I’m writing this, because as we enter September, I’m beginning to see the freshly-graduated class of 2013 take a critical look at where they are in regards to their life goals. They may not have thought about it much over the summer, while they ran around with friends or took time off to travel. Now, they might be watching their younger peers return to school. They might have gone shopping, and been assaulted with a barrage of Back to School promotions. They might have gotten an email blast from their Alma Mater celebrating the new school year. All of a sudden it’s undeniable: “I’m not going back”.
I was a sophomore in college when the 2008 economic crash occurred. I studied Illustration with hopes of a career in publishing. When I started school the tone was very optimistic. Our teachers were excited to tell us all about the opportunities we had when we would be released into the real world. When the market crashed, that tone reversed. The day before I graduated in 2011, our head left us with “You are graduating today, and that is unfortunate.” The roles for us had vanished, but we were still here.
What’s toxic about my field of study (fine arts) is that it’s not seen as legitimate unless you are successful. A professional in the field commands respect; a hopeful is a fool who is making a poor economic decision. Now that I have completed my degree and begun repaying my 20k of debt, people love to inform me about which paths I should have taken instead.
I understand the other person is usually trying to help, but my decisions are my own. This is what I want to do regardless of the challenges I face. Given the challenges that most millenials face, it is easy to look on the past with regret. Don’t do it. Your only option is to move forward.
The first summer I spent out of school I found myself scouring job websites, and bending my experience to fit any mildly relevant job in a cover letter. 200-something applications and three rejection letters later, I gave up. It felt like there was no place for me. I spent the next year in a depression, wondering what I could have done better, while worrying about dying in a ditch someday. I juggled bills and struggled with hurtful comments.
What was most unsettling was how alone I felt. My relationships dramatically changed after graduating. The question, “how is the job search going” was guaranteed to come up, and it was guaranteed to lead to a frustrating conversation. It became impossible to spend time with friends and family without the topic turning to my problems.
Underemployment trickles into other areas of life too, because money is required to do everything that is expected of us. Without the income, you can’t go down life’s checklist–Get married, have kids, buy a house, buy two cars, host big thanksgiving dinners. The kind of things your parents want photos in a scrapbook of.
I remember my boyfriend and I celebrating our fourth anniversary while my parents rolled their eyes. “Being with someone that long without getting married is nothing to celebrate. Wait until he puts a ring on that finger, then it will mean something.”
“I just wish you two would get normal jobs so you can afford a wedding.”
Meaning something meant the world at a time when my existence felt meaningless. Comments like these hurt especially because it felt like there was no denying them. So I looked forward to the “future” for what I thought was when my life would begin.
“I can’t wait for it all to start.” I would say.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that this beginning was imaginary; I was a person who was already living a life. Even though I hadn’t “made it” yet, I was still a person worthy of respect. The parameters of a respectful job and a respectful life were entirely made up.
Talking to peers, it became apparent that many felt this way. Everyone felt like they didn’t fit in one way or another. That they were wasting time, that they weren’t doing enough, that they weren’t living up to expectations. Nobody talked about themselves in terms of the present, and focused on things they were going to do. We were at a stepping stone.
You might be juggling work, portfolio-building, resume building, and networking. This might be the only thing on your mind. Everything might come crashing down at any given time when someone declares your efforts not enough. Not yielding results is viewed as not even trying at all.
Let me tell you that this isn’t true.
Nobody is clear on what we are supposed to be doing. People that I would look up to as the “winners” had their dark moments too. The ones who had it together would have outbursts. Millenials still looking for jobs will wonder if they’ll ever “make it”, but millenials who “made it” will wonder if they made the right choice. Would it still feel like something was missing if the success came?
Don’t view your success as a finish line. Don’t trip yourself by becoming consumed with the big picture. Your life story is the result of many smaller factors. What you can control, and what you can be happy about. If you can focus on the present, if you can allow yourself breaks, if you can allow yourself to believe that everything will be okay, it will.
That finished project that left you feeling good is a success. That phone number in your hand from a new partner is a success. That day you spent napping to regain your energy to do it all over again is a success.
A friend asked, “Do you identify with your day job or your art?” I identify with my art, and I encourage you to identify with whatever it is you do. Your passion will always be there. Nobody can say “you’re fired” and take your entire identity away. Nobody can say “we are not hiring at this time” and leave you without purpose.
So to the class of 2013, it might make you nostalgic or sad to watch your friends return to school. You might look back on it as a time when things made sense, and think that was as good as it gets. Know that you can find happiness right now in today. You might be sad right now, but I bet you that in 2014, that sadness will be replaced with a “Good riddance!”.
Your life isn’t over, and it is not something yet to be found. It is happening right now.