New research reveals unequal impact of the pandemic on young people

Thursday, 20 August 2020

New research by the directors of the Newcastle Youth Studies Network, Drs Julia CookSteven Threadgold, David Farrugia and Julia Coffey, has revealed the extent of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people working in the hospitality sector.

Image of closed cafe

The study highlights the uneven way the economic impact of the pandemic has been felt, even among the most affected age group. Read the full report.

Members of the Network interviewed and collected digital data from 32 young people working in the service economy in Newcastle and Melbourne and asked them to document the impact of coronavirus on their lives. The participatory digital portion of the study included 2 weeks of online posts from each of the participants about the impact of the pandemic on their lives.

These posts included pictures of kitchen tables turned into desks, local areas emptied of people, and reflections on the far-reaching meaning of losing work. The research team have collated their responses which provides detailed insight into the major upheavals the pandemic has caused in young hospitality workers lives.

Dr Cook says that while young people tend to suffer less physical ill health from COVID-19, the results of this study emphasises their unique vulnerability to the social and economic impacts of the global pandemic due to their overrepresentations in precarious work and housing situations.

“Young people are overrepresented in sectors such as retail and hospitality which are highly casualised and require face to face interaction, meaning that they have been profoundly impacted by the impact of the virus on the service economy,” Dr Cook said.

Across a 4 week period in May – June 2020, when lockdowns were beginning to ease, participants were interviewed about the impact of the virus on their employment, housing conditions, how they responded to this impact, where they are got their information from about both the pandemic and their work and housing rights, and how their wellbeing was impacted as a result.

The study found that the participants’ ability to cope with the loss of work during the pandemic was mediated by the degree of family support that they could access, with some experiencing the pandemic as an inconvenience while others experienced it as a severe threat to their ability to meet their basic needs.

“While some participants responded to the lack of work by falling back on family support and focusing on study or exercise, others struggled to meet their immediate financial needs, and were forced into even more precarious work and unpredictable working situations. In this, the pandemic exacerbated inequalities connected with class and visa status that structure the hospitality labour force and the overall landscape of precarity that young workers experience,” Dr Threadgold said.

Those in relatively secure economic circumstances and who were either already living with family or were able to return to the family home generally had relatively ambivalent experiences of the pandemic, and of the shutdown more specifically. While they reflected on the anxieties and stresses of losing work and the pandemic in general, they also spoke about the comforts of moving back with family or having some ‘me time’, a break from their usual busy lives.

At the other end of the scale, those who were unable to rely on financial support from family endured wait times of over two months for income support payments, exacerbating experiences of anxiety and distress. Those on international student visas who couldn’t access government support were even more vulnerable, often relying on donations from the community to support their basics needs or turning to dangerous and even more precarious employment.

Dr Coffey says puts it this way: “The most severe and detrimental implications of the pandemic and resulting economic crisis have evolved along fault lines of precarious employment and inequality that pre-dated it, causing the most severe consequences for those who were already most vulnerable to them.”

Young workers felt largely disempowered in their negotiations with employers as their venues re-opened, and the exploitative conditions prevalent throughout the industry became increasingly visible.

“These negotiations of entitlements occurred in ways that reflected their employers’ own unpredictable response to the pandemic, including re-establishing relationships with employers to access particular shifts and hours, and dealing with employer decisions about which workers would remain employed from a position of relative disempowerment,” Dr Farrugia said.

Overall, most participants did not envision the pandemic as completely changing their future trajectories, with most noting delays to their plans rather than feeling the need to completely reinvent themselves or their future path.

“For the more privileged participants, the COVID enforced lockdown and either loss of job or having their hospitality job put on hold meant that they could reassess their plans for the future or start to do concrete things to put those plans into place. For those struggling without financial or family support, the future seems a long way off, but an ever-present affective threat adding to the stresses of the here and now,” Threadgold said.

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