What’s next for the “corona cohort”?

We are facing an unprecedented downturn. The economy is shrinking, millions are being furloughed and face losing their jobs.

For soon-to-be graduates, this is the worst time in a generation to be entering the labour market. Job offers have been withdrawn, and graduate and internship schemes have been put on hold. A recent study by the Resolution Foundation forecasts a staggering rise in youth unemployment this year, leaving some 640,000 young people out of work.  

And although Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, predicts a swift economic recovery by 2021, the effects on graduates will be severe and long-lasting. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) predicts a sombre reality for the ‘corona cohort’: “Those graduating this year can expect to find it harder to find employment and, especially, harder to find well-paid employment than did their immediate predecessors.”

This will be felt in the hospitality industry, a sector in which one in five graduates finds their first job.  Already, vacancies in this industry have shrunk by 80% from March to April, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Average earnings, too, are likely to be persistently lower for graduates for years to come. The corona cohort is staring down the barrel of long-term negative effects that may last for up to a decade. 

Since lockdown began, we have all been left in a state of uncertainty. For this year’s graduates, final year has come to an abrupt and underwhelming end. Most students haven’t set foot in a lecture hall in nearly two months, exams have migrated online, and graduation ceremonies will be virtual.

A student in a gown and a face covering holds a sign - "Class of 2020" (Christine von Raesfeld/Unsplash)
Several students’ job offers have been withdrawn and graduate schemes suspended. Photo: Christine von Raesfeld/Unsplash.

A finalist from the University of the Arts London tells me, “I’m paying for an education that consists of a handful of pixelated Zoom calls and a lack of support in general during my final term.”

Despite calls for a refund of this year’s tuition fees, graduates will enter a struggling job market with £30,000 of debt. The odds are stacked against the class of 2020. 

To make matters worse, few post-graduation plans have survived the pandemic. Emma, a student at SOAS, is due to graduate this year. She had a promising job offer from the British Council before they froze recruitment. Now, she says, “it’s nearly impossible to plan for anything when no part of the process is a sure thing.” In lieu of job opportunities, many graduates will be looking to pursue a master’s degree. But, as Emma explains, “few, if any, of the universities or organisations I’m thinking of applying to have answers on when we can expect results, how they will be able to deliver courses, or how they will deliver training for a particular position.”

At Goldsmiths, Angelica is in a similar position: “Working in isolation without the in-person support is a terrible combination for students, especially for those with preexisting mental health issues,” she tells me. As a result of the disruption caused by Covid-19, she has decided to retake her third year. Even this is a matter of uncertainty – the university cannot give any assurances on how teaching will be carried out. 

For the corona cohort, there will be no easy answers to the problems ahead. The isolation of lockdown may lead many graduates to believe that they must deal with these problems alone. Yet across the country, everyone faces similar hardships.

In a shrinking job market, it would be all too easy to see other graduates as little more than competitors. But in the coming months, this is exactly the kind of mindset that must be avoided. Mutual support, rather than competition, is the best way of overcoming the difficulties ahead. The student-led petition calling for a refund of tuition fees was a promising sign. Although it garnered more than 300,000 signatures, it was largely ignored by the government. Help from the Tory administration will unlikely be forthcoming: it will be up to graduates themselves to support one another.

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