Brief Periods of Unemployment After College, as Told to Me by Friends

stelmosfire

A few months after getting my first steady job since being unemployed, I still hadn’t let go of a lot of the habits and anxieties I’d developed during that time. I’d go up and down the grocery store aisle price-comparing boxed pasta, shaming myself for ever spending more than $20 at a time. I joked to friends that I was a recovering unemployed person, working my way through a twelve-step program.

I spent 13 months living at my mom’s house while unemployed. I watched Ellen and whatever comes on after Ellen and would lie around half-deflated until it was late enough to start drinking. Most people I know my age have been unemployed, whether for a month or a year, right out of college or between jobs. Three years removed from my darkest days of sweatpants and daytime television, when youth unemployment hovered around 20 percent, unemployment among non-students aged 16-24 remains high, at 15 percent. And the forecast just keeps getting brighter.

But as the trauma flashbacks of Frasier reruns subsided and I started Building My Career in earnest, I began to wonder how my roadmap of a working life—real or imagined—might measure up to my friends’, particularly those who had also been unemployed, as opposed to those following the formerly traditional, now largely imaginary, path of graduating with a 9-to-5 job in their chosen field. Are we more likely to stick it out at a crappy job, or empowered to change our situation? What does job security look like to us?

The collective experience of unemployment—and even of having unemployed friends—is bound to shape our generation’s perspective on work and working, the importance of money (whatever that may be), and on our sense of self and our place in the “real world,” as we came to know it, in ways that are different from our parents’ generation. So I asked around.

The people surveyed here are friends of mine, whose names have been changed to far more exciting ones. All have been to college, and all are currently employed. Most of them I knew before, during, and after their unemployment—that is, I knew them well enough to know that they were unemployed. I have no doubt that many, many more of my friends, coworkers, and classmates have also been unemployed, but the subject is one many of us still hesitate to broach. Hopefully this hesitancy, not to mention the unemployment rate, is changing.

LaMaya is 24, class of 2011, and has a B.A. in international affairs with a concentration in global public health. She was unemployed for 13 months.

Did you have a job lined up when you graduated college?

I had a job lined up after graduation, but couldn’t keep it due in large part to the high cost of living in D.C. I simply couldn’t afford to keep the job and live in the city.

What changes did you make to your lifestyle? (Moving home, dipping into savings, selling belongings, etc.)

I moved home; thus, I was able to drastically reduce my “overhead.” I also stopped shopping altogether. If you know me AT ALL, you know that this was a big Big BIG deal. Eventually, I had to dip into my savings for the day-to-day necessities (gas, coffee, more gas).

What were your financial obligations while you were unemployed? Did you have any outside financial support? If so, from where, and how much?

Thankfully, I had NO student loans (phew!). I was living at home and eating food that I did not purchase (welcome back, adolescence, it’s terrible to see you), so I count that as financial support from my mom. Occasionally, she would give me gas money so that I could get to and from my unpaid internship.

Have you ever felt embarrassed about having been unemployed? Did you feel embarrassed at the time?

I was embarrassed at first. I didn’t want people to think my unemployment status was a reflection of my work ethic. The last thing I wanted was for people to think that I was lazy or incompetent. That was until I realized how many people my age (and older) were unemployed as well.

These days, I think my unemployment status is something that I’m proud of. It’s made me more realistic in terms of my needs (I won’t die if I don’t get that dress), and it’s made me more of a risk-taker professionally. I know that I’ll survive if I take a pay cut for a job that I’ll enjoy more. There are a few personal things holding me back professionally, but fear of unemployment is not one of them!

Has your experience made you any more or less likely to leave a job?

More likely. I place happiness above “financial security.” Will this work well long-term? Who knows. But for now, I’m doin’ me.

What money habits, if any, have you developed as a result of having been unemployed?

DEFINITELY more conservative. If it ain’t on sale, don’t buy it. However, I’ve found that I’m far more giving with others when I’m able to be. Maybe that’s just part of growing up.

Do you believe the core purpose of higher education should be getting a job?

I think we’re built to believe that, but clearly that’s not the case. Higher education is about expanding your academic, social, and self knowledge. It’s up to you, college graduate, to figure out how to apply that knowledge in life.

How do you think our generation’s widespread unemployment will affect us long-term?

Frankly, I think we’ll be a lot like our grandparents, less like our parents. Save more, spend less, prioritize family/friends/happiness over the dollar.

Any additional thoughts, gripes, or polemics?

At the time, being unemployed was terrible, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It was emotionally exhausting. However, I know I didn’t have it nearly as hard as others because of my HUGE safety net: mom, dad, and friends to commiserate with.

All in all, I firmly believe that being unemployed shaped who I am today. I’m grateful for every lesson learned.

Matti is 25, class of 2012. He was an English major and a film studies minor.

How long were you unemployed?

For me unemployment has been sporadic. After college I was unemployed for three months, then I had a restaurant job for half a year while I lived at home to save money and looked for work. I then moved to New York City and continued to search. After another three-month stint without work, I fell back on my waiting experience and got another restaurant job. That lasted for another six months until I started working lots of short jobs for three different temp agencies and doing freelance writing and editing. That wasn’t able to cover all my bills, but I am extremely lucky because my parents were able to loan me enough money to get by. Doing all those different things at once was also a severe drain on my mental capabilities. After just over four months, I got a long-term temp job through one of the agencies I was with. I’m still working there now while trying to find something more stable and more in line with my aspirations.

How did you become unemployed?

For my first period of unemployment I blame my college thesis. I’m very glad I wrote it, but I wasn’t able to devote much time in the last few months of school to my career. The second period, when I moved to NYC, was 110% my fault. I was lazy, depressed, and unsure of how to proceed and as a result got a bit lost and confused. The third time, I was fired for the first time in my life (quite a shock, but something that should happen to everybody at least once). I got back in the swing of things pretty quick after that, but I wasn’t making enough, so even though I was employed, I consider it like being semi-unemployed.

What were your financial obligations while you were unemployed? What changes, if any, did you make to your lifestyle?

Rent, and loans, also health insurance for part of it, as well as some hospital bills, food (food is so expensive!), job-related clothing, and transit. I think the only lifestyle changes I made were trying to manage my spending better and dipping extensively into savings to the point where I didn’t have any. Besides my fixed costs of rent and utilities, food is by far my biggest expense. I spent a lot of time trying to plan out cheap meals I could cook that would last me a while (unfortunately all the healthy stuff is the most expensive). I cut out coffee and alcohol purchases. I also stopped going out to eat. If I wanted to have a meal with friends I tried to invite them over or go somewhere for lunch or a snack since it’s cheaper.

How many jobs have you had since being unemployed? Since graduating?

It’s hard to say how many jobs I’ve had if I count all the different temp jobs and freelance work. I’ve definitely had some weird and unpleasant jobs. Moving trash and furniture out of a basement that was covered in roach poop. Editing a bunch of nonfiction short stories for a convict in upstate New York. But mainly lots of receptionist work and stuffing envelopes for real estate management companies.

I’ve been at my current job a month now and I’m definitely looking for something more permanent. It’s a long-term temp job so I don’t have much choice.

Have you ever felt embarrassed about having been unemployed? Did you feel embarrassed at the time?

Very much so. Behind closed doors I tend to be rather competitive so I struggle when I see friends or classmates from college doing really well. I’m happy for them, of course, but at the same time I keep wondering why I’m not doing as well or better. What is it about myself that stops me from living up to my expectations?

Has your experience affected the way you think about work and building a career?

I think I was very idealistic about finding a career initially and thought that as long as I looked hard enough no matter where I went I could find a work environment I enjoyed and was valued in. I still think I’m somewhat stuck in that vein of thought but not nearly as much now. Many months ago now, I was complaining to my girlfriend about my restaurant job. She heard me out, then grabbed my face in her hands and said, “Honey, you’re an adult now. That means you gotta do stuff you don’t want to do.” For some reason that really stuck with me and I repeat it back to her whenever she complains about her work, to her overwhelming annoyance.

Has your experience made you any more or less likely to leave a job (either your current job or a hypothetical future job)?

I think less likely at the moment since I’m rebuilding my savings. You may have gleaned this from my previous answers but during my first year after college and during my first couple periods of unemployment I had some depression issues that complicated matters. I think I’m still somewhat scared of that happening again if I were to leave a job without a new position set up already.

What money habits, if any, have you developed as a result of having been unemployed?

Overall more conservative, but if I’ve been good about not spending much I’ll buy myself a muffin as a reward, or go out to eat with my girlfriend.

Do you believe the core purpose of higher education should be getting a job?

I think that there are a lot of college careers that are job-oriented, and that’s fine. As a graduate of a liberal arts college, I think it could benefit from some more concrete connections between the after school experience and what you’re studying, but only if you don’t lose sight of what a liberal arts education is. What I mean by that is liberal arts is a good background for many jobs. It teaches you how to think outside the box, see the bigger picture, and think analytically. If you get a degree in accounting, and get transferred to public relations or development at whatever company you work for you’d be lost. With a liberal arts background, you need more training initially but you have the potential to do anything, and because of your adaptability, be better at it or more original than other candidates.

How do you think our generation’s widespread unemployment will affect us long-term?

I think we’re all beginning to realize the America we will live in won’t be as affluent as the one our parents raised us in. I’m making a lot of assumptions with that sentence about the reader and their background. So without getting hauled off into the moral and psychological deep end I’ll try and answer your question with this: My aforementioned girlfriend (we’re domestic partners, actually) and I tried to compute how much we’d have to make/save if we want to buy an apartment or a house in New York City while we can still possibly afford one. My getting a steady job would definitely help, but basically one of us is going to have to start making a lot more money in the near future if we want that to happen.

Any additional thoughts, gripes, or polemics?

If you’re having trouble with finding a job, try and stay in touch with family and friends. More often than not they’ll know someone who knows someone, etc., etc. They can help you keep a steady head on your shoulders so you’re not freaking out all the time. That was a big help for me. Also, student loans are the worst!

Vanessa is 25, class of 2011, and an English major with a creative writing concentration. She was unemployed for a total of 2 months.

How long were you unemployed?

I was unemployed for one month in 2011, after college, and one month in 2013, after being let go from my first job, which I’d had for two years.

How did you come to be unemployed?

I was fired from my job while I was out with my coworkers having drinks. The CEO was ordering rounds of tequila shots for everyone. I made a joke he didn’t find amusing and the following day he had me fired. I was told by many people that the call was inappropriate and that the company was based on a professional and social network that was very pick-and-choose.

Did you have a job lined up when you graduated college?

After graduation I applied for jobs online and only went into the city for interviews. Once I had a job as a receptionist at a real estate firm, I moved in with my sister.

What were your financial obligations while you were unemployed? Did you have any outside financial support? If so, from where, and how much?

I had saved up some money during my senior year of college, but for my first apartment in NYC, my graduation gift from my parents was first and last month’s rent. Afterwards I was on my own financially, saving up whatever I made at my first job.

What changes, if any, did you make to your lifestyle?

The changes happened pretty naturally when I first moved to the city: I didn’t really have a savings, nor much of a social life. The first few weeks/months of living in the city were spent at work or at home with my sister’s dog, Henry, while I slept on an air mattress. We didn’t have internet for a while—I played DVDs on my laptop and card games with my sister when she wasn’t out at social events or drinking with friends. Most of my diet consisted of $1 pizza or hot dogs for lunch and cereal for breakfast and dinner.

When I was let go from my job, I was in full survival mode. I was fortunate enough to have enough money in my savings for at least 1 month’s worth of rent. Every day in the sweaty June heat I woke up and applied to at least 10 jobs a day. I spent most of my day on my laptop, trying to avoid burning any calories that would require food for refilling. I drank water to keep full and ate whatever leftovers my sister brought back from her office’s cafeteria. I hadn’t told my parents that I had lost my job; I was terrified that I would have to move back home. My friends tried to keep my spirits up by offering to pay for a beer or two on happy hour nights, but they could tell how upset I was. I would apply to 15 jobs a day by noon and would have to stop because there were no more new job postings for me to apply for. I had multiple interviews and managed to get a temp desk job for a small hedge fund.

How many jobs have you had since being unemployed? Since graduating?

I’ve had four jobs since graduation: receptionist and then marketing coordinator at a real estate firm, receptionist at a hedge fund, and [currently] executive assistant at an architectural firm. I’ve been at my current job for 6 months and I’m currently not looking for a different job.

Have you ever felt embarrassed about having been unemployed? Did you feel embarrassed at the time?

I was mortified and frustrated, due to the reasons behind my unemployment. One of the headhunters that interviewed me watched me cry when I had to explain why I was let go from my previous job.

Has your experience affected the way you think about work and building a career? If so, how?

It hasn’t necessarily taught me anything new about the work force, as I was well aware that the real estate firm I worked for was not the most professional of work environments. The transition from working at a new, trendy office to a more established, organized, and efficient company was tremendously eye opening; I like to tell my ex-coworkers that I finally feel like I have an “adult” job now. I suppose the experience the affected me the most was when my boss didn’t come to my defense when the CEO wanted my dismissal. I have been told by many people within the company that my job could have been saved. Luckily, I’m better for it.

Has your experience made you any more or less likely to leave a job (either your current job or a hypothetical future job)?

I think being fired from a job has given me the experience that would make my ability to leave a job less intimidating. I suppose it would be different if I was not living in NYC because I think losing your job in New York City is a unique experience in comparison to the rest of America. If you have the job history, motivation, and job-seeking savvy, you can always find a new job in the city. When I was an unpaid intern during college in my first summer in NYC, I was living in Bed-Stuy in a room with no windows and three other roommates. I had nothing but an air mattress and my suitcase for three months. I applied for every and any job on Craigslist and in a little over a week, I was able to get a job as a coat-check girl in a gentleman’s club. I had an income again! There are so many opportunities to get a job in New York—yes, a majority of them could be soul-sucking, unfulfilling, and possibly embarrassing, but if your goal is simply to live in New York City, the options of gaining the income are available.

What money habits, if any, have you developed as a result of having been unemployed?

I have always been borderline stingy with my finances and when I was unemployed I felt depressed and bored. I made every effort to not go out, not eat beyond my means, and had blinders to only finding a new means of income.

Do you believe the core purpose of higher education should be getting a job?

I believe that the core purpose of higher education is to give students more knowledge of how to use their highly-priced education to find and land jobs they are interested in. I will never deny that I was at a disadvantage when I graduated college with nothing but a liberal arts degree in English. My English department never gave guidance on finding jobs or what jobs could be available to me with my degree. According to my department and the college’s Career Services, my options were limited to being a graduate student, being a journalist, or a teacher. I was fortunate enough to have family that would support me in using my degree in other ways and applying it to any job I would have in my future.

How do you think our generation’s widespread unemployment will affect us long-term?

I think it will make it more difficult for our generation to pay off the debt that [we put ourselves in] with a promise for jobs that are not available to support a living wage. I think that the government using student debt as cash cows causes our generation to remain in debt for longer stretches in time and [we] are less likely to oppose government actions while strapped with debt. I think that it will continue to damage the confidence our generation has in the now-dead American dream and cripple a strong work ethic for students who aren’t focused on computers and politics. I think so many things about this I can’t finish this answer.

Pierre is 22, class of 2014, with a double major in film studies and economics—”Film studies because that is my passion, economics because I want a job.”

For how long were you unemployed?

I was unemployed from the last day of classes until February 14, so a little under two months.

How did you come to be unemployed?

The summer before I interned at a small TV production company that was working on “the next big Bravo reality show.” I never wanted to work in reality TV but I hoped that it would eventually lead to getting into the film business. Before I left, the company’s line producer offered me a post-production assistant position with them when I finished college in December. I emailed him throughout my last semester and he said “Yes, just email me when you get closer to your last day.” So I emailed him a month before my last day of classes and I got nothing. I emailed him again at two weeks and he responded saying that I should set up a day to come to the office. Once I arrived at the office, I was told [...] they wouldn’t need me just yet. They were hoping some of the other shows they produced would get picked up. I went home feeling defeated because I knew that this wasn’t going to happen. And even if it did, I couldn’t just wait until they needed me. I had just gotten an apartment in Brooklyn and the money that was given to me to help out was dwindling fast. So I sent out my résumé. I printed out a few and went to restaurants and production houses. I figured my best bet would be working a non- or low-paying internship in a production house and part-time side job to pay for rent and food. A kind of real world version of my double major: emotional payoff from a production internship and monetary payoff from a boring job. I got tired of feeling depressed and staying in all day writing cover letters, I told myself (and my friends to insure that I would follow through) that I would only give myself two weeks before I would move out of New York and move back home. Thankfully, on the last [day] I got called in for an interview. Two interviews later, I got a paid (!!!) internship a post-production house.

What were your financial obligations while you were unemployed? Did you have any outside financial support? If so, from where, and how much?

I had rent and utilities ($615-$650) and food to worry about, which is enough. I was given a $2,000 loan from my boyfriend’s mother.

How many jobs have you had since being unemployed? Since graduating?
I technically have had only one job. I do not and will not count the day and a quarter that I stood around an office doing nothing at a failing TV production company.

How long have you been at your current job? Are you currently looking for a different job?

I have been working at my internship for a little under four months now. I have a performance review set for this coming week and will start the search for a backup job if the company decides not to keep me on full-time.

Have you ever felt embarrassed about having been unemployed? Did you feel embarrassed at the time?

I felt the most embarrassed when meeting new people. And I love meeting new people. I dreaded the inevitable “So, what do you do?” question every time I held out my hand to introduce myself to a friend of a friend or my boyfriend’s coworkers. I still feel embarrassed about being an intern. I haven’t even updated my job status on LinkedIn because I know that all my friends and fellow 2014 graduates are on there now.

Has your experience affected the way you think about work and building a career?

There is a sense that we have to pay our dues before getting what we want out of life. Recently, I have found myself clinging to this idea.

Has your experience made you any more or less likely to leave a job (either your current job or a hypothetical future job)?

I can’t decide which unhappiness is the worst: while I was unemployed or dealing with an awful work environment now at my internship. I like to think that the unemployed depression was worse.

What money habits, if any, have you developed as a result of having been unemployed?

I cherish that $9 bottle of wine I decide to treat myself with. Before, it was just a cheap bottle of wine. Now, it’s the thing that makes me feel more adult because I went through a whole thought process before getting the bottle. In college, you drank to get drunk. Now I drink because I worked my fucking ass off this week.

Do you believe the core purpose of higher education should be getting a job?

I think it should be about experience. I get paid roughly the same as my twin sister, who didn’t go to college. When she brings this up, I don’t wish that I never went to college. Hell, I wish I could go back.

How do you think our generation’s widespread unemployment will affect us long-term?

I think our generation will be the last to hear “just go to college and everything will be alright.” We did go to college. And everything wasn’t alright.

 

Previously: Seven Jobs in One Year

Have an unemployment experience to share? Studied STEM and couldn’t find a job? Send us a note.

John Sherman is a writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn.

---
---
---
---
---

2 Comments / Post A Comment

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

I have no actual comment to make except that I LOVED this piece. And I shared it everywhere and submitted it to Longform.org.

mcf (#5,031)

I skimmed a lot of this, my apologies, but it was interesting and sometimes amusing and I’m glad everyone was able to make it work, more or less. Getting fired for telling a joke is bogus, especially if your CEO is the one plying you with drinks. No warning, even? Pfft. Glad it worked out, though.

My trajectory after college was: apply for job (copy editing, holla) that I really wanted, not make the cut, live at home and gain freelance editing experience as well as work a lame office job for nine months, move to city (Chicago) with savings, work at a grocery store, then reapply for copy editing job I still wanted, and get hired.

My path was relatively cushy, but I think, if anything, our generation is way scrappier than our parents’. “I think we’ll be a lot like our grandparents, less like our parents. Save more, spend less, prioritize family/friends/happiness over the dollar.” Word!

Comments are closed!