The socioeconomic effects of COVID-19 have infiltrated all areas of UK society. The Greater London Authority reports that the number of Londoners claiming universal credit has more than doubled since March 2020, and in the three months leading to September 2020, there were 314,000 redundancies across the country: the highest figure since records began.
The impact of the pandemic on graduates and students has been particularly tough. Students are paying rent for rooms they're unable to live in, incurring debt and dealing with mental health crises. For graduates, many of whom have had to move back in with their parents (it's estimated that a third of adult children have moved back home due to the pandemic), it is the jobseeking process that's taking its toll.
Almost every prospective student goes through that existential dread upon applying to university: Will this degree land me a job? The marketisation of the university system means that applicants are increasingly concerned about league tables and graduate employment rates. Postgraduate job prospects are a distant worry when you're filling out that UCAS application but the closer to graduation you get, the heavier that worry becomes.
The struggle to find jobs after graduation was already a big issue, with low-paying or unpaid internships favouring graduates from wealthy backgrounds, stagnant wages and huge student loans making saving to move to an expensive city with suitable jobs a daunting prospect. Nevertheless, according to government statistics, the graduate employment rate in 2019 was 87.5%. After the onset of COVID-19, the World Bank reported that the global economy was about to enter the deepest recession since World War Two and graduate jobs site Milkround reported that just 18% of graduates would find work in 2020, compared to 60% the previous year.
With many companies letting staff go, putting them on furlough or implementing hiring freezes, students who graduated in 2020 (and soon 2021) have had their job prospects seriously hampered. The Institute For Fiscal Studies (IFS) confirms it: "Experience from previous recessions tells us that graduates will be less likely to find work." This problem isn't going away once we're all vaccinated either: the IFS anticipates that the financial impact of COVID-19 could persist for 10 years. Meanwhile the Office for National Statistics reports an increase in the overall unemployment rate between October and December 2020, with the average for graduates the highest at 6.2%. It reached a high of 12% between July and September.
Many people seeking jobs head straight to websites such as LinkedIn, Glassdoor and The Dots. Designed to make the jobseeking process more accessible, collaborative and transparent, some graduates are finding that using these social media-like platforms, where users post about their successes, is adding to their stress. From constantly refreshing the jobs page in the hope of finding that dream grad scheme or internship to endlessly scrolling the app late into the night like Twitter or Instagram, it’s easy for graduate jobseekers to fall prey to the comparison trap.
Sophie, who went to the University of Sheffield, totally relates to this. Graduating in summer 2020, she says: "I began searching in October 2020. I spent ages each day saving jobs, feeling disheartened when I could see that over 300 people had applied. Most I never heard back from. I definitely compared myself to others." Speaking to friends, she realised she wasn't alone. "A few of my friends went through a similar process, so we could lean on each other for support."
Many graduates have jumped at the chance for any job. Ally*, who graduated from Cardiff in 2020, says: "After a number of applications, I was lucky to land an internship that offered me a full-time job after. I was so over-eager, knowing how difficult the dwindling job market was." After three months however, she's realised that it's far from the right role for her. "I’m still here. I’ve applied to countless roles and I hope to find something that would fit me better."
The stress of jobseeking during COVID-19 is no doubt contributing to the already fraught mental health of graduates. Mind reports that 73% of people aged 18 to 24 expressed that their mental health declined during lockdown. Jacob, who graduated from Swansea in 2019, lost his job as a writer after the first week of lockdown. "I was prescribed two weeks of sick leave relating to mental health struggles. Losing this job immediately after was one of the lowest points in my life. I used LinkedIn, Cision Jobs and Journo Resources to no avail. Grad schemes were scarce."
Jacob makes a conscious effort to stay away from social media-like jobseeking sites now. "Scrolling and seeing people either get new jobs or post disingenuous motivational messages was just too much. I found myself comparing myself all the time."
Confidence coach Olivia James advises that jobseekers treat the social media parts of careers sites with the same caution with which we're learning to treat other social media platforms. "People often share successes and not their failures, so it’s easy to get a skewed impression. Don’t believe everything you see online."
In order to build a healthy relationship with job hunting, Olivia recommends setting realistic targets for the time you spend on applications. Telling yourself you'll spend all day looking for a job is an easy way to feel like you've failed as soon as you take a break. "Set realistic targets for time spent on applications. Focus on your process, not results. Track your activities on a piece of paper or your phone, as this will give you a sense of achievement." She also recommends giving yourself other activities to centre your day around. "Volunteering is an excellent mood-booster and can help give meaning to your life while you are job hunting."
She acknowledges the one-sided nature of jobseeking. Spending hours sending out applications only to receive nothing back can be hurtful. For those who get further down the line and secure an interview, it's a sad reality that some companies aren't great at following up. "Without feedback, it’s easy to feel rudderless," she sympathises but suggests building your careers network to facilitate that feedback elsewhere. "Talk to people. Prioritise self-care. Exercise, nature, connection and meaningful conversations are all essential. Ask for help: get a mentor." Instead of using social media-like job sites to follow people your own age, follow people five or 10 years ahead of you, people with careers you'd like to have, people who give out useful advice. Drop them a message and interact with their posts – you never know, they might take you under their wing.
As the vaccination programme is wheeled out and lockdown begins to lift in the UK, there are reasons to stay positive. The job market might be reeling from COVID-19 for years to come but the way we work is rapidly changing too and with change comes opportunity. So continue applying to jobs and growing your network but don't feel guilty for taking a break. Remember: when you're reading others' posts about career successes you're not seeing the dark times they almost certainly experienced while getting there. With a bit of luck, hopefully it won't be too long before you're penning your own success story.
*Name has been changed for the purpose of anonymity