There are few milestones as momentous in life as completing your education. Years of work, thousands of dollars, and too many late nights poring over textbooks all come to a close. There, in your hand, is a piece of paper that represents a time of great change, a period of personal growth that is unlikely to be matched in the remainder of your life, however long that may be. The post-secondary years are an arduous and formative experience for many people, and the emotions surrounding the finale can be overwhelming.
There are the usual ones: pride, relief, a sense of accomplishment, bits of nostalgia as you look back. Yet the end of an education is leaving many young people today with feeling empty and unfulfilled as well. Strange that emptiness would be the result of such an accomplishment, but if you find yourself a recent graduate unable to find a job—a situation now frighteningly common—empty is exactly how you feel. Maybe even a bit bitter, or jaded, or regretful that you didn’t work hard enough, didn’t search out more opportunities and make more connections with people that could help you network into a position.
There is a very real, very palpable sense of betrayal in the air recently. Pundits are openly discussing the possibility of a “lost generation.” We see it in the Occupy rallies, in newspapers, and on blogs; the dream, the promise that an education would unlock a world of employment possibilities, upward mobility and wealth, is nowhere to be found. Turn on the news for a few minutes (any major network will do) and you are guaranteed to see a story or report on the dire state of the economy, the fragility and fear, the soaring unemployment. Demonstrations and rallies, countries on the brink of bankruptcy, groups of young people the world over, all with the same basic message: we are young, we are educated and we are willing to work; why can’t we? Where are the good, decent-paying jobs we were told would be waiting?
These people, these young adults, aren’t lazy. Quite the contrary: many have worked hard and brought themselves up from modest beginnings to finance an education, only to find that the jobs are simply no longer there. The assurance of employment and stability, a modest living and the ability to build oneself up financially have dissipated into the red-lined balance sheets of the world. Some turn to angry blame: the government, the system, big banks with overpaid CEOs are at fault for the worst economic downturn in several generations. Some simply continue to search work and grasp at answers, a reason for their sudden sense of failure.
Not everyone can be a demonstrator; activism doesn’t appeal to all. The most problematic elements of unemployment are the demoralization and futility it brings. It’s easy to yell and occupy parks, but that doesn’t pay the bills. Student loans and lines of credit with towering interest rates have a way of consuming your attention. Resumes and applications fly out of your hands and you begin scouring online job boards for fast work—any work. Your friends want you to come out with them, to celebrate your new status as a graduate, but you can’t afford it, both in money and time. You need to keep searching. As much as you want to, you can’t give up.
Your education, the degree or diploma you long to hang on your wall, stays hidden and tucked away. Though you desperately want to, it’s hard to feel proud when you wonder if it was all in vain. You have your piece of paper, but it doesn’t seem to be worth much to anyone. When you’re shuffling around the house in pajamas, getting ready to settle in for another marathon job hunting session, you question the usefulness of that piece of paper—along with your own—which only demoralizes you further.
Then, suddenly, in your inbox or on your voicemail, there it is—a job offer. Out of the blue, it shows up: a chance to be useful, productive; a chance to apply those years of work and turmoil to something that can help you build a life. But there’s a lesson learned in that time you had to wait, a humility that you know will stay with you permanently. You understand a little better why those people are sitting in parks, and crying foul against the vague “1%.” Unemployment is a truly terrible experience; that memory of emptiness will always be there to remind you to work hard, to take nothing for granted, and never to give up.