We’ve all heard the 20-something lament before. Some of us struggle through university, surviving off vicious amounts of coffee while juggling thesis statements, part-time jobs and whatever we can muster up to deem as a social life. When our degree is complete we’re sent off to conquer the market with our ‘expertise’ and our entry-level fervor. What we’re met with, of course, are tight-knit industries with little to no room for our amateur portfolios to expand from. Degree or no degree, opportunity is scarce, or at least it seems so from this standpoint. Figuring out what you want to spend your entire life doing is not even half the battle. Once you’ve narrowed down your aspirations and shimmied them into the confines of a trade or industry, you then have to get up and fight your way in. That means finding an existing organization that not only shares your passion but also has room for you to join their team. If there is room, you need to land an interview. If you land an interview, you better be sure to knock their socks off. But impressing employers with your potential is not the real problem. The crux of the crisis lies in the fact that there are very few interviews being granted, let alone the jobs that they lead into.
After completing my B.A. almost three years ago, I was introduced to the harsh reality of the impenetrable workforce. There I was, stuffing my big ideas into even bigger dream clouds, completely baffled as to why my seeming genius wasn’t able to take shape in any real way. Jobs in my field were either unavailable or beyond the bounds of my relentless search. Granted, I limited my pool of prospective employers to those operating within my coveted field. But that’s what being young and mindful is all about, right? Right. But in retrospect, this is so very, very wrong. It wasn’t long before I realized that in order to find work, I had to explore options that sat outside of my field. Since then, I have worked a handful of jobs that can be deemed legitimate careers. I’ve accepted positions that offered me better than decent salaries, travel perks and amazing benefits. With no real reason to complain insofar as I was able to sustain my independence, I felt, and still do feel, professionally unsatisfied. I wasn’t working in my field, which meant I was investing forty hours a week (fifty hours if you include transit time) into a job that I didn’t enjoy enough to see myself still doing it in the near future. The only logical solution was to quit my desk job and re-focus my time and energy into working in my field.
Since taking the leap, I'm just as busy as ever, if not busier, and my days are filled with good things, like productive projects and enthusiastic conversations with people whose ideas inspire me. My mind is thinking creatively again and I’m working hard to put my ideas out there. While I feel great about this, I am also fully aware of the disappearance of payroll deposits and, as a result, the shrinking sum at the bottom of my bank statement. I’m working harder and better, and thinking stronger, yet I’m also facing financial woes. Money is a scary thing when you don’t have it. While I don’t regret the years I spent completing my degree, part of me resents the fact that the hard work that was demanded of me has left me facing this paycheck vs. passion struggle.
To my surprise (and, admittedly, to my relief) I’m not the only one feeling suckered by the workforce. It turns out that this city is flooded with an over-qualified, hyper-driven and completely unsatisfied population of late-20 and early-30 somethings. I’ve come across a slew of brilliant thinkers who suffer from this sense of career doom. PhD grads are competing over clerical positions because there just isn’t any room for their expertise. While there isn’t anything wrong with clerical positions, there is something seriously unsettling with not being able to apply years of knowledge and training into a respective field. Industries are tight and there is very little wiggle room for un-tenured academics or under-experienced experts, so they settle into jobs that they neither enjoy or feel satisfied by.
Why do they settle? Well, that’s easy: Money. Regardless of our stronghold to live out our own passions and knowledge, we still need to get paid. It’s pretty difficult for the brain the keep rolling when the stomach is rumbling, or the landlady is knocking down the door for rent. Part of being a young professional may be a matter of accepting unfulfilling jobs, at least for a little while. Or perhaps it is a matter of redefining what you need to be doing and experimenting with ways to get there in order to satisfy your dreams. Or maybe it’s both, or a combination of the two.
Or maybe we’re the problem here. Maybe our disappointment in the workforce is a product of our high expectations of it and of ourselves. I will full-heartedly admit that yes, I did in fact expect to land an amazing position right out of university. I wasn’t hoping to land my dream job (whatever that is) nor was I hoping to gain riches, but I was pretty confident that I’d find a position that I would like by virtue of it requiring me to put my hard-earned skills to use. Is this unrealistic? I didn’t think so at first, but I am quickly realizing that sure enough, it is.
Unlike me and so many of us, Bethann McLaren knew early on during her trek through her university degrees that slipping into a great job right after school was not in the cards. After receiving both her B.A. and M.A. in English Literature from McGill University, Bethann retreated back to her Ottawa hometown and began waiting tables at a local restaurant. Before you let out a scoff toward the seemingly stereotypical result of an Arts degree, give yourself a second to be surprised to know that working as a waitress is exactly what Bethann knew she’d be doing right out of school: “I honestly was not expecting to get any specific kind of job with my degree and I was always prepared to have a tough time finding a glamourous, high paying job right out of university. Many of my friends who completed Arts degrees had unrealistic expectations. McGill really likes to push the idea that they are the best of the best and their graduates can do anything, which is not entirely untrue, but “doing anything” requires a lot of work and doesn’t just fall into your lap upon graduation.”
The difference between Bethann and so many other 20-somethings is the sort of expectations she set up for herself. Bethann wants to find a more fulfilling job, and knows she will, but she also acknowledges the pains that come with expecting instant success. Bethann’s high-bar setting ambition is met with her keen ability to be pragmatic, making the hunt for a job in her field more fruitful and much less stressful. For now, she loves her job at the restaurant, and is more than happy to stay put while keeping her ear to the ground for something that suits her better.
As painful as it can be, out-of-field work is not the end of the world. With the continual rise of academic fees, most graduates come out of school with a cloud of debt hanging over them. Bottom line is that bills need to be paid, and if it means waiting tables or filing papers, sometimes any job is better than no job at all. Even if we do manage to slide into our preferred field, we’ll probably be taking on an entry-level position that demands very little from us. But is this really so bad? At the risk of sounding a tad old-school, I’m going to echo the “no pain, no gain” philosophy. Starting off at the bottom, as they say, can be difficult, and sometimes discouraging, but often times it is necessary to progress within an industry.
Take Fatima Nabi as an example. From an early age, Fatima knew that she wanted to pursue a career as a CEGEP teacher, and so she dove into the academic world and completed the degrees necessary to get her where she wanted to be. She completed her Master in Counseling Psychology from McGill University in spring 2008, and almost three years later, Fatima hasn’t been able to get passed the interview stage. At 26 years old, Fatima faces the same problem most young professionals do, which is being perceived by potential employers as too amateur for the job: “What it always came down to was experience, or lack thereof. I have a bit of teaching experience, but there is always someone else with more. It’s tough because although there are opportunities in the industry, they are often filled internally and by senior candidates”.
Fatima’s struggle not only includes convincing employers that she is qualified, but that she is just as suitable for the job as a senior in her field is. When it comes to it, a senior in her field is most likely more qualified for the position than she is, but until an employer gives Fatima the opportunity to gain experience, she will never be able to escape the double-edge sword sitting in the middle of conference table. Although she isn’t working as a professor like she hoped, Fatima managed to work her way into her field as a psychologist at the senior campus at Peter Hall, a school for children aged 11-21 with special needs. “I have let go of an aspiration I had for a long time. I’m one of the lucky ones though, because my ‘day job’ is not really a backup; I actually love working with this population!”
As far as fulfillment goes, no job is good enough if you’re not doing what you love to do. And although this may sound idealist in some regard, I will not downplay how important it is find work that will actually contribute to your overall happiness. We are all contenders in a world that demands that a huge chuck of our days be dedicated to work. Whether this is fair, ideal or conducive to living well, is beside the point. The point I want to make is that if we’re living in a place where work dominates our days, we should dedicate a lot of effort in ensuring that we find work that we enjoy. Fatima is right in thinking that she’s lucky because she has figured out a way to stay in her field by redefining what she expected to do with her degree. Her disappointment in not living out her initial dream lingers, but for now she remains patient while understanding that part of being a professional is working your way through the profession and really grasping the highs and lows of the industry.
Truthfully, my faith in the very existence of the ‘perfect job’ has ceased to exist. The more I explore the market, the more I realize that most positions are products of corporate molds and are designed to serve a particular purpose. While some are admittedly more intriguing than others, almost all are far from being perfect. Although deserting the notion of a dream job sounds depressing, I think I’m better for it. What contributes to the dreaminess of any dream job is the acquisition of it. The people we admire who hold these seemingly too-good-to-be-true jobs didn’t get to where they are without hard work. We admire these people because of what they do, and they’re able to do what they do because they pushed for it. The workforce is not nice, and they don’t care how badly you want in. So push, dear dreamers. Push hard.