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Cardboard Boat

Cardboard Boat

I'm a big fan of podcasts. A couple of months ago, after a mention on This American Life, I took to Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People.

The host, comedian Chris Gethard, invites fans to call up his line and hold a 1-hour anonymous chat with him. The callers feel a freedom in the anonymity yet an intimacy in Gethard's humor and gentle conversational prodding.

In this week's episode, I heard a lot of myself. The caller, a 26 year old woman from Ontario, talks about her career aspirations and her sad job search. If you want to listen in, skip to 14:28 for the beginning of the call.

She's applied for tons of jobs but hasn't landed a permanent one. The process is discouraging. 

"Wednesday, I got an email from a job I was in the running for saying I didn't get it. I really wanted it and I was really qualified. They just sent me this really shitty form email that was like 'Hey, we picked someone who has more qualifications and experience than you do,' but I had all the qualifications and experience. The kicker is that someone I know who was also trying to get the job -- she got it and she doesn't have the background or experience."

In an attempt to lighten the mood, Gethard cracks a few jokes. A few minutes later, the caller starts to break down.

"I feel upset with sort of the system... I'm just really thinking about how we recruit people to jobs... I work really hard... My resume is great, I do all the cover letters, I do everything and I still can't get a job."

She then talks about her work history, including a lay off and the creation of a summertime business. She's been on the job hunt since September, which is a long stretch of time to be filled with so much rejection and self-doubt that un(der)employment tends to breed. She's got a varied background is casting a wide job search net.

"I have a really diverse background with my skill set...  Any combination of anything related to any of those jobs is what I've been applying for, in huge quantities, like hundreds of jobs..."

Then, the caller gifts us listeners the greatest millennial unemployment metaphor:

"It's like you're building a boat to go on like an ocean. You're building this boat for a long time and then you realize that the boat is actually made of cardboard. It's like sinking and you're in the ocean and you're like 'What the -- what did I even do? Why did I do that? Why am I here?'... I have no idea what I'm doing with my life or anything."

Anonymous Ontarian, I got you. I know exactly what you're going through.

Six years ago I graduated college and moved home (across the country) to live rent-free with my parents. Shout out to Mommy and Daddy Thrifty for subsidizing my year of transition!

From May (graduation) until August, I had no gainful employment. I applied for hundreds of jobs. That fall, in a pre-Affordable Care Act era and with dwindling hope of securing a full-time job with employer-provided medical insurance, I had little choice but to become a full-time student again at the local community college in order to stay on my parent's health insurance policy. Needless to say, it was a kind of shitty situation.

That year I took four night classes per semester in subjects that hardly interested me. I simultaneously worked four part-time somewhat odd jobs during the day, none of which paid more than $10 an hour and all of which entailed spending way too much time in my car getting from one location to another.

The whole experience was humbling. Why was this happening to me? I had worked hard at school, earning scholarships, honors, and praise from my professors.

In a cloud of millennial entitlement, I thought a job would be waiting for me upon graduation.

After all, so many people had expressed to me that a college degree was simply the cost of entry into the job market, that having diploma in hand would open doors. I was told, "It doesn't even matter where your degree is from, what it's in or what your GPA was. The paper is all that matters."

I call bullshit. No job I did in that year after graduating necessitated a college degree. I would have been plenty qualified for those same jobs four years earlier after my high school graduation.

Alas, I took advantage of the year to gain experience in various jobs. I know now that no one wanted to hire a 21-year old whose only work experience was in an office for a year and half. I was entering the job market post-recession, when unemployment was high. The region where I was trying to get a job is one of the most competitive in the nation, no matter the field.

I had worked for a long time building a cardboard boat that on its maiden voyage was capsizing.

With some hindsight, I can see that sailing conditions for me were less than ideal. I came into the post-graduation phase of my life full of optimism and my soul was crushed. However, now I can chalk the whole thing up to a learning experience in millennial disillusionment. 

I realized that if I wanted to pursue a career in the field of my degree (Humanities, I know, poor choice), teaching was one of the few routes. When contacted by a former professor asking if I'd like to come back to the university I graduated from to do a Master's, I took her up on the offer. After all, I would be paid a stipend! (It was a measly $9,000/year so I did take out more student loans.)

So, a year after graduating from college, I moved again back across the country to start graduate school. There I did my best, earning scholarships, honors, and praise from my professors. By graduation day for my Master's, I had a job lined up to teach at a local private high school. Nailed it! I worked there for two years until the experience left a sour taste in my mouth (really toxic work environment and conditions). Unhappy at that job, I jumped at the chance to join the faculty of my alma mater, even though I knew going into it that the job offer was for one academic year with no possibility of renewal. (I was there to fill a personnel void until a new, permanent faculty member could join).

Now that I'm on the job market again, I've re-engineered my boat. I've fixed the leaks and reinforced the frame. Yet, I'm still drowning.

Now with a graduate degree and six more years of work experience under my belt, I'm in the same boat I was in before. I'm still unemployed without any real prospects. In my mind, I can excuse the first spell of joblessness after getting my Bachelor's. But now, I can't shake my perceived injustice. 

I take you back to the anonymous caller, my Canadian counterpart. Chris Gethard asks the caller if there may be some aspect of her job seeking that may be problematic, not yielding the anticipated results. If you're listening, you can hear her frustration and defensiveness as it echoes my own.

"To be honest, I have analyzed it every single way that I can think of... I've done every kind of resume, sometimes a more artistic resume gets you in the door, sometimes it's more of a professional resume. Sometimes it's a chill cover letter, sometimes it's a really formal one... I've tried every single kind of experiment that I can think of. I just think maybe it's just a bad time?"

I, too, have applied so many places and for a variety of jobs. For example, I've labored for hours over applications for a government agency tourism job, three universities for jobs in student affairs, a crafts supply internet start-up, a receptionist at a corporate training facility. 

I have asked myself so many questions about my job hunt:

  • Maybe the job vacancy announcement is just posted as a formality but they plan to fill it internally?
  • Since I'm in such an insular culture/area, maybe having any experience on my resume from another state is a detriment? Is my cell phone area code throwing people off? (Should I list a Google Voice number then?) Is there any hope in a town where who you know is what seems to land everyone their job?
  • To be fair, within driving distance, there are no jobs in teaching the subject that I have taught for the last five years. Maybe it's too much of a leap for an employer in another area of education to hire me? They think I'm too niche or a one-trick pony? (They don't see transferable skills?)
  • Maybe my cover letter is too good? Like they think I'm pretentious or they think I'm kissing up by actually addressing the job description and organization?
  • Am I overqualified? Should I even list any college degrees? But if I don't, how do I explain the jobs I got that require one?
  • They think I'm above the work and I'll leave as soon as something better comes up?
  • Maybe it's a timing thing? A lot of the public education jobs I've applied for may be waiting on the state budget's renewal in July for funding?
  • For jobs that require an hour or more commute each way -- maybe the hiring manager thinks I'm crazy for applying from "out-of-town"? That I'll grow tired of the commute and quit summarily?
  • They want someone older?

The Beautiful Anonymous conversation shifts to what the caller actually wants to do with her life. She dreams of starting her own business. Gethard and the live audience champion her aspirations and encourage her to stop pursuing jobs she doesn't even want in order to chase her dream.

This is where my life path and the caller's diverge. She has a dream, I just need a job. I don't know what my huge life purpose is and don't have any plans to start a business. I'm not attracted to a life of constant side hustles and freelancing, instead I crave the stability and security of a "real" job. Without completely throwing myself into another quarter-life crisis circa 2010, what the hell am I do?

Do I try to cobble together a living like I did before, with four part-time jobs (i.e. cashier, hotel desk agent, etc.)? Do I escape back to graduate school for a PhD, only to face an even more precarious job market later? For how many months do I allow my savings to be pillaged and my net worth plummet in search of the elusive and coveted full-time job with benefits?

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