, what we aspire to and expect our jobs to be able to offer us, is being affected. Hooley points to research he conducted with the Institute of Student Employers that found that 57% of a sample of 3,000 students and recent graduates had changed their career aspirations as a result of the pandemic, with women more likely to have done so than men. “Young people always tend to do worse in recessions,” he explains. “What's particularly worrying at the moment is the transition into the workforce.” Even for those who do manage to secure a grad job, digital inductions can make things more “difficult”, says Hooley. For those unable to secure a professional gig, opportunities to earn money in hospitality instead are now much more limited.  

At the moment, pursuing what you wanted to do forever might not be a good strategy, because there are areas that may not come back or may not come back at the same size.

Tristram Hooley, professor of career education at the University of Derby
Kate Daubney, director of The Careers Group at the University of London, says students and graduates are coming to advisors with serious concerns around a “lack of opportunity”. But Daubney says these worries, while valid, need to be seen in context. “Perception and reality are not necessarily that close,” she tells me. “We're seeing more and more jobs coming back into the market all the time.” The expert explains that the graduate jobs market has about 60% of the opportunities she would see in a typical autumn term, adding: “Actually, given the financial crisis, I was quite surprised by that - I thought it would be far lower.”
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Josie* secured a job in her chosen field of video production after graduating last year but, two weeks into lockdown, her company folded. “I just didn't feel that I was employable because I was so fresh out of getting into my first job,” she says. “Just to be kicked out, straightaway, without really getting any proper experience or a name to attach myself to, I felt so underprepared.”
The 22-year-old was able to secure another job as an account manager at a creative consultancy three-and-a-half months later but she says the experience has left her “much less confident” in what she has to offer and feeling like “it could happen again”. 
For women who spent school and university being told that £27,000 in fees and sufficient hustle could bring them stability and fulfilment, there’s a lost sense of identity that comes with big changes to the jobs market. “It's very hard to remember that it’s not personal, it literally just reflects the economy at this point,” Lauren, 23, tells me of losing her job in travel management for the music industry. “Work used to be my life. I had so many extra hours, there were always things in the evening, I'd go out and meet clients - and now it's just nothing.”
After her furlough ended in August, Lauren began claiming Universal Credit and now spends 35 hours per week applying for jobs. She’s just started an unpaid work experience placement at a local supermarket through the Jobcentre, despite having five years of experience working in customer service. “It’s been nice to get back into that kind of thing and it’s quite good socially,” she says. “But I can't help but feel like, ‘Is that really going to help my CV?’” 
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During a recession and a pandemic, are the notions of fulfilment and markers of career success that are sold to graduates attainable, or even healthy? “Career ladder? I don’t know what that is anymore, to be honest,” says Amy. “It’s very hard to move up a ladder when there’s very few jobs. At the moment, I’ve just put the career thing on hold.”

There's more than one way to drive from London to Edinburgh. Most of us would like to go in the shortest possible route, and in the straightest line. But actually, when you think about some of the challenges that are coming ahead in your career, the more experiences you can have, the better and more adaptable you will be.

Kate Daubney, director of The Careers Group at the University of London
Having a rung fall out of your ‘career ladder’ doesn’t have to be the disaster that it might appear, though, advises Kate Daubney. “It's not really a linear journey, a career journey. It's more of a continuing spiral,” she explains. When I recount Amy’s story of moving from events into the rail industry, Daubney tells me the two vocations share many transferable skills. “One of those is a massive set of organisational skills, you cannot run an event or a train station without having really exceptional big-picture thinking skills, but you're also really attentive to details,” she says, adding that both share an emphasis on the “customer experience”. 
“There's more than one way to drive from London to Edinburgh,” she continues. “Most of us would like to go in the shortest possible route, and in the straightest line. But actually, when you think about some of the challenges that are coming ahead in your career - learning to be a manager, learning to deal with change, learning to deal with new strategic thinking - actually, the more different experiences that you can have, the better and more adaptable you will be.”
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“It’s been a very eye-opening job,” confirms Amy. “I've learned to deal with a lot of different groups of people and I have to think on my feet.”
Even while you’re working in a separate field, there are ways to stay connected to your long-term career ambitions if you want to, Evelyn Cotter, founder of Seven career coaching, tells me. She suggests “informational interviewing”, or asking people from your industry for a coffee or short chat for inspiration and advice. “Is there an online networking event they’re at? Is there a conference they’re speaking at online?” says Cotter. “So, when you email them, A) they may have seen you before because you might have contributed on a webinar or a talk they were at, B) you can mention that you really liked their comments in an article they did. The more familiar you make yourself to that person, the more likely they are to be motivated to help you.”
Tristram Hooley suggests that our sense of what is a desirable career path might actually shift as a result of coronavirus. “Certain caring professions have got a higher profile through the pandemic,” he says. “I think one of the things that's clear is, at least for the moment, the public sector is quite a good place to be.”
Occasionally abusive customers and 5:30am starts may not have been the dream but Amy is sanguine about her day-to-day. “Some of the team I'm still trying to crack and sometimes I have to have difficult conversations with people - but it's nothing I can't handle,” she says. More than that, she feels that what she is learning now will serve her in the future, wherever she ends up: “One day is never the same as the next, I can say that much. And I always come home with some stories.”

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