'It chips away at your self-esteem': Australia's newly unemployed struggle in pandemic's barren job market

Michael McGowan
·8-min read

At a job interview for a bottle shop attendant in Melbourne two weeks ago, Finley Brentwood asked his interviewers how many other applicants had submitted a resumé.

“They both kind of just laughed and shook their heads,” he told Guardian Australia this week. “It was like, ‘you wouldn’t even comprehend’.”

In the same week, Miriam Adams-Schimminger, of Fitzroy North, applied for a job as an office administrative assistant. She received a notification telling her she was one of 613 applicants.

“It was just a basic entry-level job, the pay wasn’t good and it was a long way from where I live. I didn’t hear back.”

Owen Alexander, a recent law graduate who lives in Flemington in Melbourne’s inner city, went for a position in a call centre for the Australian Tax Office. He was told they had received about 5,000 applicants, and didn’t get the job.

Related: 'I feel I will never get another job': Australian readers on searching for work in the Covid recession

“It really makes you start to feel bad about yourself,” he says. “You’re reading job descriptions for things you don’t actually want to do, knowing the pay is terrible, knowing you’re probably not even going to get an interview.

“It constantly chips away at your self-esteem. It’s probably been the hardest part of this lockdown. Earlier on you might have thought things were going to get better, but now you sort of wonder. It’s hard to be optimistic.”

‘You feel like you’re moving back a step constantly’

The Covid-19 pandemic has wrought previously unimaginable chaos in Australia’s economy. Since March, when state governments began announcing lockdowns amid rising case numbers, tens of thousands of jobs have disappeared as entire industries fold in on themselves.

In June, the official unemployment figure was 7.4%, already a two-decade high, and the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, admitted the figure would have been closer to 13% if not for the government’s jobkeeper program. On Thursday the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said the official figure was likely to reach 10% anyway by the end of the year, and that the effective rate would be more like 13%.

Across the country, thousands of the newly unemployed are living in the fallout of those abstract numbers. This week, the Guardian heard from dozens of them – people feeling the same fears and frustrations as they face the reality of long-term unemployment for the first time in their lives while searching for work in a barren job market.

There was the woman in Sydney’s inner west who returned from maternity leave in February, only to lose her graphic design job in March. She talked about the fear of financial insecurity coupled with a “loss of identity and no job prospects on the immediate horizon”. A temporary visa worker whose hospitality job in Darwin disappeared in March is unable to return home due to border closures. She has applied for hundreds of jobs since and received only three responses – all rejections.

And there’s the Gold Coast flight attendant. Stood down earlier this year, she has been unable to find work since, stuck in a holding pattern that has begun to take a toll on her mental health. “I am a hard worker, diligent, mature and take pride in my work,” she told the Guardian. “But my confidence has definitely taken a hit with all the rejections.”

But it’s Melbourne, with its spiralling second-wave outbreak and devastating lockdown, where the pain is being felt most keenly.

On Thursday Morrison said preliminary modelling by the Treasury department showed the combined impact of Victoria’s stage three and four restrictions would cost the economy about 2.5% worth of growth in the September quarter, leaving between 250,000 and 400,000 additional people jobless. Victoria is expected to bear about 80% of that cost.

Related: Australian women twice as likely as men to be 'discouraged workers' after Covid-19 job loss

Finley Brentwood, 29, knows all about it. The New Zealand-born musician, who has lived in Melbourne since 2014, lost his first booking in March when the Australian Grand Prix was cancelled amid the then-emerging fears of the spread of the virus. The rest of his paid bookings quickly followed. He has spent the past four months applying for hundreds of jobs, from stacking shelves in Aldi to a court stenographer. All without success.

“I pretty quickly got to the point where it was like, ‘I’m ready to do anything’,” he said. “Since March I haven’t worked a day doing anything [and] after a while your standards of what you might have said you didn’t want to do are gone. You’re sort of in a place where you’re just feeling like you’re moving back a step constantly. I think that’s everybody, though. Everybody is feeling that in some way.”

‘Every day is the same. There’s no purpose’

All the job seekers the Guardian spoke to this week described the same feelings – stress and anxiety associated with the tedious hours spent filling out applications for jobs with employers who, in most cases, will never contact them. They fear impending cuts to the jobseeker and jobkeeper programs, and, for some, a likely end to mortgage repayment freezes.

Owen Alexander, 30, finished a law degree late last year. He had planned to follow his partner to the Northern Territory after she secured a position in Darwin, and so turned down graduate offers. Then Covid-19 hit and they were both stuck in Melbourne.

The only work he has managed to secure since March has been two shifts delivering groceries for a labour hire company that sends him text messages about jobs he has 10 minutes to respond to. “I went for a run one day and missed a shift,” he said.

Queues outside a Melbourne Centrelink office during the pandemic
Queues outside a Centrelink office in Melbourne during the pandemic. Photograph: William West/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s an example of one of the worst, most stressful jobs … working in a really insecure job so people can get their groceries delivered when they want them.”

Like many the Guardian spoke to, the past few months have prompted a reckoning with his ideas about what a career might look like. Many younger, broadly middle-class Australians – raised on the idea that careers should be pursued on the basis of passion – are for the first time confronting the need to work to survive.

Eleanor Evans, 24, of Brunswick, lost her job as a research assistant in March on the same day her father and boyfriend also lost their jobs. A recent university graduate with a bachelor of arts, she and most of her friends are now wondering what to do next.

“The one nice thing about not working is I’ve been been able to think a lot about what I actually do want,” she says. “It’s no longer this ‘you can do whatever you want, follow your dreams’; it’s very much ‘what do we need? Which areas of work are going to be blossoming?’. We’re all reconsidering where the work is.”

If I wasn’t as strong-willed, I can see how a lot of people just give up

Gordon Creamer

For others later in their careers, the pandemic has meant more competition for scant positions. Gordon Creamer, 60, is an engineer who moved to Bendigo from Sydney in October last year on a short-term contract. When it was due to end early this year, he was given the impression it would be extended, until Covid-19 case numbers began to spike.

“I got a call saying, look, all unnecessary personnel are being let go,” he says.

Since then he has been looking for work in cities across Australia while staying in the same Airbnb he had booked for his stay in Bendigo.

“Every morning I wake up and have my breakfast, watch the news, have a cup of tea, go for a walk, have another cup of tea, log on, look on job websites, have lunch, look at job website, watch a bit of telly or Netflix, then I fall asleep and wake up the next day and do the same thing,” he says.

Related: Workplace insecurity pervades the whole economy, just when every job is under threat | Jeff Sparrow

“And then the next day. And the next day. Every day is the same. There’s no purpose. If I wasn’t as strong-willed, I can see how a lot of people just give up.”

When the Guardian spoke to Finley this week, he was considering returning home to New Zealand, after what he described as his “worst mental health day” following the bottle-shop interview.

“It’s not like Australia isn’t a welcoming place, but this whole thing has kind of made you yearn for a certain compassion and, with who is in government in New Zealand right now, the whole country oozes that a little bit more. And I’ve still got my mum there.

“It’s a lot easier to just have this heaviness right now, and I think it’s just out of exasperation and just, you know, everyone is over it. I’d walked out of the interview and I felt good because they’d been quite encouraging. Then I got back home and just started thinking ‘you might not get it’ or ‘I could get it but the whole situation could change again and the job will go’. That was the day I started looking at flights home.”

Then, out of the blue, he was offered a paid trial in a warehouse. When the Guardian spoke to him on Wednesday, he had done the first day.

“They basically said they have a lot of work at the moment, and asked if I could come back again tomorrow,” he said from the train station.

“Fingers crossed, I guess.”