Great Expectations: Life as an Unemployed Graduate

This summer university campuses across the land will bear witness to final-year students tossing mortar boards into the air amid scenes of jubilation to celebrate their collective academic success. Many graduates will return home for good in search of work and find themselves facing up to the grim reality of unemployment, a term synonymous with notions of failure and despair, and about as far removed from the joy of a graduation ceremony as you can get.

I graduated in July 2010. I’d had three years suckling on the frosty teat of independence, living away from home with friends and ‘finding myself’ as is de rigueur for the arts student. My student house was shambolic; the washing up never seemed to get done, we’d stay up all hours philosophising about life and no one ever had any milk.

The halcyon days of going to bed at daybreak and irregular mealtimes were soon over. I moved back in with my parents after my graduation ceremony with high hopes of moving out imminently and reclaiming that independence. Except living at home was different now. There were grumblings about how I would have to “pay my way” and “earn a living”. I couldn’t dangle the unconditional-love-of-a-mother-to-her-child carrot in an attempt to sponge off Ma and Pa any longer as this “child” was now a 21-year-old man. The good life was over, but who was I to complain? I expected to find a job soon enough.

I kept reading in the papers how I was part of a “lost generation”, as if I’d sacrificed myself in World War One or something. What if I could never have a career?

This was all very unsettling. I saw the term ‘quarterlife crisis’ being bandied about and was pretty sure I was having one. Life is one existential disaster after the other. I’d have to find myself all over again. But I didn’t have time to figure out my place in the world again, I had to find a job.

As the weeks and months passed, I was still beavering away in search of employment by sending out CVs and cover letters for jobs I believed I was suited to but getting nowhere. The dreams of nabbing a graduate scheme now seemed retrospectively delusional.

But I had a degree in English Literature, the most traditional of subjects. I couldn’t escape this fact as my mother had proudly hung up the robes-clad graduation photograph of me self-consciously forcing a grin in the most hallowed of places: the downstairs toilet.

One of the problems unemployed people face is being in limbo. You can apply for 20 jobs a day but still have to play the waiting game until you hear whether or not you’ve been summoned for an interview. Many employers don’t even bother replying to your lengthy application – modified to meet the job specifications – and the ones that do will forward an almost-sincere apologetic generic email emphasising the “high calibre of candidates” before breaking the crushing news that you’ve been overlooked.

You can’t make long-term plans or go anywhere on a whim and end up housebound in a perpetual state of ennui with the television your only friend. Watching Challenge TV for hours on end may sound like a decadent treat to the overworked money-rich, time-poor but there are only so many episodes of Bullseye you can watch before you find yourself actively screaming at Jim Bowen as he wearily repeats his “You can’t beat a bit of Bully” mantra again and again and again.

Perhaps my inner-rage developed by osmosis after succumbing, with alarming regularity, to the swirling vortex of darkness that is the daytime staple The Jeremy Kyle Show. I wrote essays about the Modernists and Chaucer in the not-too-distant-past but had been defeated by the idiot’s lantern, haemorrhaging brain cells in the process.

In November 2011 youth unemployment hit 1 million for the first time. Due to the ongoing financial crisis recruiters have taken on far fewer graduates and government austerity measures have led to public sector cuts, reducing job vacancies across the board. Graduates with little work experience are considered a higher risk than someone that has a five or ten year career under their belt. Many companies offer internships, but most are unpaid positions and ultimately exploit willing unemployed young people as a source of cheap labour.

It’s now two years since my graduation, and in the interim I’ve taken on several odd jobs: working as a barista for an Italian coffee shop chain for a spell; teaching English to German students during summer months; and the occasional freelance journalism gig to scrape some semblance of a living. There are currently limited opportunities to grow into a profession and establish oneself, unfortunately.

The job market is looking bleaker now than in 2010, with graduate unemployment now up to 25%, and more than one in three of those employed are working in lower skilled jobs.

Many class of 2012 graduates will need to recalibrate their expectations of a career for the foreseeable future as they join the growing ranks of the unemployed.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post UK 31/05/12

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