I like to consider myself a recent graduate. I graduated almost a year ago, in October 2016, from a master’s in Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. Now, most of you will think that a year is quite long and that I should be considering myself a young professional, a career starter, or anything else that doesn’t still link my existence to university. Well, trust me, I would like to – but I guess classifying myself as a recent graduate is my way of telling me that it’s okay that, almost a year post graduation, I’m still unemployed.
However, others may beg to differ. Seeing how quite a few trainee programs for recent graduates require that you graduated no longer than 6 months ago, I suppose that some, if not most, organisations expect me to already be a young professional by now, or anything the like that constitutes a solid member of the labour force. However, I don’t really qualify as such either, having less than one year of work experience. Therefore, I find myself in limbo between university and work, trying to sustain myself with part-time jobs in retail, as a ‘gig economy’ worker and through begging my parents for money, which becomes increasingly difficult.
This is where the retail and ‘gig economy’ work comes into play. Once I realised that my cleaning job at Helpling would leave me with very little money seeing how I had to pay for my own health insurance (which is about 170 euros in Germany if you’re self-employed, which you typically are as a ‘gig economy’ worker) and travel between jobs, I soon took a job at the popular (and shitty – because yes, they do exploit their employees) British cosmetics company Lush. However, financially it didn’t really make a difference, and mentally it was as exhausting and demoralising as my work at Helpling. When I graduated in October last year, I was excited to leave university and to finally put all the many things I’d learned to practical use. I was eager to join the job market and to impress my future employer with my writing, my rhetorical and presentation skills, and my spontaneous and creative mind – abilities and characteristics that I have demonstrated numerous times and in various occasions throughout my studies. However, it seemed as if no employer was interested in any of these. I received one rejection after another and I had to eventually take “just any job” as my parents increasingly followed the logic that since I had graduated, I wouldn’t need their money anymore.
I just didn’t understand how it could be so hard for me to find work as a recent graduate. After all, I had studied in two different countries, I’m fluent in three languages and I wasn’t fully inexperienced either. During my bachelor studies, I completed a three-month internship at a prestigious Dutch think tank and as part of my master’s I completed an independent research project that required three months of intensive field work in Mexico. As I was taking a “gap year” (it was really more of a “jobbing year”) between my bachelor degree and my master studies, I also worked various jobs, which, although unrelated to my studies, shows that I’m determined and hard-working. However, none of this seemed to matter, for organisations continuously asked for a minimum of one year relevant work experience for their entry level positions. It appears as if employers simply ignore the fact that, in order to have experience, you must be given the chance to get experience.
And how are you supposed to do that? Internships. But internships are often unpaid, if you’re lucky enough your organisation will cover lunch and transportation costs or, better yet, they’ll offer you a “stipend” – frankly, I find the term itself offensive. The dictionary definition of stipend is literally such that it is a fixed and regular payment, but distinct from a salary in that it is not necessarily a compensation for your services but rather a form of allowance that permits you to, well, live. In other words, it’s a fancy -but oddly a commonly accepted- excuse for paying interns below minimum wage. How this can be legal is beyond my comprehension of human rights – and that despite the fact that I literally completed a master’s in Conflict Studies and Human Rights. How this can be a common thing is beyond my comprehension of social norms and progress. But then again, so is the fact that Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America, plane tickets are cheaper than train tickets and we’re still debating whether or not climate change is real.
Notwithstanding my lack of comprehension of these things, or perhaps precisely because my lack of comprehension of these things, I increasingly felt anxious. My anxiety was spurred by the fact that I felt pressured to get a job, to succeed, and to impress my parents and everyone else around me. As I was frantically checking Facebook or LinkedIn to see what my peers were doing, I was constantly reminded of other people’s success – or other people’s attempt to make their life seem a success. Because, surely, that’s what everyone’s doing on social media these days. We present ourselves as healthy, smart, happy and fun individuals, when in fact we barely manage to stand on our feet. But we have to stand on our feet, or at least we need to make the impression that we do, for no one wants to have to explain to their future employer that they took a break from things for mental health reasons: so we keep on walking.
How employers expect us to “keep walking” if they don’t pay us is, yet again, beyond my comprehension. But struggling with anxiety and frustration as I was working random jobs that would barely pay minimum wage, I felt as though I really needed to do something in my field if I didn’t want to get completely lost. I began applying for unpaid internships. I was finally given the opportunity to do an internship at a human rights NGO in Brussels – something directly related to my graduate degree. Fortunate enough to have financially capable parents, I convinced them to pay for my expenses as I was telling them that this internship would get me to where I need to be, that it was practically required of me to do another unpaid internship because of the fierce competition in my field and the unrealistic expectations of employers.
And so I did. The fact that it was unpaid certainly didn’t help ease my anxiety, for it only made me feel more obliged to soon find a good job which would allow me to finally gain financial independence. But here I am, two months after I’ve completed my internship, unemployed and ever-more anxious, for I feel like I need to justify my lack of success to my parents: but don’t get me wrong, my parents have been very supportive and although my dad does repeatedly voice his discontent at the fact that he’s still paying for my living expenses, he is relatively understanding of the fact that “this is how it works these days” – as I tell him on a now depressingly frequent basis.
Nonetheless, I do feel like there is a fundamental generational barrier which prevents both my parents from fully understanding the situation we actually face: we are the most educated generation in history, yet we face high unemployment, decreasing real wages and temporary work contracts as opposed to job security. In addition to that, we’re a generation that relies heavily on technology and as such is using technological devices for pretty much anything and in pretty much every circumstance of their lives, the exact effects of which on the human brain and psyche are still largely unknown. Meanwhile, we are witnessing the consequences of decades of irresponsible “growth”: climate change, pollution, droughts, heat waves, population growth and migration, to mention only a few of the challenges we are gradually confronted with. Problems that we’ve got to fix if we want there to be any future for anyone at all.
If you ask me, it is no wonder that millennials are more anxious than any other living generation. The American Psychological Association (APA) found that 12 % of millennials have a diagnosed anxiety order, which is almost twice the percentage of baby boomers. Bearing in mind that many people don’t seek therapy because they’re afraid of the stigma that’s attached to it or, worse yet, that it will show up in their records and that they’ll later have difficulties finding a job, I think I can confidently assume that the dark figure is significantly higher.
Obviously, I don’t have a solution to any of these problems, for if I had I probably wouldn’t be writing this article right now, but I suppose we can start by acknowledging that millennials face real challenges today. Rather than being privileged, narcissistic and lazy, we are suffering the consequences of our predecessors’ mistakes, and it certainly won’t be easy for us to face these consequences if we continue to live within a social fabric that tells us that you can do anything if you want it badly enough, that social progress is measured by a country’s GDP and that mental health issues are a sign of weakness. These conceptions are out-dated and not applicable to a world as complex as ours. Hence why we must challenge these perceptions, as much as we must challenge economic trends such as unpaid internships, ‘gig economy’ work and deteriorating welfare systems. For while some of us may be “privileged” enough to sustain them, the majority of us aren’t and if these trends continue, fewer of us will be. We cannot let that happen, which is why we must protest these trends rather than tend to them.