*name has been changed for privacy
Being a student comes with many insecurities, but has work become the biggest one in the wake of the pandemic? I’m not talking about the abyss of anxiety provided by finding a role post-graduation, but rather the work we do now to survive being a student.
Even after receiving a student allowance or living costs, many of us would find it near impossible to live without a job. From Studylink, a student can expect to receive around $240 maximum. In Auckland, with popular renting suburbs like Greenlane, Sandringham, Ellerslie and Mount Albert all averaging between $750-$850 for a four-bedroom house, most of that Studylink money is gone in an instant.
Even those living at home find themselves in need of earning extra money to participate in uni life. Emily*, who works at a major CBD retailer and lives at home, said she could manage without a job, but life would be generally less fun due to lack of funds for socialising and having more stress around money.
So if having a job is something we need, then surely they shouldn’t be too hard to get?
Student Job Search (SJS) reported that during Level Four last year, job listings were, unsurprisingly, at a considerable low, with around 5,500 jobs listed pre-pandemic to just 400 in April 2020. But a year on, SJS has reported that job listings and earnings have come back stronger, with national placements exceeding 2019.
For Auckland, however, it’s a slightly different story. While it’s only small, SJS has reported a decline in placements. This is to be expected; Auckland has experienced the most time in Level Three and above after all. But these numbers speak to an even bigger issue.
At the end of last year, my contract as an RA with the Uni finished. I (naively) thought that my savings would last me through December, and I’d find a job in January with not too much stress. As I discovered, the business world of New Zealand doesn’t kick off until the first week of February. So January came and went with no luck, then February and then March. What I had planned on being six weeks max had turned into four months, and I found myself completely and utterly broke. Not living at home meant I had bills to pay, and so the decision to do summer school came not from wanting to get ahead academically but from the entitlement to living and course-related costs.
At the beginning of April, after practically begging, I finally found a job. This alleviated some of the financial pressure I was facing, but a lot of damage had been done in the interim. A similar experience was had by my friend Monique. After leaving her job just before the first lockdown due to bad working conditions, Monique was unemployed after several months.
Desperation meant Monique took the first job available as a waitress for an events company. The shitty situation of infrequent shifts and irregular hours was trumped only by her being made redundant after a few months on the job as a direct result of COVID.
Entering the job search, again, at the end of summer, Monique found it difficult as many of the roles she was going after (retail) required experience. Or, like her last role, were offering hours on a casual basis. It was made even harder by the influx of returning students from the summer break, “It was really difficult, there’s a lot more competition because everyone is looking at the same time.”
The bleakness of the job hunt bought many hardships for Monique and I.
Monique points out that one of the most debilitating aspects of being financially insecure is the shame associated with it. “A lot of my friends just don’t understand. It got to the point over the summer where I would have to make up excuses about why I couldn’t go shopping or hang out. I’d say I was sick or that I couldn’t get out of work when it was really about money.”
One of the reasons I found having no money so shameful was the inability to live without complete integrity. It meant borrowing money from people you never imagined having to put in that position, and then being unable to pay them back for a long time. It meant always being the friend that takes advantage of others without reciprocation. It meant I had no freedom to live in a way that felt right.
Watching the money dwindle with no way of replenishing it was depressing, but equally hard was the process of finding a job amongst copious amounts of competition.
Being at the mercy of others when your way of living is at stake is not only frustrating but completely crippling. Eventually, rejection and deadends sap the energy out of you, and the whole process seems even more daunting. And the worst part is that the whole thing makes it seem like you are the problem, instead of a system that simultaneously demands money in exchange for having a life and makes access to earning an income up to those who are already further up the ladder.
Of course, being disillusioned with the capitalist system is not an original thought, and there is an immense amount of privilege in money only becoming an issue while at university. But there’s something to be said for this new layer of ambiguity and apprehension that the pandemic has brought to students.
In the past, the light at the end of the uni tunnel was a job market welcoming fresh-eyed graduates. But with Statistics NZ reporting last year that “New Zealand citizens are returning to, and staying in, New Zealand in record numbers”, competition for roles has only intensified. That means this early sense of failure cultivated by the part-time or casual job market leaves even more question marks above future prospects.
Furthering these concerns are other dimensions of privilege. External social factors will determine how long students will experience financial hardship or if they are to escape at all. This is to say that the meritocracy involved in finding work is a flawed system at best, and a source of inequity at worst.
There’s no easy solution to these problems. During the pandemic, conversations around work and how it affects us mentally, emotionally, and financially have entered the popular discourse. Now, there are countless ways of thinking about and relating to work. This brings us the opportunity to pivot, reassess and think about future changes in the world of work.
So whether that Studylink limit is stretched to the breaking point or not, hopefully someday soon the job market will respond to these changes in the conception of work. We’ve seen push towards increased job security, especially around industries that are supported by casual or seasonal workers, whether that be agricultural, retail or hospitality. The difficulty of our job search simply points to a wider systemic issue. We need to be thinking about how we can increase access to the job market, and how we can make the work we attain sustainable.
Maybe then, in the future, we’ll all be resting easy in a four bedroom house in Greenlane.