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Left behind: our generation’s struggle with underemployment

It was just an office building but I loved it very much. It was where my father worked, and as a child I savored every visit. Dad has long since moved on to other things, of course, but in those days he had his own office with a door and a big window — all in glorious downtown Vancouver. He would leave for work in the morning, then come home in the evening. He did it for several decades. The McCullough family seemed to do all right.

For most of my life I had no other conception of what “work” was. Eventually I would complete my own years of schooling and slide effortlessly into a swanky office with a big window just like father.

I’m 27 now, but the office seems further away than ever. Like many in my generation, I feel something, somewhere, went horribly wrong.

Generation of Underemployment

For any unemployed (or underemployed, to use the current trendy euphemism) 20-something with a modicum of self-awareness, one of the dreariest challenges of day-to-day living is attempting to determine how much of your crappy present life is the result of your own poor life decisions, as opposed to powerful societal forces beyond your control. How much blame should you direct to the mirror, versus some more amorphous demon — like, say “the economy?”

My friend Stephanie seemed to do everything right. She got good marks and did impressive work at the student newspaper. Yet she has never found full-time work in the aftermath of her graduation two years ago. Now on her third consecutive unpaid internship, she still lives with her parents.

“I thought that as long as I had a good degree, I would be set,” she said. “But instead I applied to jobs wondering what was so wrong with me that nobody wanted to hire me. It was frustrating and depressing.” Having little luck winning over any established employer, she now sees freelancing as the most logical career path.

“Today’s job seekers need to be more enterprising and scrape up opportunities wherever they can find them,” she explained.

Stephanie’s belated conclusion probably personifies the largest flaw of contemporary youth education. We were taught to view work as something that employers would award for our talents, in a simple cause-and-effect equation. It was hard to overstate the simplicity, in fact. Rarely did we entertain the possibility that the employer might go off-script.

And yet here we are: in the midst of an economic climate where our parents’ generation stubbornly refuses to retire, while an information revolution has rendered numerous once-proud industries either obsolete or financially teetering. The Internet gives away for free what many once made a living providing; news, software, music, video games, maps, encyclopedias, mail… We all got quite uppity when people said our downloads and torrents were killing jobs, and now we fight for the last remaining pieces of businesses we helped crumble. You can forgive the old-timers for hanging on.

Taking it into your own hand

In such a context, the wave of the future seems to be opting out of business-as-usual and going it alone, or at the very least, going with a small clique of like-minded, independent entrepreneurs.

Indeed, of the few people I know who are genuinely “making it” in respectable white collar, nine-to-five, middle class careers — as opposed to the pseudo-work refuges of graduate school, government bureaucracy, or family business apprenticeships — almost all are either self-employed, or working for someone else’s plucky little start-up.

It’s a shift in expectations that has David, another friend and recent grad, feeling a bit jerked around.

“I don’t have any appropriate training,” he told me. “Starting a business is something that I would like to do, but I didn’t study business in university, and I don’t know the first thing about creating one.”

“The primary difference between my peers who have found gainful employment and those that have not,” he added, “is how good they are at making connections that can find jobs for them.” If you’re not the next Zuckerberg, in other words, it usually helps to know one. Though schmoozing and networking is yet another skill education failed to impart.

Generation of entitlement

It is always easily to dismiss the current hopelessness of our generation as the product of a kind of lazy entitlement, the result of the unprecedentedly spoiled expectation that good careers, like spending money or Christmas presents, should simply be handed over, rather than correlated to any sort of hard work. It dovetails neatly with that other unspoken assumption lying just beneath many youth critiques of the present job market (including this one): work should not only be available, but fun, interesting, and important too.

In theory, of course, anyone can work anywhere. There’s always lot of floors to be swept and boxes to be stacked. Yet ask anyone who read that 2,000-word resignation letter from a disgruntled young grocer at Whole Foods that went viral earlier this year, and they’ll happily tell you about the particular sort of chaos that ensues when you attempt to cram an over-qualified square peg into the round hole of wage labor.

“You don’t hold critical thinking and discretion in high regard?” the writer asks with great rhetorical indignance, amid critiques of the supermarket’s environmental and fiscal policies. “You encourage blindly following rules?” He wanted none of it.

Though an air of self-righteousness is unmistakable, this is a decidedly different phenomenon than sheer laziness. For all its failings, completing school is still a far more difficult slog than the alternative, and passion will always requires more effort than submission. Low-paying, low-skill jobs are certainly available, but can be maddening and depressing for minds that have gotten used to completing bigger and better things (and earning ample praise and attention for doing so). If a sustenance career was all that was likely or expected, I can imagine more than a few people who wouldn’t have tried nearly as hard.

Ours was the generation of oboe lessons, French tutors, and computer camps, all designed to prep us for the workaholic futures that supposedly awaited (it seems almost grotesque now, but in third grade I actually attended after-school architecture classes). So why not complain if the grocery store isn’t quite up-to-snuff? It’s a uniquely unsettling feeling to feel so flawed and irresponsible after years of being told you were doing everything right.

The tough grind

There’s very little to be gained from any sort of wallowing, of course. Amid all the weepy CBC profiles about how Things Have Never Been Worse, the surest equation for educated youths seeking success remains fairly simple: perfect your skills, accomplish things, get noticed, introduce yourself to people that matter, and apply, apply, apply.

It’s a different equation than the one we were taught, it may take agonizingly long, and it may not lead to the places we expected, but it’s still something. And so long as something is better than anything, it’s all you can really do.

It’s troubling to think that there may never be an office with a door or a window in my future. “Work” may mean something else entirely by the time, I, or Stephanie, or David, or the Whole Foods guy, are actually doing enough of it to live comfortable, independent, adult lives.

It may be nobody’s fault in particular, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Flickr photo (cc) by avrenim_acceber