It was one of those typical Clapham evenings. Commuters travelling from their bank-ish jobs (the kind you forget halfway through them telling you what it is, and just say, “nice”) to the local bar. The Excel spreadsheet-types – neat and underlined – ordering cocktails that sound like cancelled mid-season HBO shows, with ingredients they can’t pronounce.
“I’m between pay cheques,” I tell my friend. It’s her birthday. She’s roped all in her Spreadsheet friends to celebrate and I’ve already been asked what I do... which we all know is ancient Chinese for ‘what do you do for money?’
The thing is, I wasn’t between pay cheques. I was flat-out broke and aware my debit card would be declined for that second cocktail. Cause of death: ordering tap water at the bar.
Rolling out of university into unfixed internships, I had no cash flow other than the last of my student loan. My peers bounced into graduate schemes and Masters degrees; meanwhile my parents encouraged my dreams, so I was pursuing creative jobs. I was a whole law conversion course away from taxes and online Ocado shops.
I’ve been unemployed in various degrees for 10 months now. I’m borderline-depressed and have been waiting seven weeks for an appointment for counselling; they ghost me harder than that guy I pulled in Ku Bar. In related news, I’ve spent the last three days in bed finding it difficult to will the need to make breakfast, do laundry and other human things. Without a job, you suddenly have no obligation to get up in the morning. No homework to rush on the bus to school. Nowhere to clock-in for a shift. Nothing.
You begin to feel nothing, too.
Graduate unemployment is much like quinoa; we all know about it, but no-one really knows what the heck is actually happening there. As much as there are plenty of glittery self-love guides out there to buoy us up, there isn’t much that catalogues the experiences of graduates who put the 'fun' in funemployment.
To battle this gap, I sat down with four graduates who threw their mortarboards up high and found their belief in themselves come crashing down. This stuff isn’t covered in the post-university prospectus.
Ad nauseam job applications
“When I first graduated from university I mainly felt a sense of accomplishment and relief!” Shaba* tells me. “I was proud to have finished my degree and as I came out of it with a 2:1, I felt as though I had fulfilled my target goal and could walk away happy.”
But just what was Shaba, a King’s College London graduate with a degree in English with Film Studies, walking into? “Not having a structure and a sense of stability really messed with my head. As I was already struggling with depression, the monotony of applying for jobs didn’t help my mental health at all, especially as I spent a lot of my time at confined at home.”
The first phase of applying for jobs was exciting and all the potential job titles floating around gave me an adrenaline rush. But this excitement soon died down as the rejections starting pouring in.
Staring at Reed and the same bedroom wall for 12 hours per day isn’t most graduates’ plan. “The first phase of applying for jobs was exciting and all the potential job titles floating around on my laptop screen gave me something of an adrenaline rush. Soon after, this excitement died down dramatically as the rejections starting pouring in… the process of job-hunting was 10x harder than I assumed.”
“Subconsciously, I began to compare myself to others and I started to question whether I simply hadn’t worked as hard as my peers who were already landing full-time positions […] Eventually, I did manage to land a job and I’m grateful that the job-hunting process is over for now as it drained me out!”
When niche degrees = narrow options
Sarah has an MA in Aesthetic and Art Theory from Kingston University. She’s considering a career at an independent magazine in which everyone is hyper from £1 Pret filter coffees. She tells me the jobs market can be meaner than Regina George as, "the more obscure your degree, the more you have to be creative with making your career.”
“There's barely any talk of the vocational side of the degree or how you survive after graduation. What you actually want to do with an MA isn't spoken about, as there's a focus on how you chose to study this degree so now you have to deal with the consequences of that."
The more obscure your degree, the more you have to be creative with making your career.
A landslide of lattes later, and Sarah admits one consequence is self-deprecation. When on job seekers’ allowance, “you search your mind for reasons why people might not employ you and you come back with all sorts of explanations. You blame yourself and things you can't control, almost as if you punish yourself in your head."
Working hard, but hardly working
Sometimes, when you apply for so many jobs per day, it’s hard not to think of life as a not-very-funny BBC Three comedy aimed solely at you. Maya, a Commercial Music Performance graduate of the University of Westminster, tells me how “applying for jobs has been draining. It took a lot out of me emotionally and even though it wasn’t, every rejection felt so personal… It sucks realising that even though you worked for three years to get a degree, a lot of employers don’t even care about it.”
I stared therapy, strengthened my relationship with God and really got into exercise and meditation
So, what do employers care about? That’s a bigger mystery than what Elon Musk’s day job is, but Maya took time to stop caring: “I stared therapy, strengthened my relationship with God and really got into exercise and meditation.”
“These have all been invaluable in making me feel more like myself again and less like a failure, which tends to happen when you don’t land a job in your field after graduating.”
The pressure to have life figured out
"It feels like if we don't have our dream job by the time we're 25, we're going to face impending doom."
Like a wi-fi modem at Starbucks, Ellie is overwhelmed and exhausted. After scoring a First in Law at the University of East Anglia, she was all ready to frequent pubs with artificial possessive-case names like ‘O’Dooligans’ and accessorise her Debenhams skirt suit with an American Express card. In other words, be a lawyer.
I haven’t opened my laptop in a month. I’m scared to see a random application from weeks ago that I can’t face.
But 10 months on, Ellie is struggling. She volunteers at advice bureaus once a week but keeps her side hustle as a supermarket sales assistant a secret from her co-workers. After spending so long staring at a screen at university, she’s used to being offline now. “I haven’t opened my laptop in a month. I’m scared to see a random application from weeks ago that I can’t face. I can’t look at them and have to mentally prepare to apply for jobs now.” Much like watching Interstellar, job hunting is something you really have to commit to.
However, Ellie has re-figured her unemployment as a time to avoid postgraduate pigeon-hole jobs that give you a free Acer laptop as compensation for ditching your passions. "Even though I don't have a job-job, I have the time to work out what I want. To explore what opportunities are out there before I commit to anything."
My point with all this is simple; to show you that you’re not alone. I often felt isolated from my social circles the first few months after graduation and felt no-one understood where I was coming from. Talking to the graduates above and hearing their stories has shown me that this mindset was so far from reality.
Please: tell me my life blows. Recognise negativity. Positivity, though coming from a caring place, can remove my chance to voice my feelings.
Contoured optimism (such as ‘A jOb Is RiGhT aRoUnD tHe CoRnEr’) can do more harm than good, so please: tell me my life blows. Recognise negativity. Positivity, though coming from a caring place, can remove my chance to voice my feelings and not queue them for my nightly Overthinking While Trying to Sleep mental podcast. Knowing that someone knows I’m in a funk does more to ameliorate it than telling me to stay positive.
But progress is never linear, and what can appear to be our anathemas can later turn into our strengths. So, tag yourself, you're ok. It's ok. You've done ok, and you will be ok.
*All names have been changed unless otherwise stated.