Dealing With Unemployment

Dealing With Unemployment

What happens on May 15?

Two weeks ago, I finished a roughly complete draft of my extended senior project. That same day, another fellowship prospect I had applied for in the fall finally emailed me back to let me know that I was, unfortunately, not the applicant they were looking for. Though I wasn't too upset about not receiving the fellowship (upon reflection, fellowships seem to be a delaying tactic for many, and I don't believe Pitzer should push students so hard to apply), what it represented was, to me, certainty. I knew what I was doing for at least another year.

I faced a moment of serendipitous anxiety in that moment: one email converted me from a working academic student to a washed-up has-been. The truth of my impending unemployment hit me hard, and for the first time, I realized I am not going to leave Claremont so much as it is going to spit out my picked-clean psychic skeleton.

I've been thinking a lot about what life after school will be like. For the past 22 years, every single step has seemed like a natural progression: do well enough in school to get into college, leave home for college, go to college. The next step is more ambiguous: "Get a job."

To me, having a real career (not just something to make money on the side or a summer gig) is a representation of stability and self-worth, a particular neurosis that deserves an entirely separate analysis. (I've decided to not explore that too deeply here. While the issue of employment works as a frame for this article, at the end of the day it is just that: a frame.)

I've tried talking about what comes next with a lot of gainfully employed people, be they family, well-intentioned career counselors (there is nothing less helpful than going into Career Services with high expectations. Lovely people, but a useless, outdated position), or just folks I run into, and everyone seems to find their way to the same truth: "Everyone finds their way to a job they love, just maybe not right after graduation. You should just be calm and see what happens."

That's easy for them to say.

With rare exceptions (professors, especially those off the tenure track, are the most genuine people in regards to the daily struggle and anxiety of their position), every person who has "found their path" vastly understates the struggle it took to get to where they are.

A lot of people downplay the years of hustling it can take to get to a job that doesn't constantly wear you down, or even the fact that many people never reach that stage. Even public speakers are the same way; we want to hear about how you are a successful lawyer, not the years you spent earning minimum wage to afford night school.

That's not to say that people do not talk about the years immediately following graduation. A lot of the folks I have talked to glorify those days before they made it to where they are, and try to relive it through their consumption. And sure, buying cheap things is part of living as a young, poor adult, but throwing a six-pack of Coors Light into your Whole Foods basket in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood is just too strange a tinge of rose-colored glasses for me to really stand by.

Most of the people you talk to will not mention how much it sucks to get out of school and be unemployed. They remember being in college and they remember their first big break, but the in-between sometimes gets eliminated. That doesn't make them bad people by any stretch of the imagination, it just means that they're not ready to share what may have been a dark part of their life with you. Maybe they don't even think about that anymore; let sleeping dogs lie.

The thing no one will tell you is that, bar none, the hustle doesn't end with college. Unless you somehow managed to network yourself into a job you love (or you're one of the few incredible, wonderful individuals who landed it based on merit), life is going to get a whole lot harder after leaving here. For me, it's going to be the first time I haven't been associated with a large and loving community, the first time facing professional rejection from every angle without school to distract me, the first time swimming against the current every waking moment. There's nothing I can do about it, that's just the way it's going to be.

Full disclosure, with the help of my family and my own penny-pinching, I have enough of a cushion to be thoroughly unemployed for a hot second after May. In fact, I may even be able to get an unpaid internship this summer in a field I love while I stay rent free with my mother, a unique benefit of my class status. While the next few years may not be a happy or a fulfilling time for me, I have to acknowledge that my struggle is relatively minimal, and is by no means a descent into poverty yet. So, take everything this 22-year-old kid says with a hefty hunk of salt.

In dark times, I often turn to literature. As a kid, I was incredibly affected by Orson Scott Card's novels, especially Ender's Game. Though I've since realized Card and I don't agree politically, I can't deny he wove a mean yarn (think of him as Sci-Fi's Harold Bloom, or a less intellectual Ayn Rand). One concept that still sticks with me is having "Speakers for the Dead." Basically, a Speaker would go to someone's funeral and tell the whole truth, not just the pleasantries we normally hear about. That pure honesty of reporting the minute and painful details of a life grabbed me, and I haven't shaken it off since.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, no matter what happens I will not leave the next few years out of my story. When I finally make it to financial stability (if I do; hopefully my degree is worth something), I will not gloss over the nights I spent waiting to fall asleep so a new day at a temporary job can begin, running down the clock on a perfectly youthful existence. Neither will I forget the good times I had, new experiences I learned and grew from.

I'm ready to see what happens, I think.

Cover Image Credit: Richard Linklater

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