It was already a bad day. When Abby Thorne’s boss called to tell her she was redundant, she had just gotten off the phone to her dentist. She was still in a daze, her teeth cracked in a horse-riding accident.
Thorne had only days earlier received a glowing performance review as she settled into her first job at a small legal practice in Maitland, north of Sydney.
But on Sunday March 22, New South Wales announced the closure of all non-essential services. Her boss told her he was sorry but he just couldn’t keep her on.
“It was like this uncontrollable pile of bullshit that just came down onto my world,” says Thorne.
“One minute I’m in court, the next day I’m at Centrelink.”
For many young adults starting their careers, the pandemic has fractured their hopes and left them with uncertain futures.
“I didn’t know what to think or what to do except just cry. And I just thought about all the bills that were coming up”.
Thorne concedes that people are less likely to have sympathy for the struggles of lawyers, but she’s a long way from the established end of the game. In regional towns, lawyers are often paid significantly less than their city counterparts. Thorne worked a four-day week because this was all that was on offer. She took home about $600 a week after tax.
Thorne says the most meaningful aspect of her job was the independence it gave her: “I’ve always wanted that. I’ve always wanted to be taken seriously.” To have this agency stripped from her so abruptly, “it’s almost like my sense of identity is just falling away”.
She strains against the idea that she could ask her parents or her partner to help pay the bills. She lives in a detached home on her family’s farm, but says she has always paid rent and intends to keep doing so.
Thorne is a competitive show jumper in her spare time. It’s an expensive pursuit that costs about $1000 a month in upkeep, but she’s determined to compete at World Cup level. She says she will probably have to be “one of those silly people that takes money out of their super”.
The day after losing her job, Thorne queued to apply for unemployment benefits. The woman in front of her was a graphic designer, the man behind a builder. She says it was strange to see so many “people who really never thought they would be there”.
The experience opened her eyes to the flaws in Australia’s welfare system. She didn’t know the Jobseeker payment for a single person with no children used to be just $565 a fortnight. The federal government has temporarily increased the payment to $1115 but intends to cut it by $300 in late September.
There is pressure to have the Jobseeker payment permanently increased. “I thought it was more,” says Thorne. “I don’t know how you could even move forward in your life or get any better on that maximum payment.”
Like many young people, Thorne hasn’t been able to access the government’s Jobkeeper scheme, which is paid at a higher rate than Jobseeker. She asked her boss about it soon after being let go, but hasn’t heard back.
The process has taken its toll on her mental health, which she has struggled with in the past – “it’s been “really, really crap”.
Like many young women in the legal industry, Thorne has been undermined and undervalued. At times she has been the subject of sexist remarks.
“For me, this is almost like a step backwards, where I’m just the hopeless girl again that people kind of see me as.” She composes herself after saying this, “that’s why I need to keep myself going; I have to be independent, I’m an adult”.
Thorne is determined to find a silver lining in the pandemic. Now, with more time on her hands, she’s studying to become a barrister.
“This is what I was going to do, I just kind of got pushed off track. I don’t know, maybe this is what I needed?”
This project is a result of a partnership between the Guardian Civic Journalism Trust and the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. Reporting contributed by: Alyssa Herr, Anthony Marsico, Ashleigh Barraclough, Connor Webster, Else Kennedy, Fia Walsh, Jordyn Beazley, Liam Petterson, Petra Stock, Sean Goodwin, Thomas Phillips and Wing Kuang. Visit the full interactive package co-published with Guardian Australia here.