Hitting the Quarter-Life Crisis: The Future For Graduates

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“My life is s***”.

The depressing statement from one of my housemates has become somewhat of a household saying lately.  The revelation that we are now halfway through our degrees has triggered immense anxiety and uncertainty – what are we going to do with our lives when we leave university? Simply having a degree isn’t enough anymore- do we have a place in a job market which is more competitive than ever? And are ‘the best years of our lives’ over for good?

I was surprised to discover that the self-doubt I’d been experiencing actually had a name: ‘the Quarter-Life Crisis’. The term, coined in the US, refers to the sense of hopelessness common among young people, often following the transition from university to the ‘real world’. Symptoms include frustration with the competitive corporate world, nostalgia for school days and a lack of ability to hold on to close relationships. We leave university with lots of bright expectations which are often unfulfilled.

But can the situation causing this stress really be deemed a ‘crisis’? Or do we have a reason to stay optimistic?

The media would suggest not. Statistics published in the Labour Force Survey revealed that one-in-five students who left university last year were without jobs, the highest level of unemployment in 15 years. This level has doubled since the recession began in 2008.

At a time when it couldn’t be worse to graduate, the government’s support is questionable. The Future Jobs Fund, a £1bn initiative designed to create jobs for 18-24 year-olds who have been unemployed for a year or more, will be scrapped next month. NUS president Aaron Porter told the Guardian that just when graduates were facing “an exceptionally hostile” jobs market, the government “persisted with policies that put the burden of the country’s debt on the young.”

While those with a degree are more likely to be employed than those without (although only by 3%, the figures show), it would appear that even a 2:1 degree from a selective university, such as Southampton, no longer guarantees a good job. The value of a degree is completely contradictory. In making them a vital requirement for employment, they have essentially become worthless, as it is no longer possible to differentiate applicants by this means. When all that hard work is rewarded with job rejections, it is hardly surprising that students are so disillusioned and frustrated with the working world.

And even when graduates finally get a job it may not be what they had hoped for. The Times published students’ views last month revealing that a quarter of job-hunters have been applying to employers that they are not really interested in, in order to try to secure a graduate position. Half of students say that they will have to take “any job they are offered” and most accept that they will probably earn less than they were anticipating in their first job. It’s inevitable that this experience will prompt the feeling that life won’t live up to our expectations and the ‘best years’ are over.

But students may be comforted by other facts about graduate employment which have escaped the media hype.  The High Fliers Research Survey showed that employers are expecting to hire 9.4% more graduates than in 2010. The IT and Telecommunications sector is set to increase employment by 33.4% this year, with Consumer Goods, Banking and Finance and Consulting following as the biggest recruitment growth sectors. More than half of the graduate job employers from the Times Top 100 are increasing the number of vacancies on their graduate programs.

The universities minister, David Willetts, highly recommends getting on a graduate programme: “Internships are an important way of young people getting into the professional jobs market. This is a route being followed by increasing numbers of graduates and – as part of our programme to get Britain working – we continue to encourage employers to offer work experience and internships to help graduates develop valuable skills and boost their employment chances.”

If there’s one key message that stands out from the High Fliers report, then, it is the importance of work experience. But for me, the anxiety or ‘quarter-life crisis’ has coincided with the realisation that relevant work experience is exactly what’s needed and exactly what I lack. While my CV reads like a dream for a bar or retail employer, I have been so far unsuccessful in acquiring work experience related to what I want to do.

Work experience in itself can be a frustrating affair. While some lucky interns receive generous salaries (as much as £1000 a week in investment banking), others aren’t paid at all. BBC 2 programme “Who Gets the Best Jobs” aired earlier this month highlighted the advantage for graduates from wealthier backgrounds as their parents could often secure them work experience placements through their own network of contacts and support them financially through unpaid internships. In very competitive areas such as fashion, it may be necessary to do as many as three internships of three months each in order to secure a paid job just at the bottom of the ladder. Obviously the funding of this crucial experience is a real concern, particularly for someone from a disadvantaged background.

But there is a reason to stay positive. The opportunities are definitely out there and we do have a place in the ‘real world’. We have a very active careers department to take full advantage of and the university even offers its own internships programme.

Having a degree, despite the fact that my competition will also have one, “remains a good investment in the long term and is one of the best pathways to achieving a good job and rewarding career”, Willetts is eager to assure us. Now I’ve been made aware of the significance of work experience, I can finally do something about it. Yes, the job market is increasingly competitive and times are tough for graduates, but it’s too early in my life for crisis.

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