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4 April 2022

“The price of getting to your job is astronomical”: Britain’s cost-of-working crisis

Employees are being hit by inflation, childcare and commuting costs ⁠— especially those who moved away to work from home in the pandemic.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

She lived in a shared house, walked to the office every day and rarely if ever indulged in a Pret a Manger latte or a deli sandwich, but Laura Manderson couldn’t afford to live anywhere near her job.

Manderson, 35, originally from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, was “forced out” of London by the cost of living and working in the capital. She works for a theatrical licensing company, based near Regent Street in central London, but recently swapped her house-share in Oval, in the south of the city, for Reading.

“You don’t want to live in a house-share forever, and I was looking to get on the property ladder,” she said. “Obviously, there’s not even an option of doing that in London because it’s so expensive, even though I’ve got a decent deposit and I’m on a decent wage.”

In October 2021 her decision to move to Reading made a lot of financial sense: she only had to go into the office once every two weeks, at a cost of about £51 for a return off-peak train ticket. Many others had the same idea. “City-dwellers are now rethinking their living situations in light of the pandemic, and re-evaluating the importance of larger homes, green spaces and connections with the local community,” noted a 2021 report from the professional services giant PwC.

But since the formal lifting of all Covid restrictions, the “new normal” is starting to look a lot like the old normal. Workers like Manderson, who saved money by moving to cheaper areas or not commuting, are now being asked to return to the office. With inflation raising the prices of transport, food and the other incidental costs, these people are now confronted with a steep rise not only in the cost of living, but the cost of working.

Manderson’s employer now requires her to be in the office for at least three days a week and the savings she set aside for a deposit on a house have been redeployed to pay for a rail season ticket, which cost £5,768 this year. “It’s a bit of Hobson’s choice, weighing up the commute costs,” said Manderson, who now spends about as much to live in Reading as she did in London, and is still deciding where to make her permanent home.

“The pandemic has taught people what’s important to them, and for a lot of people that [is] maybe not living in central London, or at least not living in a teeny tiny flat. But then you’re stuck with these astronomical prices just to get in to your job every day.” 

At the height of home working, in June 2020, almost half (49 per cent) of all working adults in the UK were doing their jobs from home.

For almost half of workers (46 per cent) surveyed by the ONS, working from home allowed them to save money, but for those with children life suddenly became more expensive. Many families reported increased spending on food (39 per cent), utilities (89 per cent) and internet access (27 per cent).

“I don’t know if you can call it lucky,” Adam*, a father of two, said, “but back in 2018 I decided to work from home more often, so I built a glorified shed at the back of my garden and converted it into an office in 2019, not knowing the pandemic was coming six months later.”

Adam, who lives in Bracknell, Berkshire, and works for a global IT company with offices in Slough and the City of London, mainly works from home while his wife, a teacher, is in school every day. Though they claim child tax credits, Adam said, childcare costs for their two sons are “astronomical — more than my mortgage”, at a combined £1,800 a month.

“The cost of everything going up — food, fuel in particular — is difficult,” said Adam. “We do have some money left at the end of the month but it’s not a lot, and it’s going down every month.”

[See also: Rishi Sunak could stop the living standards squeeze if he wanted to]

For parents, childcare is the biggest cost associated with going to work, and it is rising. Prices have risen by up to 3.5 per cent in the past year for children aged three and four and availability has fallen, according to a survey by children’s charity Coram.

“Many parents tell us that childcare costs are a major factor in [their] thinking about work,” said Ellen Broomé, managing director at Coram. Knowing how tight things are for families, providers are trying to keep cost increases below inflation, but they “won’t be able to keep prices artificially down forever”, she said.

“It still remains the fact that costs are very, very high for parents, and availability can sometimes be poor. And that means that parents will struggle to make ends meet or [be able to] to take up the work that they want.”

Upon leaving the City of Liverpool College as the pandemic struck in the summer of 2020, Chloe knew that it would be difficult to land her dream job in the arts and creative sector.

She, like 100,000 other young people affected by Covid, got a temporary job through the Kickstart Scheme; Chloe worked in recruitment for an official gateway partner for the programme.

Commuting to the office five days a week cost £111 a month in train fares, on the cheapest season ticket. For Chloe, who was being paid the national living wage at the time, this was “quite big chunk” of her disposable income.

During the working day a meal deal, a coffee or an after-work drink were luxuries that often came with a sense of conflict. “Sometimes… if I’d been paid, I’d be like, ‘I’ve worked for this all month, so I’m entitled to buy a coffee or go for one or two drinks’.” But towards the end of the month, when bills were due, she would often think, “I need to hold back. You worked for that money, and you’re telling yourself you can’t even buy yourself a coffee without feeling bad.”

Young workers faced the highest rates of redundancy, largest falls in employment and the largest fall in hours worked at the start of the pandemic, research by the Trades Union Congress found. Those young people returning to, or currently in, work amid the cost of living crisis are also the least likely to be offered a pay rise, according to Indeed, the job search website. “It is a bit disheartening when you work, especially full time, and you find yourself still unable to afford the things you want,” Chloe said.

A lack of disposable income also prevents younger workers saving for major life events, such as buying their own property or starting a family. “Lots of things just feel really impossible,” said Chloe, who is now 24 and lives with her boyfriend, who recently lost his job in finance, at his parents’ house. “The goal is to be able to afford somewhere to live, but not compromise our lives, because we are still young — we still want to go on holidays and create memories.

“You just have to make it work, don’t you? Otherwise, you’d have to stay at home forever.”

*Name changed on request

[See also: Why we should stop calling it the “cost-of-living crisis”]

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