It’s two weeks since Referendum Day, and you can hardly say there’s been a drought of news. The referendum result ran in favour of leaving the European Union. There have been resignations and sackings across the board (David Cameron, Nigel Farage, and a host of Labour shadow cabinet ministers, to name a few). There’s chaos in the Conservative and Labour parties with leadership elections on the horizon and enough backstabbing and betrayal for an episode of Game of Thrones.
The pound is still dipping (hitting a record 31-year low), the markets are still suffering (the FTSE 250, being more dependent on the UK economy than the FTSE 100, is still a way off from recovery) and Osborne’s policies of economic austerity look set to get even worse; things ain’t what they used to be, that’s for sure.
But to many, these are intangible issues. What does it mean, really, for the average person when one FTSE or another fluctuates? There’s been political infighting for decades – why is now any different? What real effects does this whole question of Brexit actually have on people?
The answer, it seems, is that the referendum result has had real, disastrous consequences for many people, and it’s only been a couple of weeks. I spoke to several friends and colleagues who have already suffered in the wake of the vote, and figured I would share with you some of their stories.
This may not be immediately apparent, but some names have been changed in the interest of anonymity.
The idea for this post was first inspired by a conversation with an old friend. Pablo Thunderguns worked as an executive headhunter in the fast-growing financial technology (or FinTech) sector. He told me that business had been slowing down rapidly in the three months preceding the referendum, and that there had been ‘some strong campaigning from all the major CEOs in the space to remain [in the EU]’.
Thunderguns worked for what he describes as ‘a start-up executive search firm…like a consultancy’, specialising in recruitment and ‘bringing [in] the best and brightest people’, but when clients started putting their recruitment on hold in preparation for a possible Brexit, he started to get concerned about his own job security. His fears proved founded, as he was soon dismissed with ‘uncertainty in the market’ given as one of the reasons. Though he received another job offer from a large, global FinTech company, that was rescinded a week before he was set to start due to the company ‘[pausing] all recruitment in the UK…with some fears that another recession could be coming.’
When I asked about the personal effect the referendum vote has had on him, he told me, ‘[it] has been really interesting. I was quite upset about leaving the EU. As a young person in the UK, it is part of my identity. Also, the inclusiveness that it represents with a huge number of international friends makes me feel like I’m part of something where I don’t belong.’
‘To add to this,’ he adds to this, ‘my mother, an immigrant from [outside Europe], voted to leave the EU. I went home recently and it was weird to see her again as she is the physical embodiment of why I don’t have a job.’
It’s a sad state of affairs, and Pablo Thunderguns was far from the only person I found who had suffered career derailment from reactions to Brexit. Velveteen Panther, currently living in Paris, applied for a job with a startup working on a language-learning app. Despite getting an interview with them, she was called on the day the referendum results were announced and told that, regrettably, they would have to retract the interview.
‘They were incredibly apologetic’, she told me, ‘but said that as they were trying to build a team they needed to know they had people who were reliably going to stay in France, and could legally do so. They said that Brexit made my immigration status in the future uncertain and it put too heavy a burden on them trying to work out what visas I may or may not need in the future. For a young, vulnerable company it was too much work, and too risky.’ Panther was quick to assure me that she bore the company no ill will – ‘As I said, they were very apologetic and sympathetic, but I understand how uncertainty is a big risk for new-generation start-up businesses’ – but summed things up rather sadly for me: ‘I was out of the European jobs market by lunchtime.’
Both commented on their plans for the future, and neither expressed much of an interest in staying in a post-Brexit UK. ‘Over the past months [I] have been applying for jobs in Australia, and have a final interview next week,’ Thunderguns tells me. ‘It’s something I’ve been thinking of doing for a long time, but now there’s no excuse not to do it. No job, no flat and an economy that is going down the tube.’
Velveteen Panther’s plans, meanwhile, are less concrete but just as determined:
‘I was in France trying to improve my French in order to take up an internship with the British ambassador in the European Commission, but I guess that’s out the window now. I am looking at jobs in London and Paris but I fear that London will start to become a less advantageous market if Brexit finally occurs. I am desperate to maintain my EU citizenship so [am] very tempted to stay in France working. I worry that the situation I faced above will happen again, but as a young person keen to be part of a dynamic workforce, I would rather be in the single market than out because I know there are more opportunities there. If that means trying to naturalise as a French citizen, and giving up British citizenship, that is something I am prepared to do. I am not prepared to accept a diluted form of free movement where British workers are expected to work inside the EU without the benefit of citizenship rights and protections. There have been so many complaints of EU migrants coming over [to the UK] to work, but they are just doing it because the market here is (/was) better than in Romania or Bulgaria. I will do as they did and go to a country with a better economy and better opportunities if that is what is best for me. I feel there are many other young, educated workers who will do the same.’
This, it seems, is but the tip of the iceberg – so many people have come forward to tell me of their own experiences or those of their friends, from paid internships being cancelled due to the ‘uncertain business outlook post-Brexit’…
…to work stock options plunging in the wake of the vote…
…to whole firms collapsing, resulting in mass job loss.
Research and academia, too, looks set to suffer from the referendum fallout. A friend related to me the thoughts of an academic colleague of her mother’s, who explained that they were ‘[worried] about cuts in research funding…[making] the UK less attractive for researchers and [leading] to brain drain and fewer collaborations between the UK and the European Union’ (which looks to be happening already). On top of concerns that ‘academics and students from other countries will now think twice about going to the UK’, they also pointed out that almost half of their department’s permanent academic staff hailed from EU countries. ‘What will happen to us/them? Nobody knows.’ Another friend, a university lecturer, pointed out that, although she’s not run into issues yet herself, her department ‘will only be eligible for future EU funding (which is by far the biggest pot of money for good research) if we can guarantee that the UK will allow free movement of people within the EU’ – a guarantee that, with no clear Leave plan and a frontrunner in the Conservative leadership contest straight-up refusing to rule out deportation, no-one seems willing to give.
Others in academia have had budget constraints forced upon them by the volatile markets and crashing pound. MC LeBest, a senior library assistant, told me: ‘It’s a very minor hassle, compared to say, one of my friends being subject to hate speech, but my budget at work is understandably in pounds. However, as a museum with international collections, research material often has to be sourced from overseas (usually Europe or the USA), so my budget has tanked in real terms and we can’t afford as much, so the research suffers.’
And what of those still in education, hoping for more opportunities on the horizon? Big Bad McHandsome-Mann studied at UCL until his student visa ran out, and then began to study in the Netherlands. ‘I went to [the Netherlands],’ he told me, ‘to get naturalised and gain EU access back to the UK. Guess where I’ll be staying?’
All this is to say nothing, of course, of those who have or seek jobs within or related to the European Union itself. Magenta Bjornsson is currently doing a traineeship within the EU council, and fears that she will now ‘have to accept that this 5 months is the only EU career [she will] ever have’. Foxy Foxworth, meanwhile, is working on the European Fast Stream, a government grad scheme that trains people on EU skills and aims to get them into EU institutions or a career in the UK civil service. He told me that ‘all of our career prospects are obviously now in jeopardy and there’s a huge amount of uncertainty,’ and that ‘neither of these [options] is now a long-term prospect – the vote on the 23rd effectively finished our careers in that field.’
Foxworth went on to tell me about the curious paradox a lot of those on the EFS find themselves in, wherein the most relevant work in the immediate future looks to be that which actively undermines what they’ve been working towards:
‘There will obviously be a certain amount of work to do in the next 5-10 years as we unpick ourselves from the treaties, but this will eventually come to an end and we will be left stranded – experts in something that isn’t relevant any more. As such, those of us who have been specifically trained to be the government’s EU talent have very little incentive to lend our skills to the negotiation process. There are more people talking about leaving the country entirely than there are expressing an active interest in working in the new ‘Brexit Unit’.’
Foxy finished up with what I personally feel is a fantastic summary of what he calls ‘the stages of referendum grief’.
‘When I woke up on the 24th and heard the news I just felt sick. You could probably call that phase “shock”. Since then there’s definitely been some denial (“we can’t let this happen without another referendum!”); bargaining (“what if London stayed in, and everyone else can go?”); and anger – particularly towards those politicians who promised everything would be great in the event of a vote to leave and then turned out to have no plan whatsoever…By now things have settled down a bit more. You could call it “acceptance” – but only in the sense that everything is so uncertain at the moment that we really have no choice other than to try and keep going as usual and wait and see what happens.’
There’s still much, much more to say – I have a whole host of other stories and experiences from friends and colleagues, which I will be writing up shortly. But this post is getting a little long already, so I’m going to end it here for now, having covered most of the career- and work-related issues people have talked to me about. The message is clear, though: the referendum result, whatever may be done in the future with regards to an actual Brexit, has had real, reverberating effects on people’s lives. People living in the UK and abroad have already been cut off from potential livelihoods and opportunities, and whatever else you may think of the referendum and the EU, one cannot deny that this is a rather raw deal.
Next time, I’ll be talking to people who have suffered from racism and harassment in their day-to-day lives, and about whether and how the referendum result has affected that. Stay tuned.