(Pardon the long paragraphs and lack of pictures. I can’t keep quiet about this anymore, and I’m better at essay writing than blog writing.)
Today I am thinking about truth and lies, but mostly lies. I was raised to believe so many things that have proven false already, things like “Work hard, get a degree to get a good job and you’ll be successful.” This was a reasonable thing for my parents to believe and it was a reasonable thing for people who were young adults when I was a child to believe. I don’t think the idea was passed on to me with any kind of malice or intent to deceive, but I also wonder if those who told me that knew how deeply it would sink in… and how much trouble it is now causing for many of us.
In a struggling economy, in a country with a staggeringly skewed distribution of wealth, at a time when there are more people than there are jobs, it’s just not true that working hard and having the “right” degrees and an impressive resume will get you a job, let alone a good job, by default. I am not the first to point this out: a couple weeks ago the New York Times ran a piece called, “It takes a B.A. to find a job as a file clerk.” But I am thinking about it today because some things hit even closer to home.
My cousin, who is the same age as I am, received a cursory rejection email regarding a job she’d applied for that she was well-qualified for and very much wanted. She wrote to confirm that her application materials had been received, and not 20 minutes later received a perfunctory “Thanks, but no thanks” reply. My cousin has degrees from 2 well-known and well-respected “name brand” institutions and the resume to back up her interest. All of the work she’s done as a student, an intern, a regular employee, and as a volunteer have been to prepare for a job like the one in question today. As she asked me, “What are they looking for, if I’m not qualified?” And I can only tell her that she IS qualified, and that the reason she hasn’t been hired for any of the jobs to which she’s applied in the last year or more is simply that in hard times and in a highly competitive area, the overqualified people are the ones who are hired.
After over a year of searching, rejection feels personal. I’ve been there too; before Fire showed up and changed my life, I hadn’t looked for a job beyond waiting tables and lifeguarding for a few months because I was so sick and hurt by the constant rejection I’d experienced. No matter how many times I reminded myself that it was the economy’s fault, not mine, it didn’t change the sinking feeling I got that brought me lower and lower every time someone turned me down for a job. When the message you’ve heard from childhood is that success naturally follows from hard work and a good education, it feels like your failure to secure a job by following such a simple recipe indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. Each additional rejection only confirms it more. At some point, the emotional beating you take by continuing to apply for jobs outweighs your need to earn more money to support yourself and your other dreams, and it outweighs your need to do meaningful work that engages you with your passions and helps to make the world a better place.
I hear faint voices in the back of my head that tell me that I, my cousin, and all the other young adults like us should just shut up and be grateful for even having a job at all. We should bloom where we’re planted, we should make ourselves indispensable to our employers so that they will promote us, and that we should keep working hard because that recipe for success still holds true if we’re just patient for a little while longer. Whoever says that sort of thing has truly never been in our shoes.
I am grateful that I am not out in the icy winter streets with my family. I am grateful that my work and paycheck keep my family alive, sheltered, clothed, and fed. I am doing everything that I can to bloom where I am right now, to keep learning and thinking and challenging myself every day. But my cousin and I, and many others like us, are under-employed for our talents and training yet considered “not experienced enough” for the jobs we were told we should be able to get for the asking. Our physical needs may be met, but we were raised to do more than go to work every day and do what someone else tells us to do. We were raised to discover and pursue our passions for learning and for making the world a better place. Far from being entitled, we simply want the opportunity to apply our knowledge and dedication and to prove ourselves to be contributors, to give back to our communities through our work. Now, at the time we imagined we’d be embarking on our journeys, we feel that we have reached a dead end, a no-man’s land of boring, stifling jobs and endless rounds of rejection letters. This treadmill wears away at our self-respect and hope for the future.
The problem I’ve identified isn’t just a problem for me, my cousin, and the other young adults who are adrift in that same ocean: It’s a problem for our whole society. When a generation of young people is stifled and told, endlessly, that they’re not good enough, we are wasting both the current talents and the future experience and wisdom of those people. When employers consistently choose the overqualified candidates because they’re a safe bet, they’re missing out on the fresh energy, enthusiasm, and dedication of the younger, less experienced candidates. We have a generation here who could be bringing just as much change and improvement to their work and to the world as their parents and grandparents did but who instead are told to shut up and be grateful for what they are given. That idea combined with rejection only reinforces the idea that something is wrong with us. The job postings we read and respond to say that we’re qualified, so why is it that we are rarely even called for interviews? We’re told that our cover letters are outstanding and our resumes impressive, but we’re consistently passed over for jobs that even we are overqualified for in favor of people with even more experience. How can we get the experience they say we lack if no one is willing to take a chance on us?
It’s hard not to be bitter. I’ve only just started extricating myself from the rat race and the emotions that are fresh for my cousin today are not so stale for me, too. But I don’t want to be bitter. I want to be the creative, empowered person I have worked to become; more on that for another day. I don’t know what the future holds for any of us, whether we choose to keep applying for jobs or whether we choose to explore other ways of living and working, but I do know that there’s no fail-proof recipe for success for my generation. The way out starts by recognizing that “hard work + education = a successful career” does not apply to us the way it applied to past generations. The way out will be different for everyone, but it involves finding or creating a new definition of success and applying hard work and dedication in the service of that new thing.