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Hieronymus Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch

Why more and more young people feel trapped in jobs they hate

Youth employment rates have stabilised since 2020 – but many of us are still struggling in the post-pandemic job market

Stating that the pandemic has had life-altering effects on Gen Z is like saying that water is wet. From the worsening mental health crisis, to the lack of graduate prospects, to adolescents feeling ‘stunted’, it’s clear that COVID has had a devastating impact on almost every aspect of our lives.

For those of us who graduated in 2020 and 2021, entering the workforce in a ‘post-COVID’ world has been a minefield to navigate. I spent the better part of the last three years on autopilot, unwilling to waver from my goal of graduating, getting a job and then moving out. And while I did graduate and move out, I didn’t get a job immediately – which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that employment for those aged between 16-24 decreased by 156,000 between May and June of 2020

Things changed in August of 2021, when at last, an offer – for an underpaid position at a media company – came my way. I took the job immediately, mainly to forgo the nights of job hunting and instability, but also because working for said company felt like I was finally beginning my budding writing career.

But it wasn’t plain sailing. The job wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and I felt pressured into coming back to work after a period of sick leave. Quitting didn’t feel like an option with soaring living costs. Whenever I attempted to find a new job, opportunities began slipping through my fingers due to the amount of competition, and very quickly I gave up on the idea of being able to progress outside of my role. I was miserable, but that didn't matter as long as I kept up the charade of smoothly transitioning into adulthood.

I’m not alone, either: when speaking to freelance film programmer and curator, Christina, she expressed to me that this became increasingly stressful as she wound up fighting time itself. Instead of being 21 or 22 and applying for schemes in the film industry, she’s now 24 – nearly 25 – and ageing out of the eligibility requirements many of these entry-level schemes hold. “It’s like I have lost time through no fault of my own. How is that even fair? It just feels like I've been cheated out of it,” she explains.

A notable amount of 2020 and 2021 graduates also signed up for ‘panic Masters’ degrees due to newfound spare time and a lack of job opportunities. This was the case for journalist Sabrina: she tells me that she wasn’t sure if this trajectory would have occurred if not for COVID, as she felt increased pressure to enhance her CV in order to get a job.

Like me, Sabrina eventually got a job – but her experience was hellish. It was only when she was denied permission to work from home a few days a week – a request she’d made due to her fear of exposing her mother to COVID – that she realised how selfish her employers were.

“One of the editors referred to people that wanted to work from home as ‘snowflakes’, and said that if they didn't want to come back into the office they would have to reconsider their jobs,” she says. “I'm pretty sure that's illegal, but it felt like there was a real fear of losing your job.” This is all too familiar to me. I faced a similar situation at my previous job: the knowledge that you’ve been given a stellar opportunity to work and have a safety net (no matter how small) means you’re racked with guilt when you think about leaving.

Sabrina has since left her old job, but her experience still affected her. She explains that given the instability of the job market, she felt pressured to stay there far longer than she would’ve liked.

It was once thought by some that COVID would be a great leveller and pave the way towards a more egalitarian society – but Professor David Spencer from the University of Leeds says that in reality, the opposite has happened. “COVID has revealed and embedded economic inequality. The prospect is that this inequality will get worse as the government looks to cut public spending”, says Dr Spencer. “The recovery has seen wages lag behind inflation, leading to a cost of living crisis. Those on benefits have been particularly hard hit, as have those in the public sector who have faced pay freezes.”

Not only that, but we’ve also recently seen public policy change to aid the rich with tax cuts, as well as those who suffer from long COVID finding themselves without the support they need. Those of us who choose to leave jobs we no longer enjoy are seen as lazy or unemployable. Additionally, new research from the Prince’s Trust has uncovered that 51 per cent of young people feel that their aspirations for the future are lower now, as a result of the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis. 

Much like Sabrina, I also eventually quit my job. I fretted about the new gap in my CV, but I just couldn’t fathom working for a company that wouldn’t let me have more than four sick incidents in a year. I spent the following month packing up my stuff, spending whatever savings I had on moving home – which led to me going back on Universal Credit to get by.

I feared that due to my foolish choice to give up on work my life would implode – but it never did. The world continued to rotate, and I was finally off autopilot. I could now think about what I wanted to spend my life doing. At the moment I don’t have a definite career in mind, but I’m finding myself writing more and within the past two months I feel much more at ease than I have been for the last year. My friends tell me that I seem like myself again, and that’s something I don’t want to lose – especially not for a job. 

When I think back to myself in 2019, I wonder if I would’ve come to this understanding if COVID hadn’t happened. Maybe I could’ve spent less time worrying about the future and more time discovering myself – but I guess we’ll never know.