How lockdown encouraged young people to step up their side hustles – Financial Times

When Niamh Wimperis moved to London two years ago, after completing a masters in embroidery, there was no way her needlework commissions were going to pay the rent. She found full-time work as a receptionist and tried to keep up embroidery when she found the time.

Things changed in March when she was furloughed. “I started getting really awful panic attacks after being at home for a month,” says the 29-year-old. “I soon realised it wasn’t furlough but the prospect of getting back on the Tube and sitting behind a desk every day that brought them on.”

Wimperis used her newfound time to set up a subscription service called #WEStitchKit, sending out a box each month that includes thread, embroidery equipment, a pattern and instructions. In July, when her employer said it could not afford her any more, it did not matter — Wimperis’s business had already tripled her salary.

People aged 18-29 have been disproportionately affected by furlough, job losses and salary cuts in the pandemic, according to the Resolution Foundation think-tank. But for some, such as Wimperis, it has been a blessing in disguise: “It got me out of the work-eat-bed routine and gave me the time to figure out how to monetise what makes me happy.”

Niamh Wimperis with kits for her business, #WEStitchKit
Niamh Wimperis set up an embroidery subscription service, #WEStitchKit, after being put on furlough in March

The Resolution Foundation also found that young people were more likely to work in irregular or insecure jobs, concentrated in “shutdown sectors” such as hospitality and retail. For Micaela Philippo, who was a brand director for a restaurant group, work went from all to nothing. “The stability that was supposed to be provided by work fell from beneath my feet,” she says.

Restless, Philippo turned to creativity in the kitchen, making and delivering baked goods to friends as a way to connect on doorsteps. They soon pointed out she should charge for them — and so her food delivery service Sunday Goodies was born. “The fear of launching my own business was always about money,” she says. “But when the financial security of employment went, I had nothing to lose — and for me there is no better therapy than making something people can enjoy.”

Micaela Philippo with orders for her food delivery service, Sunday Goodies
‘There is no better therapy than making something people can enjoy’: Micaela Philippo with orders for her food delivery service, Sunday Goodies © Charlie Bibby/FT
Cookies Philippo sold at a charity bake sale. Research shows that 44 per cent of entrepreneurs volunteered their services for good causes during the pandemic
Cookies Philippo sold at a charity bake sale. Research shows that 44 per cent of entrepreneurs volunteered their services for good causes during the pandemic © Caitlin Isola

Precarious employment and the accompanying financial uncertainty have taken a huge toll on young people’s mental health since March. A study by University College London found that those aged between 18 and 29 have experienced much higher levels of anxiety than any other age group during the pandemic. “The textbook definition of anxiety is an intolerance of uncertainty — and there’s no kind of certainty for young people at the moment,” says psychotherapist Owen O’Kane.

In times of extreme uncertainty, focusing on the future and developing a project in the present can be much more effective than choosing to “wait and see”, says Ute Stephan, professor of entrepreneurship at King’s College London: “Entrepreneurship is a way of taking charge of your life.”

In a recent survey, Stephan and her colleagues found that 44 per cent of entrepreneurs volunteered their business services for good causes during the pandemic. “Particularly during a crisis, we get more satisfaction out of helping others,” she says. “When all this uncertainty makes us feel threatened, we crave a connection with other people to make us feel better — and one way of creating a community is through a project or business.”

This feeling motivated Molly Vincent and five friends to launch non-profit social enterprise DrawFor during lockdown. “Working in creative industries, many of us had lost work but we wanted to make something positive out of a difficult time,” she says. They collaborated with 100 artists who donated affordable prints to their #DrawForNHS art sale in May. After raising £20,000 for the NHS, the friends decided to continue the project with two more campaigns and now pay 50 per cent of the revenue to the artists involved.

“I think the project saved me this year,” Vincent says. “I was really needing a sense of purpose — and now we’ve created a community for artists to connect and feel like they’re doing good too.”

Miranda Essex and Tom King identified an opportunity to help other businesses in March when they read that, because of garden centre closures across the UK, millions of plants were going to be thrown away. Worried about the environmental impact and growers’ incomes, they set up PlantEra, buying the plants wholesale from growers, then delivering them on the same day to subscribers in London.

“Within the first month, we’d salvaged 30,000 plants that growers may have had to pay to destroy,” Essex says. As people spent more time at home, the urban gardening community grew so much that the pair joined a tech-for-good accelerator programme at Bethnal Green Ventures and plan to take the business full time. “At first it was all about the initial need to rescue plants during lockdown,” says Essex. “But now we can help more Londoners connect through nature — it’s made us feel useful.”

Suddenly without his day job at Mayfair’s smart Postcard Teas shop and with no restaurants to visit, food writer Jonathan Nunn couldn’t stop thinking about the chefs and writers he knew who were out of work. He floated the idea of a newsletter on an industry group chat and within 48 hours he’d set up Vittles.

Tom King and Miranda Essex of PlantEra
Tom King and Miranda Essex, who set up PlantEra during lockdown to resell plants which would otherwise go to waste, plan to take the business full time © Charlie Bibby/FT

“I thought it shouldn’t just be about me writing, but opening up the food media space — for new writers or people who want to write something different from their normal commissions,” he says. Vittles has 11,000 subscribers and its subjects range from the decline of a Liverpudlian stew to the absence of black voices in the food industry. Nunn says he is not focused on making a profit, but wants to ensure he pays contributors fairly, which he does thanks to £2,000 of monthly donations on Patreon and a paid subscription option.

“During the pandemic, the UK food media seems to have become less adversarial,” Nunn says. “The community aspect of Vittles has been really important for me to feel like I’m a small part of that bigger movement. I think the pandemic was the impetus I needed to do what I’d otherwise have deliberated for a long time.”

The company sold plants rescued from growers during lockdown
‘It was all about the initial need to rescue plants during lockdown’: PlantEra bought plants wholesale from growers then delivered them to subscribers

While job opportunities for young people are scarce, Herminia Ibarra, organisational behaviour professor at London Business School, recommends focusing on long-term goals and side projects that bring enjoyment. “Taking active steps to get involved in these activities shifts you from the ‘I’m stuck’ mindset to a vision of your possible self,” she says. “It gets you in a process that is future-focused, moving towards something that is positive, which improves how you feel.”

For some, the pandemic could simply accelerate the fulfilment of long-held ambitions. “What I’m doing was a response to something that was completely out of my hands,” says Philippo, founder of Sunday Goodies. “It was the intuitive next step — it’s just come a lot sooner than expected.”

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