• Men without university degrees have suffered the biggest hit to employment since COVID.
  • Following the COVID-19 lockdown, only key workers were allowed to be physically present in their workspace.
  • Unlike graduates, who were often able to “Zoom into the office” and keep working during lockdowns, non-graduates were less likely to be able to work from home.
  • Men losing their jobs continues a 40-year trend of their employment status becoming ever more precarious in the post-industrial economy.

Stay at home. That was the stark rule imposed in countries around the world when the dangers of COVID-19 became fully understood. Only “key workers” whose physical presence at the workplace was deemed crucial were supposed to go to work.

The effect on working habits was dramatic. Sectors such as hospitality and retail suffered badly, and many jobs were put at risk. Overall, though, the worst impact of the pandemic on employment in the UK has been suffered by non-graduate men.

Unlike graduates, who were often able to “Zoom into the office” and keep working during lockdowns, non-graduates were less likely to be able to work from home. Instead, firms chose to place them on furlough or laid them off altogether. Non-graduate men were about twice as likely to lose their jobs compared to non-graduate women.

Change in employment rates during the pandemic.
Change in employment rates during the pandemic.
Image: Labour Force Survey 2019

But non-graduate men losing their jobs is nothing new. In fact, it continues a 40-year trend of their employment status becoming ever more precarious in the post-industrial economy, where the manufacturing sector has declined. Their roles in processes like manufacturing production lines were either taken by machines or exported.

Why non-graduate men lost out

The record high UK employment rates seen before the pandemic hid the fact that in recent decades men have seen their employment rates fall, while women have seen theirs rise.

And it was non-graduate men that were driving these falling rates. The proportion of them in work fell from over 90% in 1980 to 75% in 2019, as can be seen below, while non-graduate women saw their employment rates increase over this period.

Long-term employment rates.
Long-term employment rates.
Image: Labour Force Survey 2019

As manufacturing jobs disappeared, non-graduates found work in service-sector jobs such as hospitality, which could not be performed by machines. Non-graduate men, however, were less adept at securing these jobs than non-graduate women.

When non-graduate men could find work, the jobs they undertook were more likely to involve manual tasks. As shown in the chart below, in 2019 non-graduate men had jobs that contained, on average, around 45% manual tasks compared to 33% for non-graduate women. These manual job tasks could not be done in person during the pandemic.

Proportion of job tasks that are manual.
Proportion of job tasks that are manual.
Image: Labour Force Survey 2019

At the same time, non-graduate men were less likely to fall into the category of key workers who continued working during the pandemic. In healthcare 75% of workers are women, while in education it’s 72% and in care work it’s 80%.

Key worker percentage
Key worker percentage
Image: Labour Force Survey 2019

Whether or not non-graduate men will be able to find work again is likely to have a profound impact for both them and society. The decline in job opportunities available to them has already had dramatic effects. Research suggests that their economic angst helped fuel the populist movements of both Brexit and Donald Trump, in the belief that these would defend and promote their relative status.

health and healthcare, COVID

How has the Forum navigated the global response to COVID-19?

One year on: we look back at how the Forum’s networks have navigated the global response to COVID-19.

Using a multistakeholder approach, the Forum and its partners through its COVID Action Platform have provided countless solutions to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, protecting lives and livelihoods.

Throughout 2020, along with launching its COVID Action Platform, the Forum and its Partners launched more than 40 initiatives in response to the pandemic.

The work continues. As one example, the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs is supporting 90,000 social entrepreneurs, with an impact on 1.4 billion people, working to serve the needs of excluded, marginalized and vulnerable groups in more than 190 countries.

Read more about the COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, our support of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemics Preparedness and Innovations (CEPI), and the COVAX initiative and innovative approaches to solve the pandemic, like our Common Trust Network – aiming to help roll out a “digital passport” in our Impact Story.

The health impact

The decline in job opportunities has also led to non-graduate men dying in far greater numbers than before. Both in the UK and the US, many who couldn’t find work over the past 30 years turned to alcohol and drugs as life became hopeless. They started to take their own lives in greater numbers as well.

In the UK, the number of middle-aged men dying from these “deaths of despair” has doubled over the past 30 years. In the US, the number has increased so rapidly, it has actually led to falling overall life expectancy.

What happens next is uncertain. The good news is that economic growth as the UK has emerged from the effects of the pandemic has led to falling unemployment. The bad news is part of the reason unemployment has fallen is because more than 150,000 people have stopped looking for work because they have retired or are sick.

Less educated workers find it harder to re-enter the labour market when they leave. It is likely that the UK’s economic recovery will also slow down in 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 not be a matter just of employment, but of survival.