This originally appeared in the 2009 edition of The Idler.
If you believe everything that has been written about me in the last few months, I should be easy to spot. The horrific scars of recession cover my body. I stumble from job centre to pub, weeping over my catastrophic debts and futile attempts to secure that coveted shelf-stacking job. I am a “victim”, a “casualty” and will be “a constant in the dole queue”.
Less hysterically, I am simply graduating from University in June. Born in 1988, I am a child of the insatiable greed of the 30 year capitalist party that Thatcher started, but now that I’m old enough to join in, the lights have been switched off and everyone has gone home. It’s all the worse because I did everything right, getting proper qualifications and doing internships. I have even been subjected to ghastly “transferable skills” seminars in order to shape my CV into the perfect package of employability. So do I feel downcast and wretched, cursing society for its faceless betrayal of what I was assured would be a bright future? Not especially. It doesn’t surprise me that my friends and peers in the class of 2009 got chewed up and spat out by our economy, but now that the inevitable has happened, I want to explain what the world of the imminent graduate looks like, and to explore what will it mean to have so many overqualified and unemployed young people hanging around.
We look back on a golden age. University has been a sleepy riot, characterised by delightful inertia followed by periods of intense study and partying. I read English and Comparative Literature at the University of York, and I look back with satisfaction on days composed of sleeping in, reading novels, writing a few articles for the student newspaper, then spending the evening drinking with friends. I have had my brain squeezed and expanded in so many ways, both intellectually and emotionally, that I find it hard to imagine how desolate life will be when I am defined by a job that I hate. Depression descends over me as I imagine my part-time holiday work writing press releases and brochures, or in telesales, as a permanent fixture dominating my week and consuming my time.
However, I would not want to paint too rosy a picture of my university experience. Market forces are on campus in a way that was unthinkable just a few years ago. This can be seen most obviously in the way in which universities conduct their careers advice and gather data about their students after leaving university. A typical questionnaire sent to a recent graduate looks like this:
1. Are you currently:
In full-time employment Undertaking further study
In part-time employment Currently unemployed
Self-employed Full-time family carer
Currently temping Other, please state
Travelling or taking a gap year are not considered to be actual activities, so anyone who ticks the “other” box is automatically classed as “unemployed”, feeding the stereotype of the recent graduate sitting in their parents’ homes in their pyjamas, eating all day to make themselves feel better about their utter inadequacy.
“Transferable skills” are emphasised with zeal by some tutors and through ironic grimaces by others, as universities struggle to keep their employability ratings high enough to qualify for government grants. One often feels part of Brave New World when email after email with thrilling prospects like “Personal Development Planning” and “Networking Skills” are offered to numb you like soma until you don’t feel scared about the future anymore. I have managed to evade these peculiar events throughout my university career, but I know many who believe that with two or three mind-numbing hours of this kind of event on their CV they will be exempt from the gaping jaws of recession.
Like most young people today, I know what working is like, of the spirit-sapping, pointless variety, as opposed to the other kind of work, which fits in seamlessly with life and is not separate from enjoyment. Today’s graduates have been encouraged to work from the earliest possible age, regardless of their parents income, for the purposes of self-improvement and experience, or to “learn the value of money”. The latter is my own parents’ excuse for telling me to find a part-time job the moment my National Insurance card dropped through the door. I know very few people who had never had a part-time job before university, and who continued to work once they got there. We are already aware of the pettiness of office life, the jumped-up managers of restaurants who hate you because you’re young and don’t want to be there, or the feeling that you are slowly dying as the fiftieth person that day slams the phone down on you as you try to sell them a product neither of you wants.
September 2008 came as a shock to many. Banks started to shrink and then implode, leaving black holes all over the fabric of the economy. The government responded by nationalising manically, just like the demented lefties they have edged into obscurity for the last thirty years had always wanted. Students start signing up for the Master’s courses they had seen as indulgent, and fielded twitchy phone calls from anxious parents, demanding they find employment before the year was up.
The most important point here is that, as a twenty year old, I don’t remember a time when socialism was taken seriously in Britain, nor do I expect the state to care for me in old age or in times of unemployment. I have grown up knowing that market forces are what our politicians believe in, and that I may never own a house or get a decent pension if the economy doesn’t happen to work in my favour. I knew this long before I applied to study for my degree. We are a generation saddled with loans, not grants. We have tremendous debts for the privilege of our education, and we have known financial worry since the age of 18, when we clocked up our first borrowed three grand to pay our new tuition fees.
Today’s graduates were well steeped in the benefits and pitfalls of our debt culture, and as a result the ones who want cars, homes, and yachts on credit persevered in firing off CVs to banks, management consultancies, and corporate law firms. Right now amongst my friends, finding a job is often the only thing they talk about, and it often feels like my third year has been taken up with applications, discussions about applications, and endless degree work. I often think that if one more person tries to talk to me about the solicitor’s training contract they are trying to secure, I may have to inflict prolonged and unnecessary pain on their bodies.
Of course, it is understandable that many are anxious, and there is a certain gallows humour that goes along with it. People talk cheerfully about the novelty of signing on, and a friend of mine recently wrote in his student newspaper column: “I’m sure I’m not the only one to have a picture in my mind of an unkempt tramp rather too closely resembling myself, lying on a street corner with a skinny dog, begging passers by for a few pennies in return for performing humiliating acts”. He was recently turned down for a job with the Civil Service, despite working for his MP in the holidays for the past year. People relate their cancelled interviews and the jobs they were promised at the beginning of the summer which were plucked away by September.
This is a story repeated across Europe, except that our EU neighbours no longer find the joke funny. France and Greece have seen student protests and riots over their governments’ perceived inability to help graduates find work. Greece has a youth unemployment rate of 30%, and as a result has suffered the most serious backlash against corrupt officials who use nepotism to keep the pool of graduates they pick from small and elite. The last wave of strikes in France this January were partly represented by university lecturers, sick to death with government interference. One of their leaders, Nicolas Guillet, wrote on the current affairs website Rue89:
“Voulez-vous un sous-enseignement, coupé de la recherche scientifique, destiné à faire de vous une main d’œuvre d’autant plus malléable qu’elle n’aura pas été habituée à réfléchir?”
Basically, do you want to have a substandard education that turns you into a drone doing a menial job, completely unable to think for yourself? French lecturers and students are angry at what they perceive to be governmental dumbing down for the sake of the economy. The grèves that commandeered the boulevards were met with blank indifference by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who simply shrugged and said that “no one notices” strikes in France anymore. The Champs Elysées will burn. What we must destroy ourselves is the idea that in times of economic strife, any job is a good job. Graduates must not devalue the education they have given up three or four years of their life and hefty sums of money to be able to pursue.
If we look at Britain, the government has recently promised to create more paid internships in partnership with companies such as Barclays and Microsoft. Unfortunately, it has yet to specify any details of the scheme whatsoever, or even to pledge any funding for it. Interns will be paid the equivalent rate of their student loan, which for many is inadequate and must be supplemented by a part-time job while at university. How a full-time intern will also hold down a part-time job has yet to be explained by Gordon Brown’s crack team. The problem is that today’s politicians went to university for free, and got jobs at a time when a lot less than 43% of their peers held a degree. They cannot know what graduates face because their own experiences were decided along the class and socioeconomic lines that have blurred today.
The press has claimed that the last set of graduates with comparable economic circumstances were those leaving university in 1980. However, if we take a small step back to consider the decade preceding that year, we observe the might of the trade unions, who were working with a government that had Tony Benn as a Cabinet member. Today, the trade unions are muzzled and weak, and our cabinet minister from the Benn dynasty is Hilary, a typically grey New Labour centrist who is as soporific as his father was invigorating. Our government fights against measures like the EU Working Time Directive, which would limit British workers to a 48 hour week, and blocks regulation aimed to tighten up corporate tax on environmental damage.
With these features of the landscape of Britain in mind, and in this post-socialist, post-welfare, past-caring age, it seems that politicians are actively legislating against our working graduates, who spend more hours of their waking lives in offices than any other country in Europe. The philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed in his Conquest of Happiness that “One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is a belief that one’s work is terribly important, and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster”. We can see the collapse of the banking system as exactly this kind of breakdown. In this mass nervous collapse, resting is weakness and forging ahead is the only possible option, even as the wheels fall off the capitalist machine and the economy combusts.
Breakdown should bring contemplation and reflection, but in 2009 it has so far seen demands for the prosecution of the likes of Fred Goodwin, who nearly caused the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and Richard Fuld, Lehman Brothers’ CEO. These people are symptoms of a sick society, not its root cause. From all the faults of the last couple of decades, we must conclude that the solution is not merely to downsize our old ambitions, but to rebuild them. The events of recent months show that the capitalism of the noughties is indeed as broken a concept as socialism. We need to stop proclaiming the infallibility of political systems, only to be let down again and again. We need to invest ourselves not in money making or in overarching schemes of national improvement, but in small scale projects. Graduates need to start schemes for the green revolution, start the magazines they were told were too ambitious, start an art movement, start taking food seriously and growing their own, something based not on money but on what is important. We have a very small window of opportunity to seize what we want to do for once, and we must not be browbeaten when we are told what we should be doing. The older generations were monumentally wrong in their handling of the economy, and graduates need not listen to them, because they have failed us.
We may have no money, but we do have a crucial advantage over the most mythologised disaffected young people of last century, the ‘68 generation. Driven by idealism and self-belief, the French students who stole foie gras to give to the poor, or the hippies who protested against America’s involvement in Vietnam proposed radical social and economic change, but they only got the former. Today’s graduates have grown up in an environment of relative tolerance towards people of a different ethnicity, sexual orientation, or class than themselves, but economic reform has been stagnant and remains divisive and corrosive for our society. We have seen the benefits for an élite, some of whom may even be our parents, but graduates have also borne the brunt of a system spinning out of control. We won’t stand simply for the moral fight, because we have seen a society transformed by greater tolerance, but not by a greater equality.
We need to consider what a degree means, how we want to work with it, and why. If a degree is simply a £20 000 passport (this is the projected average student debt) to a tedious job, then we should be ashamed of our education system. No banking jobs in the City? Then don’t feel anguished that you’ll never look down from a tower in Canary Wharf, wishing you could be frolicking outside as you contemplate how to fill your sixth ten hour day that week. A degree should stand for a commitment to your subject and a willingness to explore new ways of thinking, and even of living. Even if a student doesn’t end up using their degree directly, the ethos of a university environment with an absolute respect for freedom of speech and expression should be carried far beyond the day of their graduation.
The writer Albert Camus, believed that “Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.” Graduates need to distinguish between working and just becoming one of the “main-oeuvre”. Why must we be defined by the job that we do rather than the person that we are? Why is the second question people ask after your name is what you do, or do “for a living”? Even our language has been manipulated into communicating that you’re the primary fact of your identity, what you “do” or how you “live” is your job. We need to stop the ludicrous fetish for work in today’s Britain, and to seize the mantle of change while it is still available to us. My peers should learn something from the continent, both in terms of their resurgent protest movements, 35-hour weeks, and the national habit of at least a month off work during the summer. Our national happiness would grow exponentially as we learnt to spend time with our families and friends instead of cramming all social interaction into binge drinking our frustrations away on a Friday night.
The class of 2009 are not going to be bailed out by the Government. After 17 years of government tests, targets, and parental pressure, we would be well within our rights to have 12 months based on the aim of not having any aims. We will need to ride out the recession remembering how we have been treated as we start our working lives, so that we never forget how market forces failed us. It may be tough, but at least we have the opportunity to invoke Bartleby and say “I’d rather not” when it comes to being forced into the golden handcuffs of mass employment.
Right now, we have an excuse to take a year (at least) to consider what we want from ourselves if we don’t want simply to make money. I hope that the legacy of 2009 will be a vintage year for writing, as our graduates attempt the poetry, novel or play they never really felt they had time or excuse to work on. As I have said, we are not idealists in the ’68 vein, but we need to believe that work can be necessary and enjoyable, and that the two are not mutually exclusive. Work should become a part of our lives, not the point of our existence.