stay at home. This was a strict rule implemented in countries around the world when the dangers of COVID-19 were fully understood. Only “key workers” whose physical presence at the workplace was considered important were to go to work.
The effect on working habits was dramatic. Sectors like hospitality and retail were badly hit and many jobs were at risk. Overall, however, the worst impact of the pandemic on employment in the UK has been non-graduating men.
Unlike graduates, who were often able to “zoom in the office” and keep working during the lockdown, non-graduates were less likely to be able to work from home. Instead, firms opted to keep them on furlough or discontinue them altogether. Non-graduating men were almost twice as likely to lose their jobs than non-graduating women.
But losing jobs to non-graduating men is nothing new. In fact, this 40-year trend of their employment status in a post-industrial economy, where the manufacturing sector has declined, is becoming more precarious. Their role in processes such as the construction of production lines was either taken over by machines or exported.
Why Non-Graduating Men Lose
The record high UK employment rate seen before the pandemic hid the fact that in recent decades men have seen their employment rates decline, while women have seen their rise.
And it was non-graduating men who were driving these falling rates. Their proportion in work fell from 90% in 1980 to 75% in 2019, as can be seen below, while non-graduate women saw their employment rates increase over this period.
As manufacturing jobs disappeared, non-graduates found work in service-sector jobs such as hospitality, which could not be done by machines. However, non-graduating men were less skilled at securing these jobs than non-graduating women.
When non-graduating men could find work, they were more likely to include manual tasks in the work they did. As shown in the chart below, non-graduating men accounted for an average of about 45% of manual tasks in 2019, compared to 33% for non-graduate women. These manual work tasks could not be done in person during the pandemic.
At the same time, non-graduate men were less likely to fall into the ranks of key workers who continued to work during the pandemic. In health care 75% are women, while in education it is 72% and in care work it is 80%.
Whether or not non-graduating men will be able to find work again is likely to have a profound impact on both them and society. The decline in job opportunities available to them has already had a dramatic effect. Research shows that his economic anger helped fuel the populist movements of both Brexit and Donald Trump, in the belief that these would protect and promote their relative position.
Non-graduate men are also dying in greater numbers than ever before due to declining job opportunities. In both the UK and the US, many people who have not found work in the past 30 years have turned to alcohol and drugs as life became hopeless. They also started taking their own lives in large numbers.
In the UK, the number of middle-aged men dying from these “deaths of despair” has doubled in the past 30 years. In the US, the numbers have risen so rapidly, it has actually dropped overall life expectancy.
What happens next is uncertain. The good news is that economic growth in the UK from the effects of the pandemic has led to a drop in unemployment. The bad news is that unemployment is low because more than 150,000 people have stopped looking for work because they’re retired or sick.
It is harder for less educated workers to re-enter the labor market when they leave. It is likely that the UK’s economic recovery will also slow over the next year as the government spends less money supporting it. Whether non-graduate men are able to find work in the post-pandemic economy will be a matter of survival, not just employment.