I believe that at one time graduation was supposed to be a happy occasion. The pinnacle of your academic success and perseverance which would open doors to a bright future. Following graduation you would make a pain free transition to a good job that matched your skill level and fired your enthusiasm. You would want to work hard at your career because you loved it, found inspiration and satisfaction in your work. You would take pride in what you did. You would be eager to work with those more experienced than you because you wanted to continually improve. You would be successful. So where did it all go wrong?
Today marks the second anniversary of my own graduation, so I thought this would be an appropriate time to write a follow up of the most popular post on my blog so far: 10 things I have learnt since finishing university in 2011 I was surprised and gratified that so many people got in touch with me about this post, just as I continue to be surprised and a little subdued to see it recurring in my stats. Why subdued? Well, I feel sad that so many people out there are anxious about how they will cope after graduation – and I feel worse that I can’t offer any ‘real’ help or advice beyond sharing my own experiences. By the time my graduation rolled around in November 2011 I was dreading it. In fact, I’d been dreading finishing university for a very long time before that because I knew my prospects were looking bleak. At the time I graduated I was unemployed in a recession wracked Dublin, living in a sparse bedsit paid for by benefits. I may have just graduated from a prestigious university but I was poor, I was unhappy, and I did not view my graduation as a cause for celebration.
Even setting aside the plethora of expected early 20s mistakes I have made since then, I have recently been feeling less than optimistic about ever being able to live an independent adult life on more than an occasional temporary basis. I’m curious about what’s actually going wrong, is it the much decried pitfalls of the millenial generation, is it me as a person, my background, my skills, the economy, a combination of those things, or something else entirely?
Lazy, entitled, spoilt.
Exploited, unpaid, unemployed.
Every generation has a thing. Young people in the 20s had the champagne and the glitter, in the 30s it was depression and unemployment, in the 40s it was the war and austerity, in the 50s teenagers began their earnest evolution and ‘angry young men’ began to ascend the ranks, and in the 60s there was flower power and some very real power in hands of young protesters, so what’s our thing?
Are we really the peter-pan generation, doomed to never fully grow up? We will be living with our parents for the rest of our lives, gradually acclimatising to this dependency after the government funded blip of independence that was university, typing out angry blog entries in childhood bedrooms and wondering what it would be like if we’d been able to have things like houses, families and secure jobs. Assuming we finally manage to get a paying job and decide we would like to have a go at being an actual adult, what is waiting for us around the corner? What I have found really disquieting in recent months is the way that banks have identified millennials living with their parents as a core market and have started producing adverts like these:
That such a thing as a parent guaranteed mortgage should even exist seems immensely disappointing and worrying to me. I think it is a distressing reflection on our society when a large proportion of young people are unable to take out a mortgage when this has previously been the norm for other generations in the UK. Traditionally a lot of emphasis has been put on home ownership here unlike other countries such Germany where only 42% of people own their own home compared to Britain’s 69% (Wiki). I don’t think it’s in any way acceptable that young (presumably working) couples should have to put off having a family of their own and move back in with their parents in order to save for a deposit, which is why the Natwest advert in particular makes me shiver. My parents had a mortgage in their early 20s, and while I expect there to be some generational shift I still used to think at some point in my life it would be possible for me to buy a house, but this is beginning to seem increasingly unlikely, not to mention unpalatable.
Is it me?
Or if you’re reading this, then is it you? Are your own personal foibles getting in the way of you securing the sort of life you would like? Or even the sort of life you might temporarily be able to put up with if it leads to something better? Personal issues might be anything from not applying to jobs which you feel are ‘beneath you’ even though nothing else is forthcoming, to general cluelessness on how to behave in an office (no mobiles, no ASOS, no facebook!) or really destructive and really hard-to-work-on things like lack of self confidence. Only you -or possibly the more objective voices of those around you- will be able to pinpoint the things that might be holding you back, but here are a few little personal tics of mine:
- I have commitment issues. Surprise surprise, a few years of temporary work and a willingness to broaden my career horizons out of necessity, means that I am now a commitment-phobe. I’ve spent so long having to be open to any ‘opportunity’ that I no longer know what I want. But whatever it is definitely doesn’t come in the form of a 3 month probation period and a one year contract (yikes!) I would have loved to have landed a permanent job straight from university, but that isn’t what happened and now I have itchy feet. Even if I was lucky enough to get it, the thought of a job I might have for the next 10 years terrifies me – I’m not ready for it. 40 hours a week until the end of time? 26 days holiday a year? When will I be able to go backpacking in Australia? What happens if change my mind about my Really Good, Serious Adult Job at a Prestigious Institution? Will I spend the rest of my life regretting it? As I read back over this paragraph I feel guiltily like one of those spoilt millennials (not me, surely . . .) you keep hearing about. Should I grow up and get on with it? I have to yield to the unfolding eternity of a 9-5 job and the corporate horror it entails at some point, right? But maybe not, as suggested by this excellent article from Forbes magazine, millennials are particularly keen to avoid becoming corporate serfs.
- I don’t want to live in England. This was the reason I went to university in Dublin, and it’s the reason I continue to flirt with the idea of Berlin; even though the language barrier, loneliness, paperwork and sheer up hill struggle of it all is now plainly apparent. It’s tough to complete applications for fantastic jobs knowing that even if I was lucky enough to get them then deep down I still wouldn’t want to live in England. I don’t want to hold myself back, but I also don’t want to deliberately put myself in a tough situation.
- Lack of self confidence. All of those rejection emails and job centre visits have a way of eroding your self confidence the point of none existence. What’s left is a shy and timid person locked in a closed sphere of loathing and self doubt. Stellar employee material, I think you’ll all agree.
Is it my background?
Way back in the summer of 2010 preceding my final year at university I knew that what would really help me out would be a summer internship in order to get some relevant experience (I wanted to work in publishing) on my CV. But of course I couldn’t afford to work unpaid unless I was living at home at Manchester (where publishing houses are thin on the ground, surprisingly) and even aside from that I needed to save up for a new laptop on which I would be able to hammer out my final year essays and subsequent lengthy job applications. I spent the summer working for minimum wage in a shop at the airport where I would get up every morning at 4am. The job was bad and the wages were bad, but the worst thing was acknowledging that massive gulf between what I knew I wanted to do, and what I actually had to do. When I encountered more wealthy acquaintances back at college who had spent the summer working unpaid internships at exclusive galleries in Hoxton or ‘researching’ dissertation ideas abroad I was ashamed about what I had been getting up to, so I kept my mouth shut.
It’s no secret that social mobility in the UK is at a low ebb. If, like me, you went to a state school, your parents did not go to university, you are from a modest or low income household, you are not ‘well connected’ with anyone high up in your chosen career path, then you are going to struggle. This government report, ‘State of the Nation 2013: social mobility and child poverty in Great Britain’ highlights some interesting points about socio-economic class and opportunity:
And graduates who attended private schools are more likely to secure a top job 6 months after graduation than individuals from state schools with similar characteristics and similar levels of educational achievement. Despite the same prior academic attainment, subject choices and university, a private school student has a 3 percentage point higher chance of entering a top occupation. This is a greater difference than the 2.3 percentage points between men and women. (page 238)
And this is what it had to say about unpaid internships:
The Commission’s impression is that there have been improvements in the open advertising of internship opportunities. However, on the wider issue of ending illegal unpaid internships, good intentions do not yet seem to have changed practice. Although their informal nature means it is difficult to accurately judge the extent of the problem, there is anecdotal evidence of young people commonly working for long periods for free. The Low Pay Commission, which has been looking at the issue closely, has this year warned: ‘Despite the targeted enforcement of unlawful internships which breach the National Minimum Wage we continue to receive evidence of widespread non-payment of the minimum wage for positions that appear to be work. The longer this continues the greater is the risk that extracting work from unpaid interns becomes a “new normal’. It highlighted film and fashion as sectors of concern. The Commission has also heard concerns about the media, and about the charity sector’s definition of certain roles as volunteering, enabling employers to be exempt from National Minimum Wage guidelines. (page 240)
As if this isn’t bad enough I’ve heard whispers from across the pond of internships where not only do you not get paid, but you have to pay the company for the privilege of the placement. Let’s hope this level of exploitation does not catch on in London (if it has not already? Examples welcome).
Is it my skills?
If your life long dream was always to be a high school maths or science teacher then you are in luck because there is currently a massive shortage in this area. Estimates earlier this year suggested that 100,000 secondary school students were in danger of being taught by teachers not qualified in those subjects. My guess would be that a lack of qualified teachers able to pass on their own enthusiasm for those subjects is an indicator for poor take up levels in the future, and so the cycle perpetuates.
I never had much of an interest in the sums, but these days I feel like my set of skills is under some harsh scrutiny. I got good GCSEs, excellent A-levels and a solid degree from a reputable university, but depending on who you talk to my skills are either ‘lacking’ or I’m ‘overqualified’. While a crash course on some fashionable in demand skills such as use of java, html and Adobe Illustrator wouldn’t go amiss, I’m still hoping that actually, maybe, my high level of literacy might be useful to someone.
Is it the economy?
Is it something else entirely?
At the moment I am reading ‘Dorian’ by Will Self, an imitation of the Wilde classic. The terminally beautiful and fabulously rich Dorian, a recent art history graduate from Oxford, is found schmoozing with artists around London and volunteering at a homeless shelter while trying to determine his path in life. In the studio of ‘Baz’ Hallward he encounters the effervescent Henry Wotton who wryly observes,
‘You should remember, my young friend, if you don’t know what you want to do, at least do something. There’s no other cure for indecisiveness.’
I don’t know what to do. That’s a short sentence, but a big problem – and I believe it is one that most young people encounter at some point. Working out exactly what it is that will make you happy, and figuring out how to achieve that while rolling with the punches, is incredibly difficult; and I respect anyone who has managed to figure this out. I have often heard it said that the people who still don’t know what they want to do when they are x age are some of the most interesting people. I’ve also heard the Chinese curse, ‘may your life be interesting’. Let’s hope for all our sakes that this is just an interesting phase, both in our lives and our economies. And in the meantime? At least do something.