The Unemployment Chasm: from someone who’s made it to the other side

mcdonaldsI will own up to having gone into a kind of hibernation for the past months. This blog was supposed to be about consciously constructing and living a better life and figuring out how to be the best version of myself as I navigate my transition into adulthood. In that I have failed myself and the handful of readers who used to frequent this blog by standing quiet while I go through the most epic struggle of the transition process.

Why did I allow myself to fall off the face of the planet? I don’t just mean from the blogging world. I pretty much went into full hiding. Why did I do this? Because I was ashamed. I have always suffered from the need to keep up appearances (will probably blog about this at some point) and it was easier for me to keep them up if I simply didn’t emit any data at all.

After tremendous investment and high expectations, I had no job and being 3, 4, 5, 6 months out of school and with no reasonable idea whether or not things were about to change. I’ve found a job now, but I feel responsible to share my experience with that seemingly endless purgatory. The job search is something anyone can relate to, but I think it is important to illuminate what it is like NOW. The landscape for those who graduated after 2008 is largely alien to those who graduated before. I want to offer another snapshot into what they face. I have no magic tricks for finding a job, or comforting words about how it will get better. I hope only to relive some of the shame and insecurity for the many many out there who have not yet found their place.

It is one thing to read articles and statistics about unemployment, the “jobless recovery,” the woes for today’s new grads, or the changes in employer demands or expectations. It is quite another thing to live it, and unless you have, you will not fully understand. Right up into my senior year, I didn’t. I saw the struggles of the girls on my athletic team who graduated in the years before me and could only assume they were doing something wrong. They were all fair to excellent students and athletes holding a diploma from an elite school and most of them did not lack for connections or resources. Their failure to find something I considered appropriate employment I assumed must be up to some kind of personal failure.

Obviously that assumption was harsh and naïve, but I am certainly not alone. Nearly everyone who has not crossed the post-graduation unemployment chasm in the last four years makes similar assumptions. Which is why, in the midst of my most epic part of my transition to adult life, I removed myself from the world view and why I am speaking up now. With as many people as I talked to and with as many statistics as I read, I could not shake the feeling that I was better than the statistics and that I should be doing better. In the eyes of the world I was sure I was a failure, and even in my own eyes, I began to suspect that they were right. That was not something I wanted to broadcast. 

I am no super-star, but I had put myself in a very good position to be employable, or so I thought. I graduated from a top-5 school, with a 3.4 GPA, successful D-I athlete, double major, overseas experience and a foreign language, internships with tons of responsibility, a 100pg thesis under my belt, good recommendations, and a fair collection of promising connections. I’d done everything I was supposed to do, right? If the statistics said 50% of new college grads are unemployed or underemployed or whatever, surely I fell on the favorable side of that 50, right?

Well, as I soon found out, it wasn’t that easy.

I had been stressed about finding a job before graduation, but sometime around the beginning of March with my thesis due, the spring season just beginning and needing to play catch up with everything I had put off while writing that stupid thesis, I made the decision to put my search on hold and focus on the tasks at hand. I got the go-ahead from my lovely father to stay on the east coast rather than return to my middle-of-nowhere hometown so I could stay close to interviews. I decided to stay near school so I could continue to have access to my student privileges over the summer, not have to think too hard about getting settled and I would be conveniently located near the cities in which I would be most likely to find a job. It would be weird staying on campus after graduation, I knew, but figured I wouldn’t be there for long. Besides, now I could take advantage of all the wonderful things on campus and in the city that I had never taken advantage of because I was too busy.

The first month was rather nice. I gave myself about a week and a half to chill out and read, then I started looking with excitement and ambition. I even got to last-round stages of interviews at a likely looking place in New York. I felt awesome. Then I didn’t get the job. I had slacked off applying during the weeks of that interview process wanting to focus exclusively on the opportunity at hand and because I felt pretty sure I would get the job. Not getting that first job was such a huge slap in the face. WHYYYyyyyyyyyy?????? I alternately whined and screamed inside my head. They had not given me a credible reason and so I was lost alternately in self doubt and defiance. What was wrong with me? I was awesome…right? Yes. Right? I didn’t know.

The second month, I realized that even if I got an interview right then, interview progressions often lasted a month or more. That meant that I needed to get a job IMEDIATELY in order to be able to start/move out in time. I was only subletting a room for the summer, I didn’t think it would take longer than that. I applied to things like a mad woman. Nothing.

The third month. More doubt and fear. Maybe that job in New York had been a one in a thousand chance. When would the next chance come? All the time I was rethinking my strategy. I bought books, revamped my LinkeIn page. Sent my resume out to anyone who would look to comment on, got my coach to connect me with old alumni. I HATE NETWORKING. I used to spend literally an hour or more agonizing over a one paragraph email.

I resigned. I had the talk with my dad. I had failed in the United States. I would simply have to move to China and teach English. I couldn’t keep sucking my dad’s recourses month after month. It was my responsibility to figure it out now. It was slightly more glamorous than waiting tables and maybe it would lead to a job there, or maybe improving my Chinese would help me land a job when next I tried to land a job on home turf again. I already knew scores of my peers who had fled to China, Japan, Korea, even Thailand to peddle their fancy degrees for some of the choicer English teaching positions. It was a respectable if not ideal alternative.

My dad can be harsh and exacting, but to his credit, he was incredibly supportive through the entirety of this process. For obvious reasons, he also did not want his only daughter disappearing to the other side of the world again. He convinced me to stay and continue my search state side. I knew there was sense in his argument. Even if it took longer, I would be better off getting a job here with increasing responsibilities than going to teach English. Teaching English wouldn’t hurt me, might even help me, but it would only delay what I really needed to do. I wanted so badly to be self sufficient. I felt like a slug not working, not going to school, and accepting a parental check each month. I moved to another house, signed a year lease, and hunkered down for the long haul.

I needed money. I wouldn’t ask dad for more money, I felt guilty enough as it was, but without a meal plan, I was barely making it month to month. I needed a job. Anything. But anything I did would cut into the time I was supposed to be looking for work. That was the whole point of accepting a check each month. Not only was I supposed to look for work full time, I NEEDED to. I lucked into a job at the info desk at the student center of my school. I say lucked into because it paid me $8.50 an hour with extremely flexible hours to sit at a desk and continue to look for jobs while I occasionally told a visitor where the bathroom was. The price for such a lucky gig? Daily humiliation.

I had spent the summer withdrawing into deeper and deeper seclusion. When the school year started I moved farther away from campus and only took secret back pathways to get to my work. But when you work at the main information center at the primary student hub and cafeteria at the center of campus, there is no hiding. Every day I saw multiple people I knew. Grad students, old TAs and professors, younger teammates, even the shop-keepers I had become very friendly with all recognized me for what I was: someone who had failed to move on. Some were more tactful, asking me how I’d been etc. Others obliviously asked me “What are you doing here, didn’t you graduate?”

At first I had been glad that going home would have been a strategically poor move. Who wants to move back into their parents house? But after hearing again the varying degrees of judgment, pity and concern in the voices of those who had expected more, I began to envy those who had gone home. I had checked up on enough of my peers, and staying on campus I had heard enough of people’s activities through the grape vine to know that I was not alone. The only thing I was alone in was in being publicly visible.

Know this: what you see on your peers’ facebook pages is only a glorified version of themselves. People conveniently forget to remove things they are no longer a part of and are quick to put new things up—carefully embellished. It took me a while to figure out just how many there were like me. They, like me, had gone into hiding. Many of those with seemingly good jobs turned out to be part-time, unpaid internships, or facades. Those who had nailed down the glamorous much sought after jobs before graduation seemed to be miserable.

Of the eight girls I graduated with on my team, I am still the only one with a salaried position in my desired field and that is only because I lucked out. That’s what it takes. Luck. I said once in a moment of frustration and defiance that I would not settle (this was a lie, I was totally ready to settle) and that I would just keep aggressively applying to jobs. Sure hundreds of people were applying for the same job, but eventually someone would make a mistake, I reasoned, and let me in. It only took one.

And that’s what I did. And that’s what happened. Hundreds of people applied for my job.  I followed up aggressively and I was blown off the first time I applied. Out of the blue I was called up again a month later. I interviewed over skype and still didn’t get the job, but I had been their second choice. I sent a nice follow up anyway asking them to keep me in mind. Two months later, I got a call. The guy who they hired instead of me had a personal emergency and they needed someone to take his place right away. I took a bus down for an in person interview and started work that week.

Dumb. Luck. But unless you are a super star, that’s what you need. You only need it once. It’s up to you to generate as much luck as you can. Keep applying. Early, often, repeatedly. Follow up. If you don’t get an email, try to call. And don’t hide. You have nothing to be embarrassed about. The only thing to be embarrassed about is giving up or not giving it your best effort. Talk to EVERYONE. It probably wont go anywhere, just like each of the hundreds of applications you send out probably will be deleted before the first line of your introduction is read, but it only takes one.

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