Today’s post is all about unemployment.
June is the time for many happy occasions, including weddings, Fathers’ Day, Flag Day, and Juneteenth. It’s also the time for many graduations, upon which many college graduates realize that Real Life has indeed hit. There’s no hiding behind tests and goodbyes anymore, folks. It’s time to stand and deliver.
When I graduated from college one year ago, I decided that I would stay around my tiny college town for a few more months before I started grad school in another city. Rent would be low, food would be cheap, and work — I was certain — would be pretty easy to pick up.
At this point, I should give you a basic summary of my skills.
- Deep knowledge of literature
- Deep knowledge of classical music
- Basic knowledge of Anglo-Saxon swearwords
- Solid experience with customer service
- Some knowledge of pre-Etruscan theatre
Clearly I was destined for greatness. And by greatness, I mean mid-level escort work, specializing in stressed academics.
I looked everywhere. I went door to door handing out résumés. I scoured job listings and made a lot of cold calls. After several weeks of this, I was forced to face Cold, Hard Post-Graduation Fact of Life #1: If you’re only going to be in town for a few months, very few people are going to hire you. You might be the greatest cashier in the world (to be clear, I wasn’t), but nobody in their right mind is going to put in the time to hire and train you in June, knowing that they’ll have to go through the whole process again in September.
And so my focus slid from “copy editor” to “wine tasting hostess” to “bookshop clerk” to “barista” to “pizza maker” to “ice cream scooper” and beyond. I was having nightmares about running out of money and being homeless for the rest of my life and watching from the sidelines as my college friends gallivanted off to success in their careers as doctors and lawyers and teachers. I was allotting $15 a week for food, never driving anywhere, and keeping the power off as much as possible. In the middle of this, my father sent me a quote from Robin Sloan’s book Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore that resonated keenly with me. The narrator, struggling to find a job, describes his search process:
“I kept at it with the help-wanted ads. My standards were sliding swiftly. At first I had insisted I would only work at a company with a mission I believed in. Then I thought maybe it would be fine as long as I was learning something new. After that I decided it just couldn’t be evil. Now I was carefully delineating my personal definition of evil.”
Finally, in early July, as I was researching egg donation only half-jokingly, I got a job.
Naturally, it was unpaid. Despite that small detail, it allayed my anxiety a bit. It was in a good place (a local social services agency), with good people (including my landlady, an old family friend, and my ex-boyfriend’s uncle). I was learning things (like typo3 and some basic graphic design), and it would fill the gap in my résumé. And in the middle of that, I heard back from one of my cold calls: A lady on the outskirts of town needed help cleaning her house once a week.
And clad in the shimmering samite of my bachelor’s degree, I went off to clean her house. Because when you’re young and desperate and someone offers you a job, you take it, no matter how humbling it is.
I was lucky — I had some savings, and local connections, and good health insurance through my parents, and concrete plans for my future that were already in motion. I never reached the point of majorly serious financial trouble. But even if I live to be a hundred, I will never forget the helplessness and anxiety of having no income source in sight. It’s a feeling that has kept me on my toes through one year of grad school and given me so much more empathy for the people who live with unemployment for months or even years.
To those of you who have just graduated and are feeling the crunch of the job market, I leave you with this advice: Keep fighting. Keep learning. Don’t be afraid to start low. Just throw yourself wholeheartedly and selflessly into every application, and eventually someone will want to harness your passion. Finally, if all else fails, remember this quote from Tina Fey’s amazing book, Bossypants, describing a time when her mother was babysitting two very young Greek children.
“After a couple of hours, seven-year-old Christo was beside himself. He had never been babysat before. […] Pulling his golden curls nervously, he looked like the night manager of a miniature diner who had just had a party of six dine and dash. He ranted to his baby sister in Greek, ‘Πως καταντήσαμε, vreh βρε Maρia!’ This sent my mother running into the dining room laughing hysterically. I chased her. What? What did he say? Roughly translated it was ‘Oh! My Maria! What is to become of us?’
His overdramatic ridiculousness tickled my mom in such a specific way that she was doubled over in the dining room, hoping the kids wouldn’t see that she was laughing so hard at them she peed a little. A phenomenon I now understand on all levels.
They were going to be fine, but they couldn’t possibly believe it.”