Worried about your job, finances and the future? You're not alone

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders —from around the world and all parts of society— address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

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The one-year “anniversary” of the COVID-19 crisis has come and gone. It’s not a moment to celebrate, but it is nevertheless a moment on which to reflect. More than a year since COVID first swept the globe, the virus is still with us. Its impact on our lives and on our livelihoods has been profound, from the millions of deaths to the ongoing social and economic crisis the pandemic has triggered.

The OECD has long measured how people feel about their lives and about public policies. One of the ways we do this is with the nationally representative Risks that Matter survey, which was most recently conducted in autumn 2020 in 25 OECD countries. Some key survey findings were released this week, and they offer sobering lessons from the pandemic.

45% of households in 25 OECD countries have had their work and/or their income disrupted, with grave implications for their financial security and well-being.

We’ve learned that insecurity has run deep during the COVID-19 crisis. Just over 35% of survey respondents said that their household had experienced at least one “job-related disruption”. This means a job loss or a job lay-off, being furloughed or put onto a job retention scheme, or having working hours or pay cut. The situation was worse for young people and for parents with children at home. And when other forms of job absences are included, such as paid leave, unpaid leave or resignations, the total share of respondents affected rises to nearly 45%. That’s a huge number: 45% of households in 25 OECD countries have had their work and/or their income disrupted, with grave implications for their financial security and well-being.

Read "Supporting jobs and companies: A bridge to the recovery phase" and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of policy responses

Visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub

Against this backdrop of economic insecurity, we’ve been unsurprised to learn that that COVID-19 is driving worries about finances. Among households that lost a job during the pandemic in 2020, nearly two-thirds had trouble paying their bills. The number is even higher in Canada, Chile, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Slovenia, Turkey and the United States. To make ends meet, the most common solution reported was to take money out of savings or sell assets (18% on average). Making ends meet was most difficult for young people, households with children under 18, and low-income households.

An overwhelming 81% of respondents whose household lost a job say that they are somewhat or very concerned about their household’s overall financial, social and economic well-being in the next year or two. Even among those without an outright job loss in the household, 65% say that they are somewhat or very concerned about their household’s economic security in the next couple of years—illustrating just how deeply COVID-19 has affected entire societies.

It’s hard to read these numbers and imagine the difficult conversations about jobs, money, and plans for the future that are happening right now in homes around the world. COVID-19 has turned lives and livelihoods upside down. So what does the survey tell us about what people want from government?

Despite the massive expansion of social protection systems by OECD countries during this crisis, the Risks that Matter survey nevertheless finds widespread agreement that governments should be doing more to ensure economic and social security and address gaps in social protection. On average across countries, 68% of respondents call for more action by government. This holds true in both countries with pre-existing high levels of social protection, like Denmark, or lower levels, like Mexico. In most countries, as might be expected, the most economically insecure respondents were more likely to call for greater government intervention than those who are better off.

The Risks that Matter survey finds widespread agreement that governments should be doing more to ensure economic and social security and address gaps in social protection.

There is also a noteworthy willingness to pay for better social protection in the form of taxes and social contributions, especially among those facing high levels of economic insecurity. Among respondents who experienced job loss in the household, there is especially strong support for better investments in employment support (such as job search services, skills training or access to entrepreneurial funds), unemployment supports, and income supports like minimum income benefits. This corresponds with the finding that more than 60% of people whose household lost a job since the start of the crisis report that they are worried about having the right skills and knowledge to work in a secure, well-paying job a decade from now.

Governments have innovated and invested heavily during COVID-19 to shore up social protection systems. But without continued public commitments to protect the most vulnerable through a full recovery, we risk leaving them behind for decades to come.

Read the OECD's report "Risks that matter 2020: The long reach of COVID-19" and find out more about the concerns weighing on people's minds across countries

Read the OECD's report "Risks that matter 2020: The long reach of COVID-19" and find out more about the concerns weighing on people's minds across countries

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Valerie Frey

Economist, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD

Valerie Frey is an economist in the OECD's Directorate for Employment, Labour, and Social Affairs. Her research has focused on public opinion on economic risks and governance, social programme evaluation, and female labour force participation. Valerie is the lead researcher and project manager of the cross-national “Risks that Matter” household survey. Prior to the joining the OECD, Valerie worked as a consultant for the World Bank Governance and Public Sector Management Group and as a research assistant at Yale University. She earned a Ph.D. from Yale University.