Zero Sum Hours


Three weeks into UK Lockdown and no exit strategy is in place. The economic and mental health effects are beginning to surface with an economic recession imminent; long term economic effects will be nearly impossible to mitigate; and people are struggling with the new reality that will inevitably have severe impacts on mental health. Whilst the media attention is focused on all the above effects, there has been little attention paid to the effects this has had on university students and school leavers. A demographic that myself and my peers are classed, we have suffered as much as any other age group. Normal university lives have been cut short for final year students and abandoned for those in their first and second years; exams have been cancelled for school leavers; our part-time jobs have been cut as a majority of us work in retail, hospitality and tourism, three of the worst affected sectors of the lockdown; meaning we cannot carry on with our normal lives similar to the majority of everyone else in our society.


I agree that our problems can be dismissed given that they are not as severe as some situations that other people across the world find themselves in, but it is evident that our futures are dependent on the way in which our nation deals with the lasting economic effects of this current situation if we are to have any chance of being able to apply our very expensive degree education to a successful career. The lack of graduate jobs; not earning money to fund ourselves whilst bills continue to come out; moving back home with parents; postponed or cancelled graduation ceremonies; continuation of assessments; student debt, these are just some of the concerns that many students find themselves currently worrying more about on a daily basis than what they did previous. Reality has hit university students more than ever before and most likely not since the global financial crisis of 2007-08 have graduates faced a working world similar to the one that we are about to enter into. It has been recognized that the worst hit of all will be ‘the 18 year old school leavers and final-year university students’ who are emerging into the world of work. Everyone is aware of the fact that it will be us who will take a large proportion of the burden of this crisis, both in the short term and the long term.


The academic year of 2019/20 for most students across the UK has been ridden with uncertainty from university strikes to the current global pandemic. Our education has been significantly negatively affected and motivation for doing well at university is at its lowest for some time. Carrying on the best we can is all that we can hope for when our university lives have been turned upside down. This is also combined with the fact that our working lives have been significantly disrupted. The part-time jobs that we use to support ourselves whilst at university to pay for accommodation; for our groceries; for our education resources, have been taken away from a lot of us. We are most likely to work in sectors with the lowest earnings, meaning we are likely to be hardest hit by the lockdown and economic recession. Even with the UK government’s job retention scheme, 80% of wages when they are already low-paid and particularly when uncertain zero-hour contracts are used for students, is not much comfort. Financial concerns affect young people as much as anyone else in society with 79% of UK students surveyed in 2019 mentioning their financial situation as their main worry which has significant effects on their mental health. And that was before this crisis hit.


For me, I have worked in hospitality since I was 16 on a zero-hour contract, a job that I have loved and has been useful for me in gaining employment experience to get accepted onto internships related to my future career. Whilst I did not intend on working in this sector after university, it may have to become a reality if no graduate jobs related to my chosen career arise in the next year or so and the prospects of being able to afford postgraduate study diminish. For many students across the UK this is the actuality but working on a zero-hour contract after getting a university education is not what any student envisages upon entering higher level education. After the last financial crisis, jobs in hospitality and retail were what many students entered into after graduating but even in the aftermath of this crisis, these jobs may not be available as many businesses in these sectors will have to shut as a result of the financial shock of the pandemic.


I am grateful for the flexibility that zero-hours contracts offer students, particularly when it comes to exam and deadline season, but there are more negatives than positives. The uncertainty of income each month given no set hours have to be offered to zero-hour contract workers, means having money to pay for food whilst at university can often be difficult for many students after their rent and bills are paid for by their wages topped up by student loans. This makes finding money to put away each month into a savings account next to impossible. How then are we meant to give financial security to our futures? We cannot rely on our parents, especially if we want to gain independence in our twenties and, most likely, our parents cannot fund our lives as well as their own. At the end of the day, our security in our part-time jobs is only there when there is available work. The current crisis thus gives a new meaning to the term 'zero-hours' and having financial security is nowhere to be seen for many students.


During this unprecedented crisis, our lives are put under increased pressure just as we are trying to make our own way into the world. Like many other university students, I use my part-time job as a way of not only providing some sort of financial independence but as way of managing my time between university assignments and completing a shift meaning I am rarely ever bored and gives me a vital skill of balancing the priorities in my life. Without my part-time job, I would not have the confidence, communication or teamwork skills that I do now. Many students find purpose in their life through the jobs that they have and the education they are in. Without both in their lives during the current crisis and the anxiety of a global pandemic looming over their heads combined with difficult future prospects, it is easy to see why mental health problems and alcohol and drug addictions will likely rise. That in itself is a worrying situation and means our government will likely have to deal with another crisis in the near future the longer this pandemic and its consequential lockdown goes on for. With 83% of young people recently surveyed admitting that the crisis has made their mental health worse, it is clear that providing mental health support and resources need to continue to be funded and promoted to let young people know that there is someone they can turn to and somewhere they can go to, even if that is an online resource that will provide them comfort rather than turning to other substances or harmful ways of dealing with their worries.


It has always been said that a nation needs to invest in their future generations for it to be successful and prosperous. Never before has that applied to the current situation that we find ourselves in. The vulnerability of young adults during this crisis needs to be given attention. Graduates and school leavers are entering a very different world than the one we stepped into when starting secondary school or university. We didn’t quite imagine leaving the safety and security of education the way in which we have, which makes the world and our futures even more frightening. The lockdown exit strategy and finding a vaccine to defeat the virus will be vital for the future of every citizen of every country in the world. Uncertainty is never good for anyone of any age group and getting a timeframe for our lives to return to a degree of normality will be essential to provide the smallest bit of comfort to every citizen, not least for young people and their futures.


Although I have highlighted the detrimental effects of the crisis on young people, I believe that we have to draw attention to the reality facing us in order to change it. We have to remain optimistic that there is light at the end of the tunnel and believe that the government will have a plan that will mean lives can be saved and consequences mitigated.

Jessica Johnston is a 20 year-old final year student at Queens University Belfast studying International Studies and Politics. Her political interests include local politics, American politics and international relations.


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challenges ni

2020