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“What do you want to be when you grow up?” used to be a question that sparked anticipation and excitement – a sense of whimsy and gleeful anticipation of what was to come. My answers have, at various stages in my life, been: a dinosaur, a train-driver, an astronaut, a rock star, a journalist and a human rights activist – an indication, perhaps, that my ambitions have somewhat mellowed over the years, or at least that children tend to have an unrealistic sense of ambition. And yet in this current economic climate, my more realistic career goals seem just as preposterous and unobtainable as the three fantastical roles and the one non-human extinct species role. When I’m now asked what I want to be, or it’s modern-day, job-interview equivalent “where do you see yourself in five years time?” I feel lost. In my daily job hunt, I feel like an explorer stranded in the Sahara desert, knowing that there’s water and civilisation out there, but the hike up each sand dune offers no solace. Is the summit going to reveal a shining El Dorado, or just more sand, scorpions and sarlacs? And so as a soon-to-graduate university student, I know there’s a suitablecareer out there, but like the stranded explorer, my day-to-day consists of aspiration, fruitless graft and stilted expectations. No I’m not being dramatic; being unemployed really sucks.
It wasn’t always supposed to be this way. I remember receiving my unconditional from Lancaster University to study law, confident that choosing a ‘proper’ degree would more or less guarantee a job afterwards, possibly even one of those well-paying ones you hear about on the news. I drank the New Labour kool-aid that told us 50% of young people at University would turn the UK into a modern-day Atlantis, filled with hyper-intelligent, hyper-competent ubermenschen driving a national economy towards permanent prosperity. “An end to Tory boom-and-bust” was Gordon Brown’s favourite boast in his (for a time) successful stewardship of the British economy. And then came the bust. The conceptual veil was lifted as the Emperor admitted he was, in fact, totally starkers. Now our degrees are undervalued, as hundreds of people with virtually identical CVs compete for even menial office jobs completely unrelated to the skills acquired at University. A first in European Legal Studies? You’re just the person to reorganise our filing system! A recent unscientific experiment by Eric Auld, a part-time lecturer in the US (where the graduate employment rate is similarly dire) consisted of advertising a fairly unremarkable office job on Craig’s List and awaiting responses. Within six hours 431 people had responded to the advertisement. Within 24 hours, there were 626. Of those applications, 76% of respondents were experienced, 23% of which were 5 years or more and 66% had one or more degrees/certificates in higher education.
My own experience is similar. I am currently undertaking an (unpaid) internship in France, working near some of the major democratic institutions in Europe. A week or so ago, a one-month temporary position was advertised, to which I responded within two hours of its posting. The response I received (and let me tell you, these days, a response itself is rare) was that they had already had too many applicants for the position and it was unlikely I would get the post. After two hours. Of an advertisement posted on an internal message board which was passed onto me by my girlfriend. And to further compound my frustration, the job eventually ended up going to a personal friend of the person who posted the listing. It seems now that to be “someone’s mate” is a far more rewarding position than to have skills and education, and when we’re going back to nepotism, how is an unconnected graduate supposed to compete?
In any other era, my CV would be competitive – I graduated with a comfortable 2.1 in law, am graduating from my LL.M with distinction, and I have an academic publication as well as two prizes for essay competitions under my belt. During my undergraduate years, I took on some extracurricular activities, including two editorial positions on this very newspaper. Yet, when I apply for jobs now, there’s a strong sense of “you and the rest of us, mate” – a climate in which I’m not just competing against graduates with identical CVs, but experienced veterans who have been laid off due to the economic crisis and are competing for the very jobs we were promised would be ours to sow after we graduated university. Back of the line, for us graduates, then – you’ll have to wait your turn. My friends in academia (where my CV is perhaps most competitive) tell me that even the most low-level research jobs are receiving applicants with PhDs and decades of experience.
I say this not to be self-indulgent or because I desire sympathy, but because I fear my experience is not unique. Out of all the people who graduated from my LL.M class, a lucky few have unpaid internships and not a single one of us has yet found employment related to our degrees. Frequently we are told by those on the right that if we lack employment, we only have ourselves to blame, that unemployment can be directly correlated to laziness. Then why is it that laziness seems to spike around the time of a global financial collapse? And how is it that the nation’s students manage enough graft and hard work to graduate from University, then suddenly become bone idle the moment they receive their transcripts in the post?
The only solution, then, is to keep trying – keep on fine-tuning one’s CV to the long-shot vacancies. Keep on writing those sycophantic cover letters. Though I’m not a religious person, I have in recent months come to worship a new and awesome God – the God of Probability. Just as with the famous simian thought experiment which says that if you place an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters, eventually one will write Hamlet, so too I hope that with a process of applications which seems infinite, eventually the probability of my receiving a job offer will approach one. However, probability on an infinite time frame still won’t allow a paradoxical scenario to occur, and whilst I haven’t quite approached the level of jaded listlessness to consider graduate employment a paradoxical scenario, acquiring a job for my level of education still seems as nebulous, complicated, Kafkaesque and impossible to understand as quantum theory.
So where’s the respite? The good news bit that makes this all okay in the end? Well, I suppose it’s not unreasonable to expect that some day the employment market will pick up and it’ll be easier for Britain’s graduates to find work, but addressing the deeper problem – the lack of reward based on merit – seems to be a problem woven into the fabric of the nation. Consider, for a second, the Epitaph in Gray’s Elegy: “Here rests upon his head the lap of Earth / A youth to fortune and to fame unknown / Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth / And Melancholy marked him for her own” and then consider that this current government is stocked in large part by people who all went to the same elite, ultra-expensive public school. Britain is, and has never been, a nation that has even entertained the idea that working hard will get you places – you’re stuck where you are, and you’ll like it or lump it. Only now, “where we are” is not much of a place to be at all.
For more, visit the author’s blog at http://enduringengland.blogspot.co.uk