Young people and workers from ethnic minorities were hit hardest at the start of COVID, but not anymore

Governments have had to take unprecedented action to control the spread of the COVID pandemic, shutting down entire sectors and encouraging many people to work from home. The UK and other countries designed new support systems for workers from scratch and deployed them within weeks.

Economists have advised governments in this task with the help of real-time data, including rapid online surveys, which have highlighted the workers most affected in the initial lockdown. For example, much attention was focused on young workers – the “COVID generation” – as they were more likely to be employed in closed sectors such as the hospitality industry and experienced the largest initial declines in employment. use.

However, early effects like these may have distorted our view of the lasting consequences of the pandemic and the policy challenges that governments will face in the months and years to come.

To get a better idea of ​​how different workers behaved and adjusted, my colleagues and I, in work funded by the Nuffield Foundation, looked at the results of a detailed survey conducted on a regular basis throughout throughout the pandemic (the “Understanding Society COVID” study, conducted by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex). In various ways, the results are different from what one might have expected earlier in the pandemic.

The challenges facing older workers

Between February and April 2020, the proportion of those aged 20 to 29 in employment fell by five percentage points more than that of those aged 30 to 49. What has received less attention, however, is that the employment prospects of these workers have recovered much faster, especially compared to workers over the age of 50. In March 2021, employment for those over 50 was 5.3 percentage points lower than pre-pandemic levels, while the equivalent rates for the 20-29 and 30-49 age groups were respectively in decrease of 1.5 and 1.3 percentage points.

Older woman in mask looking through a window
Older workers have followed a different path.
Studio Newman

This is partly due to the fact that those over 50 have adapted less quickly to new circumstances. Those under 30 who stopped working in April 2020 – either by losing their job or going on leave – were more likely than older workers to return to paid work in a new job or industry. Nearly a third of those under 30 who stopped working during the first lockdown had found work in a new industry in March 2021, compared with just 7% of those over 50.

That’s not to say we don’t have to worry about scar effects on young workers, as career changes can be disruptive. This does mean, however, that older workers have been the slowest to return to the labor market, and there remains a real risk that many will drop out altogether.

The government has introduced new programs to help young workers find jobs (including the Kickstart program). But older workers might need extra support and encouragement to keep working too.

Men versus women

Another area where first impressions can be misleading is the effects of the pandemic on men and women. Men’s jobs tend to be more exposed to the business cycle, but the 2020 pandemic recession was atypical in this regard. In the United States, for example, women are most likely to lose their jobs, and many other countries have experienced a similar situation.

This was not the case in the UK, where employment declines were comparable for men and women during the first lockdown and throughout the pandemic. The average number of hours worked per week also fell less for women than for men.

Woman repairing a motorbike
Women fared better in some ways than men.
Jia Ye / Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Does this mean fears that the pandemic would worsen gender inequalities were unfounded in the UK? Not enough. When comparing workers in similar jobs, married women with children who were working in February 2020 were more likely to have quit paid work than married men with children. The uneven distribution of increased responsibilities for childcare may partly explain this.

So, although women are not affected more in the UK in terms of overall employment or hours worked, the pandemic may still affect women unevenly and may have more important implications for their future progression. career.

Ethnic comparisons

Ethnic minorities in the UK have been doubly affected in 2020-21, being both more severely affected by the health crisis, but also more likely to lose their jobs at the start of the pandemic. Yet as the pandemic continued, employment and hours for ethnic minorities recovered faster than the white ethnic majority. By March 2021, the gap in employment rates between ethnic minorities and the white ethnic majority had fallen back to its pre-pandemic level.

Part of the reason is that ethnic minorities were more likely to change jobs. Up to 21% of workers from ethnic minorities who worked in both February 2020 and March 2021 had changed jobs, compared to 11% in the white ethnic majority.

And among those who quit paid work during the first lockdown, members of ethnic minorities were more likely to return to work with a new employer or in another industry. But again, individuals in these groups may have experienced greater career disruption, so they may experience lasting effects.

Clearly, the true effect of the pandemic on workers is more complex than one might suggest from a look at the employment numbers, often at odds with what happened in the early stages. The government will need to continue to pay close attention to the experiences of different groups in the labor market emerging from this crisis to ensure that its uneven impacts do not take hold.

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