It’s graduation day at the University of St Andrews and I keep thinking that the ceremony, which happens virtually, must have been pre-recorded. The speakers take turns to recite their speech, framed by a display of heraldic designs. Little is lifelike about the words and gestures of the vice-chancellor in her address to students, and already by the third studied pause for breath I grow impatient.
When my name is read out, I affect a smile for the benefit of my mum. There is a wicked pleasure to feeling so removed from such a major life event. The choirboys and bagpipes add extravagance to an already surreal spectacle: beyond the screen, we are afforded no interlude from the cacophony of the present job crisis (for which the university’s emphasis on “networking” over the years has done little to prepare us). My precarious situation has, by now, clearly become a monomania, through whose filter any show of gaiety appears in bad taste.
I belong to what some unpalatably call “Generation Covid”. Just as I and thousands of other graduates were preparing to enter the job market last May, open vacancies dropped by 278,000 and two thirds of graduating students saw applications paused or withdrawn due to the pandemic. Since then, job-hunting has bordered on the farcical: an entire corpus of myths has originated from the effort by applicants to understand the dos and don’ts of the hiring process.
The practical value of university degrees has been publicly called into question, and academic career services have finally revealed their raison d’être: none whatsoever. And so CVs are handed out like flyers, in a scattershot fashion. Most of them are bound to disappear into a black hole: my couple hundred applications obtained a total of two interview invitations. Rejection letters, too, were provided only by a courteous minority.
Some of us young jobseekers cannot rely on generational wealth and a family home to sustain us through this crisis. My single mum raised me way beyond her financial means: though I missed nothing growing up, supporting us through her freelancing gigs was never what you’d call a breeze. A recent eviction notice has eroded the little security we had left, and made finding employment crucial to affording rent elsewhere.
Whenever applying to a role, I wish I could convey all that is contingent on the simple “yes” or “no” of my faceless correspondent. I yearn to explain that, even though my CV looks like that of countless others, a secure position means an immensity more to me than what is discernible. Yet, an unwritten rule binds me to reticence.
Indeed, I was cautioned many times against “seeming desperate” as something of an indecency, an assault on recruiters’ sensibilities. Need, and in particular, financial need, seems doomed to always achieve the opposite effect to the one desired: to repel, rather than to conjure assistance. This is informed by the very structure of job applications, and, specifically, of equal opportunities’ forms. I am asked about my ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and religion, but a crucial (perhaps, the most crucial) feature of my candidacy appears to never be of any relevance: household income. This way, a company is able to reach its yearly diversity target and give itself a good pat on the back, while those in most desperate need of work go unrecognised.
I am living proof that these questionnaires are wholly inadequate at reckoning with the complexity of personal circumstances. The “working class background” checkbox, strictly speaking, does not fit me: up to some point, I could afford traveling abroad and a private education. Now, however, a knock on the door evokes images of bloodthirsty creditors, and, by night, I dream about my adventures as the best-dressed bag lady in Covent Garden, a modern Eliza Doolittle minus the accent.
Ticking the “BAME” box, too, involves a contradiction: I may have non-white blood in me, but I was raised exclusively by a white mum. My language, education, and life experiences are entirely European. Yet, I dare anyone call me an impostor for applying to opportunities reserved to candidates from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. I am obliged to deform reality by a screening system that favours perception over experience.
The checkbox forms, the automated emails, the applicant tracking software – all accommodate a hiring process that caters to optimisation, rather than human interaction. Requests of feedback are predominantly ignored by recruiters, I suspect, not due to the “overwhelming amount of applications received”, as every single rejection email invariably recites, but to the fact that machines are, as yet, unable to express personalised criticism.
I may have been born in the digital era, but I still resent the alienating quality of modern job-hunting. Instead of it being geared to suit me, the human applicant, I am the one having to blunt my idiosyncrasies, legacy, urgencies — all that makes me me, and not somebody else — to suit the mechanised screening process.
Last November, my Zoom assessment day with a well-known social enterprise gave me a hypnotising taste of the assembly line. About twelve of us were passed over from one desensitised recruiter to another, with the job of evaluating whether our answers would align with the company’s listed “competencies”. Candidates who, even unwittingly, resisted standardisation like myself were discarded with ease.
A lot of time and emotional investment went into my prep; even so, they had the cheek to turn me down without feedback. This time I was not in for it, however: I engaged in a hunt that lasted two weeks, until, finally, a videocall was arranged. The woman on the other side of the screen, who had only her audio on, giggled as she invited me to disable my own video, clearly more comfortable addressing a disembodied voice than a feeling person just like herself. It looks like, in a more or less unconscious attempt to delay being supplanted by them, human recruiters are also increasingly adjusting to robotic modes.
The tribulations of young jobseekers are brushed under the carpet not only by all political parties, but also by those responsible for keeping them accountable for their shortcomings. As, a couple of months ago, the media were busy contending over whether Suzanne Moore’s essay from decades ago should or should not have been considered evidence of her transphobia, Rishi Sunak’s plans to cut welfare payments and ending furlough within the spring went relatively unchallenged. The amount of activistic effort that goes to waste in the realm of symbolism and semantics could be almost comical, if it didn’t end up diverting politics away from the material predicaments of large sections of society.
Perhaps unemployment would earn its own hashtag if its impact on mental health — a catch-all term that nonetheless holds the power to prick ears up — was seriously explored. Unemployment does not just hurt people’s chances at wealth and stability; it also undermines their sense of self. More than 70 years ago, Simone Weil taught, in her essay Need for Roots, that, just like the body needs nourishment, the soul, too, has its own set of needs. Among them are responsibility and honour, which indicate human hunger for productivity, accountability, and public recognition for our deeds. Living on Universal Credit is not enough for me to feel whole. Instead, my labour is necessary to me — in that, when made to experience its value and utility, I also perceive myself to be useful and valuable. Without it, I feel more unsure in myself, feebler.
During this pandemic, policies have failed to reflect this common need for purpose, instead treating citizens as mere consumers. Much thought has gone into strategies for safely letting people out of their homes, straight into shops and pubs, wallets ajar, whereas none has been employed to ponder the harmful effects of prolonged economic inactivity on people’s sense of worth as human beings.
I don’t just speak for myself when I say that joblessness has made me anxious, more sad and more resentful towards institutions than ever. Though unable to progress as time progresses, I can feel myself growing old with unnatural clarity every day. Yet I, like so many other job-seekers, am not lost, let alone part of some “lost generation”. We do not want to be shut away and forgotten. What we want is to be seen for exactly what we are: the very individuals on whose strength the sound course of the rest of the century depends.