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.
It’s that time of year again; so I thought this would be a good time for me to reflect on life outside the bubble of academia. This post is going to be a lot more personal than what I usually talk about here, but I thought some recent graduates might appreciate hearing about my experiences just to know that – yes, things are tough at the moment, but you aren’t alone. I would love to say that these early years of my ‘real’ adult life have been filled with excitement, adventure and new opportunities, but in reality the two years since finishing university have been the most difficult of my life. I made a lot of mistakes, and undoubtedly suffered from a few circumstances beyond my control, but I’m finally starting to think that things (just about) look ok again, so what have I learnt?
- Being a millennial is hard work. Recently I’ve read a lot about my generation being vain, lazy, and narcissistic. In reality we’re not living with our parents out of laziness or lack of ambition, but because outrageously high youth unemployment is keeping us there. Guess what? I want to be self-sufficient; I want a job and maybe a family. If I’d had my own way I would have been in full time paid employment immediately after leaving university, and I never would have lived with my parents again. I want my own life, on my own terms, but unfortunately circumstances beyond my control made this quite difficult. I can’t accept the idea that a generation, for whom lengthy unpaid internships are the norm in order to have a chance of even an entry-level job, is a generation that is lazy.
- Living alone in a bedsit paid for by benefits is a terrible existence. I was absolutely determined that I could not move back in with my parents. No, never! So instead I opted to put myself under a considerable amount of torture. I claimed benefits in my university city, which I used to cover the rent on my bedsit. I needed the rent to be cheap so I was living in a bad area, bad enough that I would frequently keep a mental count of how many syringes I saw in a week. This was the least amount of money I had ever had in my life, which was saying something after 4 years of university. I walked everywhere, rationed food, electricity (not heat though, thank god – as this was included in the rent) and just about everything else needed for a reasonable quality of life. I had no TV or Internet, but on the flip side I read a prodigious amount; probably the most I had ever read in my life – which again is saying something after 4 years of an English degree. My friends steadily left the city for more friendly employment climates, and I lived an increasingly lonely life – sometimes going an entire week without speaking to anyone. But my persistence on not going back to my parent’s house lasted a full, miserable 6 months.
- Leaving your university town/friends/life is a process akin to grief, and should be dealt with accordingly. Things had been slowly unraveling since before I even finished my exams, there was a period of time where I think I cried every day. I was seeing someone who I loved very much, but who did not feel the same way about me, and even though I knew we were doomed to failure – I couldn’t let go. Unfortunately this relationship was like a metaphor for the rest of my life in Dublin, and for my university. I loved the city and the university dearly – and I felt really sick about having to give them up.
- Know when to let go, make an effort to do this ‘properly’. I cut my university out of my life first, which was pretty difficult as it is in the middle of the city. But it became too painful for me to even enter the grounds because of the memories wrapped up there (I had even lived in the ‘bubble’ on campus in my final year). Having worked so hard to get to university, and made the most of my time there, I felt like I had failed myself terribly and had not lived up to my education. When I finally did leave Dublin I made a clean break, I needed to clean myself up mentally – I didn’t want to visit the city again until I was ‘over it’. It was exactly like breaking up with a human being, with the same emotions. As soon as I did give up on the last shreds of independence, and admit I was failing badly – I moved home. I made the decision and was back within 2 weeks, it was clear what I had to do. When I got back I went straight to the doctors to ask for help, this was a good decision. When you don’t believe in yourself at all, and despair of the situation you’re in: this is a bad starting point for job-hunting, all other factors aside. It was part of admitting I wasn’t ok, that it was time to move on, and I couldn’t do that entirely on my own.
- Relationships will change. A lot of people who were my best friends at university have dissolved back into the crowd. I don’t know where they are or what they are doing. I know that some of them I will run into again at some point, some I won’t. This is ok. The people who I had the deepest relationships with, my ‘real’ friends are still there, but obviously we see each other a lot less. I feel like if I see some people once every 6 months, or even once a year I’m doing well. I think scattered friends are a part of modern life. So no, you won’t be partying with your friends every night of the week, but they are still out there – and the ones who really matter will keep in touch, even if it is sporadic and not ideal.
- People will support you. Parents, much as they are often looking at things from a different perspective. Surprise surprise, they do want you to be happy, and they know this situation is not ideal. Friends, both home and away. Some will be going through a similar thing to you and have had to move back home, others will be pursuing further education, interning, travelling (lucky!), have a scary real-world job/other. In any case it’s likely they have some problems of their own and transitions are rarely easy, no matter which direction you take. The job center (ha!) if you would like to call that support, you need money to live to though. The doctor (in my case) without a course of anti-depressants to help me out it’s likely I would still be under my duvet crying. If you need help, ask for it.
- You will be lonely. I read somewhere that anyone going through a big transition in life feels lonely, as you don’t quite seem to fit in anywhere. You aren’t a student anymore, but you aren’t a savvy young professional either – this is prime time for an identity crisis. A lot of my friends have moved away from the area I grew up, and I can’t be bothered making new friends here (I want to move away so it feels like a waste of effort). My social life has dwindled to its lowest ebb; I had more social engagements when I was 8. And that’s before I even get started on (lack of) relationships. This is probably the single biggest kicker of having to move home for me personally. In an attempt to pull some hope out of the situation I will say that: I know it won’t last forever, even though it does feel like it at times. It is good to spend time with my friends who do live here, again because I know I won’t be here forever and in all likelihood neither will they – and we’ll be back to the once every 6 months scenario.
- Your parents will not understand. By my age (24) my parents were married with full time jobs and a mortgage. Neither of my parents went to university or had the burning desire to travel which seems to plague Millennials (probably because we know a secure job and buying a house is completely out of the question, so we have to think of something else to do with our money . . . if we ever get a job).
- Job hunting is exhausting, and often a cruel joke, but you have to persevere. If you have only just graduated, then my are you going to have fun with this lot: The group interviews with candidates much older and more qualified than you, the interviewers who never get back to you, the entry level jobs which require 2 years of experience, being told you are overqualified, being told that you are underqualified, the 10 page applications with essay questions, when a job you interviewed for goes to an internal candidate, the way no one acknowledges your applications, being rejected by Primark/McDonalds/somewhere else you never really wanted to work anyway, unpaid internships, knowing your CV was screened out and not read by a human being etc etc. All of this is a total nightmare, but you have to keep playing game.
- Unexpected opportunities WILL arise, and you will probably end up on path completely different to what you imagined. Towards the end of my university career I decided that what I really wanted to go into was publishing. I wracked my brains trying to think of a route in, applied for as many publishing internships, work experience and entry level positions I could find, to no avail. As my job search went on my net got wider, and by the end I had considered every skill I possessed, every subject that interested me just a little bit – I was willing to try just about anything I was half qualified for, and plenty of things I wasn’t – if someone would just give me a chance. This was aside from a steady stream of retail/admin/hospitality job applications. I know that some people will have qualified to go into a very specific field, but if you studied something quite general like me (English) then keep an open mind, you’re only limited by your own imagination as far as job hunting is concerned.
To conclude I will say that it has been a rough road, but I am in a much better position than I was two years ago, and about to head off on a tangent I never would have considered back then. In an ideal world I would have liked to have stayed in Dublin, got a full time job there and watch things improve – but this never happened. To a new graduate I would say: The economy and the figures might be against you but do persevere, seek help when you need it – and try to recognise an opportunity when it arises, even if it is not what you imagined. Good luck!
7th November 2013: Following the responses I have been getting to this post I have written an update which can be viewed here
This is Cait Reilly. She is a 24 year old graduate (much like my good self) who took the government to court over claims that a mandatory unpaid work scheme ‘recommended’ to her by the Job Centre was unlawful. Today Ms. Reilly won her claim, with the court judge ruling that the work scheme was ‘unlawful’ as it breached laws on forced labour (not to mention minimum wage). In a speech outside the court Cait said:
“If someone gives their labour to a company, they should be paid for it. However well intentioned a workplace scheme may be, it is very dangerous to introduce compulsory unpaid labour into the UK employment market.”
It is totally inappropriate to put a graduate on a placement working in Poundland and thus preventing them from doing some degree related voluntary work in a museum. I’m not agreeing with the voluntary museum work either (that should be paid as well, I believe that all ‘big society’ volunteering and interminable internships are harming economic recovery not to mention a poor graduates chances of ever entering adult life) it’s just that the pill is not so bitter if you have arranged the work yourself and can clearly see how it will benefit your career goals.
I have long had the feeling that the Department of Work and Pensions does not know how to deal with unemployed graduates. In boom time a whole lot more of us would have had a job, perhaps to the extent that the DWP never bothered to come up with a scheme to help us – there was never any need to. Now in times of economic woe graduates end up under the same umbrella as a 16 year old school leaver, and obviously the same schemes that might help them are going to be an ill fit for us.
To help guide the DWP through their fog of incompetence and confusion I have a few suggestions for what they could do to help graduates:
- Find suitable placements for graduates. Graduates want work experience, we’re all dying for a good internship and it’s a cut throat world, the job centre could help by liaising with suitable companies to help hunt these internships down and make them more accessible. If we’re in the job centre it probably means that we’re the graduates who aren’t the well-connected ones with friends and family members sorting out our work experience, and we could do with a helping hand. Poundland won’t go down well with a student who spent four years studying economics (although the irony wouldn’t be lost on them), but they’d bite your hand off for a placement in a bank. Placements should be paid to ensure that bright but poor young things aren’t left out in the cold. If internships are unpaid then benefits should not be stopped, but rather topped up – a scheme like this exists in Ireland, and a lot of my friends ended up on this after finishing university. Currently if you are doing a full time internship, paid or not, you are not entitled to benefits as you are ‘unavailable for work’. Doesn’t exactly encourage us does it?
- Let us work for our benefits. Do you really want me to work in Poundland to gain some experience? No problem, but that will only be 9.08 hours a week (based on minimum wage of £6.19/hour up to the weekly benefit sum of £56.25)
- Make it easier to temp (this is one for all jobseeker’s, not just the graduates). I signed up with a recruitment agency or 3 that occasionally call me and give me some full time work for a few days/weeks. This makes me really happy, apart from how difficult the job centre is about temping. When my temp work is over I don’t want to go through the hassle and paperwork of starting an entirely new claim. It isn’t new; I was only gone for four days!
- Liaise with temp agencies. When I’m not temping, working in a shop or interning I’m usually trying pretty hard to find a job on my own. But times are hard, and I would appreciate some help. If a temp agency can find me a job for a week or two then it might be nice for the job centre to have a go at offering this service as well. This might suggest laziness on my part (why can’t I find my own job?) but I don’t mean it to come across that way, it just seems to me that a marriage between a temp agency and the job centre might be rather nice. A week’s work feels like a placement anyway, but with temping you actually get paid, and probably gain some experience too. Win.
- It’s the economy, stupid. Cait Reilly was unemployed because the economy is in a shambolic state no matter how you fudge the numbers, not because she had no experience on the shop floor. Young graduates are an intelligent and perceptive bunch; we worked hard to get to university and worked equally hard to get our degrees. We did not expect to be in this situation, and we certainly aren’t happy about it, so please don’t make things worse by patronising us and strangling any ambition we have left with bureaucratic red tape.