It's hard to think about the meaning of your life when you can barely make rent
March 11, 2011 8:22 AM   Subscribe

Just graduated from college. Unbelievably bitter and having an existential crisis. So, now what?

This will be hyperbolic. I don’t always feel this way, I have friends, I have a job, I have time, my life isn’t over. But right now I feel as though it is, so that’s how I’m going to write this.

I have spent my entire life being told by teachers how clever I am, and expending essentially zero effort to make As and Bs. And now I’ve graduated from college and suddenly realized that the past 16 years’ worth of effort were absolutely pointless, because no one cares if you’re smart.

So now I make $8 an hour working food service and every day of my life I think of the statistic that people who graduate in a recession never make as much money as their luckier counterparts, and applying for job after job in my major and not even getting called back. I live in a shitty apartment in a shitty part of the town I went to school in. My friends are here, I like the area, but apparently I can’t get a job here that isn’t shit.

The same smug assholes who say “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” they’re telling me “just keep applying, SOMEONE will call you back!” They all have jobs, of course, because they didn’t graduate in 2010.

So here I am, with skills like ‘writing’ and ‘organizing’ and ‘generating ideas,’ which are also known as ‘utterly pointless’ in today’s job market. I’m bitter about what dozens of teachers told me, I’m bitter I wasn’t better prepared, I hate the fact that I have no goals besides “get a better fucking job.” I don’t know what I thought would happen when I graduated, because everyone made it sound like I, with my marvelous skills, would walk into some cushy job and then just ~go from there~. It was all very nebulous. I can’t believe I didn’t see through the bullshit years ago and start cultivating some ACTUAL skills but now it’s too late.

If someone puts a syllabus in front of me and says ‘go,’ I’ll blow them away. But there’s no syllabus for fucking LIFE.

Every day I work food service I become less and less employable, like an actress with fading looks, and if the economy ever turns around they’ll just hire a bunch of fresh little grads and I will still be making $8 an hour, won’t I? So what the fuck do I do now?

Feel free to tell me I'm just a spoiled little white girl who needs to shut up and chill out.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (52 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Shut up & chill out.

It isn't too late---you're a kid, functionally. What do you want to do? What skills do you need to do that? Figure that out. Work toward getting those skills. Keep looking for jobs.
posted by chiefthe at 8:28 AM on March 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

No. You've had your little meltdown. Now use those brains and get strategic.

I came out of MBA in 2001 - job offer made the previous fall were pulled back by companies, interviews went nowhere, and unlike you (yes, Virginia there is a silver lining to being 21 and a fresh grad) many were deep in dept, had families and mortgages and all had entered Bschool in the peak of the dotcom boom era when it seemed like nothing but fields of gold on graduation.

Start using this time to get those skills or to figure out who you want to be - what kind of industry, what kind of work, start writing about it - research and writing? - can you build a blog on a topic of interest? Can you show others how to write? Can you analyse vast amounts of data and distill it into abstracts?

What this will do is build a "portfolio" in an interest area for you to send along with your resume. So that there is more to you than one page of standard metrics and in the meantime, you keep your brains functional, doing that research on a topic or industry or whatever it is that interests you and when you do get called in for a interview you have something to talk about, not just your day job.
posted by infini at 8:33 AM on March 11, 2011

Every day I work food service I become less and less employable

Not true. "New grads" aren't the hot commodity you seem to think they are, and everyone in an hiring position knows about the recession.

You should, however, do whatever kind of voulnteer/internship you can find in the meantime. Everyone is going to understand "The economy sucked, so I took the job I could find. But my interest are in [employer's field] so I spend my free time doing x, y and z." Balancing multiple real-world responsibilities is more impressive to a potential employer than slightly aove average grades, anyway.
posted by spaltavian at 8:33 AM on March 11, 2011 [7 favorites]

The problem isn't that nobody cares if you're smart; the problem is that 17 years of zero effort while being called a wunderkind makes you lazy and entitled. This is a common lament of talented-but-lazy grads. There are two solutions: work, and eventually you talent AND HARD WORK will be recognized ... or complain that life dealt you a bum hand while failing to see how privileged you are.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:34 AM on March 11, 2011 [47 favorites]

Speaking as someone who believes that attitude is outcome-determinative, let me suggest that you change that first. I recommend doing some volunteer work to regain some reasonable perspective on the universe.
posted by thejoshu at 8:34 AM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

And now I’ve graduated from college and suddenly realized that the past 16 years’ worth of effort were absolutely pointless, because no one cares if you’re smart.

Being smart helps, but (to borrow a turn of phrase from Gladwell) a successful student is a successful learner - a successful adult is a successful doer.

I hate the fact that I have no goals besides “get a better fucking job.”

Solve that problem. Stupider people with far less resources than you have done great things with their lives, and they did it because they cared about doing something well. Figure out what you care about, really, then make a plan and act on it.

Or, sure, shut up.
posted by mhoye at 8:35 AM on March 11, 2011

You're just a spoiled little white girl who needs to shut up and chill out.

Just kidding.

I have a PhD in Art History. I completed it in February of 2009, and for the next year worked as a carpenter's assistant for $14 an hour. I then discovered the wonders of writing internet content, and now make more than twice that hanging around at home and writing inane little articles.

If you're a good writer and can crank stuff out fast, look into it. It's a ridiculous and inane way to make a living, but the money's good if you're fast, and it beats the hell out of making $8 an hour serving grease to people.

It sounds like you're having an employment crisis, not an existential crisis. If it were an existential crisis, you might be better off. You could quit your crappy job and go sit in a meditation center for five years, or live on the beach. Or you could stay at your job but in an ironic way, and make obscure comments to colleagues about the intense reality of the tree root in Sartre's Nausea.

I coped with being a carpenter's assistant with a PhD through the magic of "stupid dancing", invented by me. It's pretty basic. Whenever a particularly stupid song came on the radio (which was frequently, since it was of course tuned to a vapid rock station), I would drop my tools and dance in the stupidest way possible, usually by lifting my legs high up, hillbilly style, and flailing my arms. This amused my one friend on the work crew tremendously, and convinced everyone else that I was badly in need of therapy, both results welcomed by me.

Sorry, I'm not sure if that will be of any help.

I did learn to type very rapidly in grad school, so I make use of it now by, as previously mentioned, making mountains of money writing inanities, and periodically responding to MeFi posts with long winded asides.

For what it's worth, I can relate. Even though I'm a spoiled medium-sized white guy rather than a spoiled little white girl. I am the author of "An Intimate Destruction: Tantric Buddhism, Desire, and the Body in Surrealism and Georges Bataille". This 300 page tome, which frankly is really quite good, has earned me the privilege of writing a 400 word article on "Innovative Safety Ideas" for $15.

Buy hey. You know what? Fuck it. Life is short. Bitterness corrodes your mind. Love the ones who love you. Read great books. Try some stupid dancing.
posted by crazylegs at 8:37 AM on March 11, 2011 [38 favorites]

I hate the fact that I have no goals besides “get a better fucking job.”.... I can’t believe I didn’t see through the bullshit years ago and start cultivating some ACTUAL skills but now it’s too late.

Oh come now, it's never too late. Why do you think so many adults go back to school? Your future isn't set for you at 21. And I think "get a better fucking job" is a pretty decent goal. You just need to dig a little deeper- what do you define as better? More money? Sitting at a desk? Not dealing with food? Set yourself some parameters- I would focus on the type of skills you want to use in your next job. Perhaps temping would be a good way to build up those skills and your resume?

On preview: A successful student is a successful learner - a successful adult is a successful doer. Ain't that the truth!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:37 AM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

t. I’m bitter about what dozens of teachers told me, I’m bitter I wasn’t better prepared, I hate the fact that I have no goals besides “get a better fucking job.”

You're not the first person I've heard go through this. You work hard, did well, did all the "right things" you were told to do, and then got out there and started a job and... it sucked.

Go to your college's career office. Talk about career counseling issues. Find out what your friends -- the successful ones -- are doing for a living. Figure out where you want to be in life and pick the jobs that let you get there.

Most people learn in college that you can't scrape by on intelligence alone. You're lucky/unlucky that college was easy for you... now you have to learn how to do something that doesn't come easily to you.
posted by deanc at 8:38 AM on March 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Well applying to different companies isn't doing the same thing over and over so not quite insanity, but getting knocked back over and over when you really want to change your life is incredibly draining and its pretty normal for you to be entirely miserable about it.

There isn't a syllabus for life but on the other hand perhaps you could try and work from a perspective where you consider that if there was, what would it say? You're an ideas generator so set yourself the task of thinking of new ideas for what you might change in your life. How might you go about finding new ways to impress a company if you had to get your friend into work. Now put yourself into that position of the friend and make it about getting yourself into more interesting work. Figure out what you want to work at. Get some careers advice. Find some voluntary work that serves as good experience, even though it will be hard to do as well as your FT job, it will give you more chance to get out of what you are doing now.
posted by biffa at 8:40 AM on March 11, 2011

What I wouldn't give for a college degree right now.

I'm in my early 30s now. I worked $5 an hour jobs for years. I worked my ass off at those jobs. I got promoted, got better jobs. I have a great job now. It took me 15 years of proving how good I am to get to where I am now. Life isn't easy, we don't all get to just walk into great jobs. The biggest help to me has been realizing that life doesn't owe me anything, and deciding to make the most of what I've got.
posted by Zophi at 8:42 AM on March 11, 2011 [8 favorites]

There are many people in their 40s and 50s with advanced degrees also unable to find work in their field, so you're not alone. I'd recommend looking into getting a teaching certificate and doing that for awhile. You get the summers off and you're not wearing a uniform.
posted by Jamesonian at 8:43 AM on March 11, 2011

Every day I work food service I become less and less employable,

Totally untrue. I graduated in the late 80s with a degree in history from an Ivy (i.e. I had few practical skills as a result of that, though I'd worked all through high school and college so I did have some job experience); I moved with some college friends to a town a couple hours from our school and ended up working in dining services at a college there. On the one hand, it was a drag and I was depressed. On the other hand, it didn't end my life or my career (editing), which I ended up falling into about three years later.

Since then, I have periodically gone back into food service for little bits and pieces of time when I didn't have an editing job, and again, my life has not ended. The food service jobs were fulfilling in their own ways - they took very little psychic energy most of the time, and I always had enough to eat.

Make a plan. Break it up into small, manageable chunks ("Find a better job" is not such a chunk, so quit thinking like that): work on resume, send it to X places per day/week, go to events where you might meet people who'd want to hire you, etc. What you're feeling is not unnatural or unusual and it will not last forever.

And one thing I wish I'd really understood when I was in your place: your job is not your identity. Your self-worth does not have to come from your job. You can (and should) find fulfillment in places other than What You Do For A Living. Good luck.
posted by rtha at 8:45 AM on March 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

I was in a similar boat (I was actually set to graduate with you) when I ran out of tuition money last year. Honestly, I don't know anybody our age who really makes more than 12 or 13 dollars an hour. Most of us work in call centers, I have a few friends who spent the past year or two picking up a trade. The first year out of college is always going to be shitty nowadays.

Personally, I had to lie through my fucking teeth to get the few mediocre jobs I've gotten so far. Neither are great, but they're better than anything I could have gotten with my real credentials (I spent 6 months in 2009 working at a bowling alley). If that doesn't help, try freelancing I guess. It's helped me out a little bit.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:47 AM on March 11, 2011

Don't panic.

I graduated at the crest of an economic expansion, when everything was rosy and jobs were (supposedly) plentiful. I went straight to grad school, but many of my friends who graduated at the same time went through a phase of milling around in low-paying and temp jobs before gaining enough experience and sense of direction to really start a career. I know, the friends in my anecdote were not working in fast food, so they "had it better" than you. But the point is, even in a robust economy, not every college graduate waltzes straight into a well-paid and satisfying job. It's actually pretty normal to spend some time grabbing whatever employment you can get and enduring a low standard of living. (The first friend in my anecdote slept on an air mattress for a year or two, partly because she couldn't afford a mattress and partly because it was easier to take with her as she ricocheted from one cheap shared apartment to another.)

There are things you can do to make yourself more employable: volunteer work, self-training (there are computer language tutorials online—start with HTML and CSS), short-term gigs, and vigorous pursuit of any hobbies/interests you may have.

You might also consider moving to an area with more jobs. I know you said you like the place you're in now, but if the job situation is seriously getting you down, you might be better off living somewhere where you can land a different job.
posted by Orinda at 8:56 AM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I graduated in the Carter recession, and somehow managed to have an interesting and well-paid career that I like. It's a million miles from where I started (museum work) and I've gone through a lot of careers since then. I got a BA in English and thought I'd work in a book store or at some magazine, maybe. Not a clue.

I do think that colleges (and high schools) over-sell the academic part (esp. for liberal arts degrees) and under-sell the skills part of crafting a career. There are a zillion books about how to get along with people, sell yourself, figure out what you want, and so on. It's worth skimming them at the library or bookstore and paying attention to the best bits.

If your paid job isn't helping you grow the skills you need, volunteer. Make up a job and advertise yourself on CL, etc. Band with others in your situation and brainstorm some stuff to do. Effort is good fortune. But serendipity is also a huge part of life--being alert to an opportunity and prepared to seize is it vital to taking control of your life. Keep your resume updated. Have semi-pro business cards ready to hand out. Talk to people.

You won't always be stuck in your crappy job, I promise. And now that you've vented, you can set out on your own journey.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:59 AM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I graduated in a worse recession twenty years ago (at the time, unemployment for under 25s in my area was over 40% - the other 60% had really, really shitty part-time jobs - we ASPIRED to food service jobs). I actually had a lot of fun being underemployed, fun is cheap when you are young and all your friends are broke and your identity isn't wrapped up in your job.

I went back to school for a specialised skill knowing their was a specific job opening two years down the road I could apply for. I eventually build a career I love out of that and am only now getting to the place in my career the 18 year old me thought I would be at 25. If I hadn't fallen into that opportunity I was about to leave for another country and get a job there. Which is what I think you should do, find somewhere with better employment rates and move there, if it is another country even better. Work hard, play hard, enjoy the gift that life is.
posted by saucysault at 9:02 AM on March 11, 2011

there, not their. arrgghh.
posted by saucysault at 9:04 AM on March 11, 2011

Direction + Hard Work > Smarts

Figure out what you want to do, set small, managable steps to complete to get there, whether it's volunteering, informational interviews, or getting a certification.

Don't stop.
posted by OrangeDrink at 9:09 AM on March 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

As a guy who washed dishes and waited tables and tended bar for twenty years, my sympathy for you is, um, zero.

Buck up, buttercup.

You are learning something in your service-industry job. It's called "humility". Every stained cuff, every rude guest, every coked-up manager with a Napoleon complex: that's all on the syllabus.

Are you gonna pass this test or not?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:12 AM on March 11, 2011 [26 favorites]

What you've said felt kinda like how I felt after I was already in the workforce.

Fact is, most people don't enjoy what they do. They hold down a job because it enables them to do other things that they like to do.

It's never too late to cultivate skills and apply them.

Get that first job. You'll learn what you like and what you don't like. It's almost as if you don't know what you don't know right now.

Once you have that first job, I think your existential crisis will be abated somewhat. Good luck!
posted by PsuDab93 at 9:16 AM on March 11, 2011

Do you really have no goals? I find that kind of hard to believe, because if you were really ambitionless, you'd be fine with things as they are.

To be employable, you don't need smarts, per se; you need skills (not writing or organizing-- everyone with a BA and plenty of people without one can do both of those things). So, get some real skills. There are two ways I can think of to do this: unpaid internships and specialized classes. I graduated in 2009-- the first graduating class after the fallout of Fall 2008-- and I and many of my classmates are doing pretty well now in various fields. But we didn't do so by sleepwalking through our BAs and into some generic cushy job-- we had targeted internships during and, in some cases, after college, or took night classes, or both. Yeah, it sucks to not be paid for work you do as an intern, but if you show up and do your work, you get what could be your golden ticket into your field in the form of a recommendation from your supervisor. By taking classes, you get to add skills to your resume that are not the ubiquitous and unimpressive "comfortable with Microsoft and Macintosh operating systems" or "excellent people skills."

Of course, you need to have some sort of specialized interest or ambition to even begin looking for internships or classes, so figuring that out should probably be your first priority.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:16 AM on March 11, 2011

Hey, I wrote this question when I graduated from law school in 2007 and I failed the bar and the legal market crumbled so that unlicensed attorneys couldn't even find contract work reviewing documents. I was miserable and convinced that I had no skills that anyone wanted to use. I couldn't even use a fucking fax machine. I was wrong then, just as you're wrong now.

You have skills and you'd be surprised at how useful they are. Your problem is not that you lack skills but that you lack the proper framing for those skills that helps you a) feel good about who you are as a potential employee (and I assure you a positive outlook is important in your quest to find a job); and b) helps communicate to potential employers what an asset you will be when they hire you (which is probably even more important).

Writing is a skill. Please take a look around at the wider world, and you will realize that the ability to string together sentences in an accurate manner with a bit of elegance is probably as much talent as it is learned skill - and if it is one that you have, it is one that you can benefit from using. In my own experience, there are two roles in producing written work: generator and editor. You don't have to just be one of those; they're separate skills and often people are able to write without editing, or are able to edit without being the genesis of the written word. It is just as fine to be the Fred to someone's Ginger as it is to be your own little self-contained linguistic island.

The analytical skills that you have are also useful and will be appreciated by any number of employers. This skill is described in any number of ways: critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, comprehension, being detail oriented. And like writing, it is a skill that some people don't have. Many offices still operate from a top-down structure, with one person steering and making decisions and many others providing feedback and/or executing those decisions. You fit in to that structure, just the same way you would fit into a structure that requires that all team members develop and report their own interpretations and findings in order to create a group consensus. Whether it is bean counting or saving the environment, critical thinking skills are essential.

But let's dispense with the reassessment of your skills and assume for a moment that you're a tabula rasa, a nincompoop, that you can't do anything except suggest that the pinot noir goes really well with the daily special.

Change that.

What do you WANT to be doing? I didn't hear anything in your screed that even hinted at direction. And without direction, you're dead in the water. Should you be developing a portfolio? Should you be working toward a certification? Should you be out volunteering and meeting others in your area with similar interests? None of us know because it sounds like you don't know. And if you truly don't know (I doubt that to be the case; I am more inclined to armchair diagnose you as suffering from the Fear of Success so common among the generation suffering quarterlife crises) what you want to be when you grow up, then that's your first action item: figure it out.

You're right that it is an employers market and that it is highly competitive. And sure maybe we're both out of luck and never going to achieve quite as much as people born under the lucky star of positive GDP growth. But let's become statistics once it is all said and done - not before it happens, k?
posted by jph at 9:20 AM on March 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

And if you truly don't know (I doubt that to be the case; I am more inclined to armchair diagnose you as suffering from the Fear of Success so common among the generation suffering quarterlife crises) what you want to be when you grow up, then that's your first action item: figure it out.

I think this is good advice, but I think it's impossible to know in a vacuum. I think you learn in steps- you get a job, you hate parts of it, you look for another job with less of what you hate and more of what you like. You don't have to decide What You Want To Be When You Grow Up right now. Just figure out the next step, and work your butt off while you're there.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:27 AM on March 11, 2011

Are you in a college town? If so, you may want to broaden your search geographically. College towns are notoriously glutted with recent grads who--from lack of ambition, a sense of security, or other factors--just never left.

FWIW--I have a clever student this semester, probably not unlike you, who has really good facility with language. However, I told him this semester that his cleverness with language was not going to be enough to get by after college and that he needed more substantive development of his ideas AND his skills to take advantage of that communication ability. He thinks he's going to sail by in my class like he has in many others, but he's not really learning anything. At this point, I'm not sure he knows how to learn, and he's most certainly not taking my advice about how to get the most out of the class. It will be easy for him to pull a B with very little effor, and he might pull an A if he decides to buckle down at the last minute (which is probably his MO anyway). All in all, he wasn't too happy with me for saying those things. He doesn't want that balloon to be burst. But I hope when he gets into the situation you're in now that he remembers that at least one person warned him that this could happen.

One of the best things he, and you, could learn right now is how to be self-directed. That syllabus you were so good at following was a road map leading you through a step-by-step process that you didn't have to think much about. There's no syllabus for life because there's no one laying out that step-by-step process for you. No one but YOU. And, so, YOU need to take this time to write the syllabus of your life. The ability to follow directions isn't going to get you too far toward your life goals, whatever those may be. It sounds like that's what you need to figure out first. If you don't have a clue where you're going, how will you know when you get there?
posted by BlooPen at 9:27 AM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

The best advice I can give you is to offer to work for free as an intern at your dream company. Do good work and you'll be employed by them in a year. You're young, and the time is now to take chances.
posted by xammerboy at 9:31 AM on March 11, 2011

no one cares if you’re smart

This is only partly correct. In fact, hardly anybody cares about you at all.

Congratulations! You've learned one of life's lessons. Now, you can either choose to be bitter about it or you can recognize it as a liberating truth because if nobody cares about you then you can do whatever the eff you want. Again, the choice is entirely up to you and it won't really make a difference to anybody but yourself what you decide and you have only yourself to blame if you're unhappy with your decision. So, what's it gonna be?

Here is some more concrete advice. You probably won't get an interview if you just blindly send resumes and cover letters into the void. It helps if you know somebody at the place where you're applying, even if you just have a passing acquaintance with them. Does your college have an alumni network? If so, look for people who are in a field that you are interested in and ask them if they want to have lunch. Or just send them an email and ask them for advice breaking into your field. You'd be surprised how far people you don't even know are willing to go to help you out.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 9:33 AM on March 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

I’m bitter about what dozens of teachers told me, I’m bitter I wasn’t better prepared, I hate the fact that I have no goals besides “get a better fucking job.”

Blog about your current struggles and what your schools and elders could have done to better prepare you for life. Blog about schools and elders who are getting it right, and how they are doing it. When that catches on, write a book about it and make money consulting to schools and teaching them how to better prepare smart kids for life.

Also, you need to get an internship somewhere that does the sort of thing you would like to do. If you can't find an internship, than you need to figure out how to develop applicable real life skills (in any area in which you would actually like to work) on your own.
posted by semacd at 9:35 AM on March 11, 2011

I have spent my entire life being told by teachers how clever I am, and expending essentially zero effort to make As and Bs. And now I’ve graduated from college and suddenly realized that the past 16 years’ worth of effort were absolutely pointless, because no one cares if you’re smart.

These two sentences contradict one another. Either you've put in effort, in which case you may be able to justify a belief that your effort hasn't netted you the results you want, or you've coasted your entire life, not needing to put in effort in order to get the results you want, and now you're upset that your usual lack of effort is no longer getting results. I suspect that it's the latter, in which case, my advice to you is to put in effort.

You are spoiled. Not because you're white or young or privileged. You're spoiled because you won the genetic smarts lottery. Being smart is awesome. It makes all kinds of things in life easier. But being smart doesn't excuse you from the rules that govern the rest of the world. One of those rules is that people notice who gives a shit about things, and if they give a shit, they prefer to deal with other people who also give a shit. And so far, you've given no indication that you give a shit about anything in particular, much less that you're willing to do things that are difficult or boring or unglamorous in order to accomplish things about which you give a shit.

You compared yourself to an aging ingenue who can't rely on her looks to get her jobs anymore. And I think that's exactly right. But do you know what the difference is between an ingenue who can't find work anymore once she turns 35 and, say, Meryl Streep or Elizabeth Taylor? The out-of-work ingenue relied solely on her looks, and then when her looks stopped working, she threw herself a pity party and quit. The actresses who succeed well into middle age and beyond are the ones who take being an actress seriously. Even when other people just saw a pretty face, they worked hard and learned how to be better at acting and took difficult roles that required them to do more than sit around looking pretty. They also got pretty lucky, but you have to work hard to be in a position where luck can do anything for you.

You need to figure out whether or not you're willing to stop coasting by on being smart and clever and actually buckle down and do something. Because whether you want to admit it or not, your choices have contributed just as much as the vagaries of the world economy towards getting you where you are today. And your choices about how hard you're willing to work and how much effort you're going to put forward are going to dictate what your future looks like.
posted by decathecting at 9:45 AM on March 11, 2011 [13 favorites]

"Getting a better job" is a perfectly valid life goal.

But while you're working on that, start thinking about how you can apply those school-smarts to getting something out of the crappy job other than your eight bucks an hour. You might be surprised.

When I graduated with my almost perfect GPA and wonderfully employable English BA (hah!), I couldn't even get a food service job. After four months of frantic job hunting, I ended up working at a religious preschool for less than $8 an hour--and not only am I agnostic, I didn't even like kids! (I learned to be quite fond of them eventually) I was miserable, was barely making enough money to pay off my student loans each month, and wasn't even good at my crappy job, which was embarrassing

But, while working on getting out and getting on with my long-term goals, I made it one of my main goals to learn as much as I could during that period, both on my own and from my job experiences. I talked with my coworkers as much as possible to learn what skills and tricks they knew, both work and non-work related. Practically, they taught me ways of stretching my budget, balancing work/personal life, cooking tips, etc. And, more importantly, it taught me how to communicate effectively with people who aren't "highly educated" but do have experience, which is something school didn't teach me. I talked to parents. I talked to my kids. I learned ways of balancing the needs/requirements of the parents with the needs/requirements of my employer with the needs/requirements of the kids with my own needs to not go completely crazy, a skill which translates into almost any kind of employment. I learned all about "coping with high-stress situations" without losing my cool. I learned a heck of a lot about the pros and cons of positive vs. negative reinforcement and dealing with irrational people you have to keep happy (nobody is quite as irrational as a two year old who hasn't had their nap.) And I gave quite a bit of thought to how I could "spin" those skills I was developing on the applications I was putting in.

At the same time, I made a point to keep my "school" education up. Lunchbreaks/Naptime was great for working my way through the great works and theory that I never had time to get to in school. My schoolwork had provided me with a great foundation, and in some ways I advanced more in my academic discipline in that year than I did in the four years I spent taking classes.

Strangely enough, now that I'm doing the kind of work that was my ultimate plan, the things I learned in that year I worked at the preschool are as much or more useful to me than all the stuff I learned in school. It sets me apart from my other colleagues who have only ever been in school.

Point being (sorry for the long anecdote)--don't look at this as meaningless, wasted time, even while keeping in mind the stuff you really want to be doing. As crappy as it feels some days (and it will feel crappy), it's an opportunity to learn and develop. Employers like experience--and, near as I can tell, they like it even better when they can tell that you're the kind of person who is determined to look at everything as a "step on the road to success." (Cheesy, I know). And you may find that you actually end up enjoying parts of it better, especially when you're not freaking out that you're going to be stuck doing it forever. Do I ever want to go back and work at a preschool again? Hell no. But I still have photos and drawings my kids made me up on my wall to remind me that time was hardly wasted.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 9:45 AM on March 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

So here I am, with skills like ‘writing’ and ‘organizing’ and ‘generating ideas,’ which are also known as ‘utterly pointless’ in today’s job market.

Well, I guess you're not as smart as you thought, huh? Lesson #1: learned.

I’m bitter about what dozens of teachers told me, I’m bitter I wasn’t better prepared

Your fault for believing them (see lesson #1), and your fault for not better preparing yourself.

I hate the fact that I have no goals besides “get a better fucking job.”

Your biggest fault. What do you like doing when you're not "writing" or "organizing" or "generating ideas"?

I don’t know what I thought would happen when I graduated

Because you were never trained to think for yourself.

I can’t believe I didn’t see through the bullshit years ago and start cultivating some ACTUAL skills but now it’s too late.

Lesson #2: it's never too late to start learning.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:45 AM on March 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was exactly in your boat. I studied political science and decided not to pursue law school, making my department's career development all useless. Hell, I had two resumes. One that reflected I was very rooted in various liberal organizations in the city and working for national campaigns. This one played very poorly with most employers, so I wrote another that reflected no work experience in college, and I exaggerated my role in helping my family out during my mother's stint with cancer.

Two things helped me get my foot in the door. I only tried them after a semester of going it alone and failing miserably.

- I went back to school for a night class. It filled a gap in my resume, and it was tailored for 'If I want to go back to graduate school'. It was also much easier getting office temp work, thereby getting me into a corporate office environment. Where I was getting zero callbacks as a college grad, being a student I picked up something in the first two weeks.

- University Career Services. One, I was able to pick up tons of interviews and get practice in promoting myself. Two, the jobs listed are usually smaller firms. By allying myself as an alum, I found that interviewers were less likely to consider me an outside chance.

It took a while to transition. And I was fortunate that I had the support to rely on, since college wasn't cheap. But this helped me job hop from a temp to a salary in a little over a year.
posted by politikitty at 10:12 AM on March 11, 2011

First off, sorry to hear that you're in the same boat as many of my friends (un- or underemployed 2009-2010 graduates from an academically rigorous small liberal arts college in the Northeast). Regardless of any character-building or dues-paying that may occur, it sucks and I sincerely hope you can find some things you enjoy doing outside of working.

Here are some of the things that have worked for me and some folks that I know. A lot of them will depend on your personality, the area you live in now, and whether you're willing to move at some point.

1. Be sure to supplement any Craigslist/ searching with a more targeted approach. Think of any kind of organization (non-profit, for-profit, doesn't matter) that does work you like or find interesting in any way. Find their careers/employment/job posting page and bookmark it. Visit frequently. (RSS feeds are great for this too.) Make sure you're the first to apply for any opening you could possibly stand. --- This worked for one friend who got a secretary job at a college whose unique educational philosophy she found intriguing - she has a job she can stand, gets to take classes, and has met some cool people.

Probably obvious but just in case: lists internships and jobs at non-profits. Americorps is a low-paying but possibly viable option as well.

2. If there are any fields you find interesting, get in touch with the professional organization and ask if you can have coffee with someone currently working in the field. Hopefully it will be someone good who will give you some straight talk re: job prospects, experience required for various positions, where to look for postings, etc. And the networking benefits should be obvious. Many people (especially ones who'd volunteer to meet with you) want to be helpful. My gf got a wonderful summer job this way, one that was never advertised anywhere she would have found it on my own.

3. You may laugh, but have you considered a farm internship/job? I worked on both farms and in food-service during college, and both leave you with time to think. Farming feels a lot more productive and worthwhile to me, as well as a lot less frazzled than refilling buffet pans in the dining hall. Two of my closest friends currently work year-round on a farm near Asheville, NC, and love their jobs.

Perhaps you're one of those folks who cringe at the mention of Michael Pollan, but the small-scale organic sorts of farms tend to be safer than the large-scale farms that rely more heavily on large tractors and chemicals that need to be handled very carefully. (Big farms generally aren't interested in recent college grads anyway for obvious labor market reasons.) Apprenticeship/intern arrangements often come with lower wages but housing and food provided. It can give you some space/time to think about what you really want to do.

Good resources: ATTRA
Grow Food Farm Directory
Greenhorns Blog

4. Grad school may seem like an obvious choice and the thought of taking out (possibly more) loans is certainly frightening. It's worked for me - I condensed my program as much as possible to minimize the amount of time I was living off of loans. I took a more-than-recommended courseload and worked 20 hours/week in my field. Can't say I recommend it for the stress factor, but I'm employed full-time in my field now. Another good friend took a similar approach and was offered a full-time job by the social policy organization she worked at during graduate school. Both of us did career-oriented programs (libraries and public policy) that aren't exactly known for their wonderful job prospects, but made it work.

5. Look into housing cooperatives and other options for reducing how much you spend on rent. It can really help take the stress off of a job search. My college roommate lives on DC but only pays $300 a month in rent & most food because of an arrangement like this. Personalities can be a huge issue in these sorts of living situations (lots of shared space, shared cooking, etc.) Craigslist tends to be a good place for finding these arrangements.

Best of luck!
posted by brackish.line at 10:15 AM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another thing. So many jobs are not what you know but who you know.

You need to network your butt off. Someone who knows someone who is related to someone will know of a job opening.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:18 AM on March 11, 2011

Look, to give you an idea, everyone is in hiatus - not just you.
Were you fifteen years older, you might be sitting in a job with no mobility up or laterally (down and out are always options) with a house payment and a baby on the way. Were you thirty years older, you might be sitting in a job which every day your employer evaluates whether the job could be downsized with a fully leveraged mortgage and two teenagers in college. Were you fourty five years older, you may be sitting in a job with no ability to move out as the sum total of your life earnings might have been eliminated during the financial crisis and two adult childeren who can't find work having to live with you.

Just saying, sitting at the start of your professional career with minimal obligations is not the worst place to be.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:18 AM on March 11, 2011 [11 favorites]

Here is my take. You should be upset. The education system has not served you. The jobs that existed for a generation of Americans is gone.

You may disagree with me. That's ok. If you agree with me though, I'd start by listening to this TED talk, persuasively laying out what I have come to believe. And just to darken your day even more, this Nobel laureate expects thing to get even worse.

So, what to do about it. First, I'd suggest that you review as many comments from MeFi member Grumblebee (who is a veritable treasure trove of great career advice, such as this answer) as you can stand - it's ok, though, he/she rocks. An even more thorough approach might be to use the "My Ask" functionality of AskMe in order to keep up the many, many great answers that come with this type of career-related question (which you'll soon see is alarmingly common).

Next, there is some great advice right here (I'm looking at you jph and oino...), but you really need to realize how much dumb luck is going to play in all of this. Aside what others have been saying, you can help your luck with networking. Your food-service job may put you in contact with potential employers, but a volunteer stint, social group membership, and Linked In account may go further.

Finally, if it's at all possible consider moving. The labor market is not equally bad around the country. Here is the unemployment rate by state...definitely not a complete picture, but it is part of the picture.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 10:22 AM on March 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

Calm down. You are going to be fine.

You have basic problem solving skills. The thing that sinks people into that gaping maw of never ending poverty is lack of basic problem solving skills.

What do you do now? Stop ONLY applying to jobs in your major. Make the best of what you've got and fight your way a little higher. Call all your college friends with jobs. Email every professor, internship boss and all your parents, siblings, and their friends and tell them you want to get your foot in a door. Take part time work in an office to get a little experience. Get some internships in between shitty shifts at burger pit. Apply to a mail room of a big company that is well rated for internal mobility opportunities.

all the while do some research. What companies and what industries are doing well in your area. What are they looking for in entry level candidates? And for pete's sake- what skills are the ones that you talk about as "real"? Can you type? answer a phone? Data entry and Reception will get you insurance and 12 bucks an hour.

Your area is no good for jobs? Being young means being ok with couch hopping. Find out were to go and save a few months worth of cash, get a food service job as soon as you get there and THEN go to work.

I'm really sorry you feel like the education system wasn't being honest with you, and how they didn't make you work to do well. Remember this for your kids and all the children you meet in the future so you can do better by them. But now it's going to be hard, you will have to work and it's absolutely not going to be fair... but in you stop worrying about everyone else getting a better hand than you, you'll do just fine. You are not hopeless. You have just had your ass kissed too long. Happy hunting.
posted by Blisterlips at 11:02 AM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Everyone's given you excellent advice. The only thing I can think of to say, as someone who felt just like you a few years ago is: stop being bitter. Seriously. Think of all the stuff *you* could have done differently, and that you can *still* do, but stop blaming other people for not "preparing" you or landing you a wonderful, fun, fulfilling job. It's all you. The system could have been set up to make it easier for you, true, but it's not. As long as you're focusing your anger at the economy, teachers, your college, your degree, the system, etc, you're going to feel entitled to not do much to help yourself.

All the posters above me have given you tons of good advice on what you can do to help yourself, but the MAIN thing is to get in the right mindset to do so. As long as you're blaming other factors for your current position, you won't get anywhere, even if you superficially seem to "get somewhere."

This was said entirely without judgment, as it's one of the most useful life skills I actually have, learned very painfully and slowly. You are not your job, other people's success does not diminish you, and you, and only you, are responsible for your life. There is no special snowflake situation a reasonably smart woman with a degree in the U.S. can have that changes that. Sucky stuff can and does happen, but you are the one responsible at the end of the day for anticipating, mitigating, and fixing, where appropriate. Job loss, unexpected pregnancy, natural disaster, etc, are not necessarily your fault, but how you react to the situation is. Dwelling on how the bad stuff is "unfair" is never going to help.
posted by wending my way at 11:40 AM on March 11, 2011

There are a lot of young people going through the exact same thing, my friend. You and every other young adult was raised by the stupidest, most selfish generation ever to grace this nation. Your parents and teachers were raised in America's halcyon days, then they taught their children only the skills necessary to survive in the fattest time. Just get a degree, there's money enough out there for everyone! It's frustrating, and yes, you will go down in history as the first of several generations who will live their entire lives rebuilding the economic devastation left by the boomers.

It's frustrating, and I'm only telling you this because you have every right to be angry. You are not spoiled. You really did get screwed. Your feelings of bitterness are completely justified and you should not apologize for them.

Here's the thing to keep in mind: You will live, and your life isn't as bad as you think. Do you have enough money to buy food and shelter? Can you cover your debts? If so, then you have permission to be happy. Ask yourself who you are trying to impress with the imaginary job you are envisioning. Is getting that job going to make you happy? If so, what needs will it fulfill specifically that are not being met now? Eventually, I think you are going to realize that you don't need to impress anyone, including yourself. If you can live independently and have some fun doing it, everything else is extraneous.

I would recommend The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns. Don't worry, it's not a Tony Robbins-style self-help rag; it's actually recommended by quite a few therapists. More than anything, I think it might help you get your thoughts in order and get a few of the "shoulds" out of your thought process.

Good luck! Remember, you are fine and you don't need anyone else's permission to feel that way.
posted by Willie0248 at 11:53 AM on March 11, 2011

Almost every new graduate I know of with satisfactory employment has gone to work for the Feds or their state government. If I was young with a fresh diploma and little experience I would be looking at all the government job boards, and only the government job boards. I might even consider the Navy or Air Force if I was feeling real desperate.

(I know an engineer who graduated from a decent school with a 4.0 GPA whose best offer was with the Feds.)
posted by bukvich at 12:00 PM on March 11, 2011

Don't forget to count your blessings. From what you've written, at least, it sounds like way up there on that list is that the only person you have to take care of, look out for, feed, clothe, and house, is yourself. That's not a little thing, that's huge.
posted by Salamandrous at 12:07 PM on March 11, 2011

There is much good advice in this thread, but I wanted to add two small things.


‘writing’ and ‘organizing’ and ‘generating ideas,

These are not prestigious skills. While due to inexperience it may appear otherwise to fresh graduates, these are the most basic qualifications for any white collar job of any kind, right up there with "can use email." They are not unique. There is not a person I work with who does not possess these skills to some degree, and probably to a greater degree than a fresh grad of any kind.

So don't lean too hard on that line.

I have spent my entire life being told by teachers how clever I am, and expending essentially zero effort to make As and Bs. And now I’ve graduated from college and suddenly realized that the past 16 years’ worth of effort were absolutely pointless, because no one cares if you’re smart.

That was me. I graduated with a liberal arts degree in useless after a decade and a half of coasting and basically being lazy. It's also easy to appear smart if you happen to pursue lines of education that are eschewed by people who are actually smart, clear thinking, *hard working*, willing to do apply analytical skills, etc. and who have figured out that they want to earn a living.

A few people had, prior to that, suggested strongly that if I'm going to put in the effort of obtaining a degree, it should be one that helped me earn a living and live independently, but much like many young people I "wasn't interested" in the various degree programs that are actually productive or relevant to life in the real world, but also I didn't want to get out of my lazy groove.

After graduating with my shiny piece of paper in the middle of a deep recession, which coincided with the complete collapse [far, far, far worse than today] in the specific sector at which I had been aiming, I got a part time [basic technical] job and spent six months thinking about what I wanted to do, and what I concluded was I wanted to make enough money to have time and resources to do other things, so I went back to school and did a CS degree. Life has been better since.

Money isn't everything, but before listening too closely to people who wave the "everything will be fine" or "pursue your passion" flags, consider that the people who guided you along this path to spending much time and effort for a piece of paper that doesn't help actually buy food did not in fact know what they were talking about.

Calm down, stop playing victim, and think about your goals in life. Take a good long time doing it (months, if need be).
posted by rr at 12:16 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

And now I’ve graduated from college and suddenly realized that the past 16 years’ worth of effort were absolutely pointless, because no one cares if you’re smart.

Getting good grades and pleasing teachers/authority figures isn't actually the same as being smart. You might want to re-evaluate the talents and skills you have that might not have been useful in school. Most of my teachers/profs didn't think my ability to pull information out of thin air, think on my feet and juggle a zillion things at once and improvise solutions was all that great, but those are the very abilities that I use every day, with a high dollar amount attached. Approval from teachers and approval from the marketplace are not the same.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:59 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Feel free to tell me I'm just a spoiled little white girl who needs to shut up and chill out.

You're just a spoiled little white girl who needs to focus her anger into getting somewhere else. You should not chill, you buckle down and keep applying to jobs you want, while keeping an eye on your industry and practicing your skills, making connections.

I want from being a poor design student with an AA to employed designer with the City of Baltimore, crazy benefits, salary, vacation etc. Why? Because in between waiting tables (Pizza Hutt of all places), I worked on the college newspaper (even after I got the degree), developed professional skills and became known to several teacher/advisors, who saw I was trying and recommended me for a job.

In the meantime, I partied a lot, read a lot, listened to a lot of music and went to a lot of clubs and basically acted like a 20 year old.

That fancy job? I quit after a year to go vagabonding around America. Sometimes having the fancy job ain't all it's cracked up to be, especially at 20.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:36 PM on March 11, 2011

A few people had, prior to that, suggested strongly that if I'm going to put in the effort of obtaining a degree, it should be one that helped me earn a living and live independently

I just want to point out that plenty of people get degrees that aren't directly about "earn[ing] a living" yet still go on to have successful careers. Not every middle class professional has a degree in engineering, accounting, or nursing. What those people did have was a focus and a direction about what they wanted to do after graduating.

Even if you have a history degree, if you're doing summer internships in marketing, publishing, or management consulting, you'll be on the right track.

I don't know what it was, but for some reason (I think it was mostly a desire for money), every year I focused on lining up a good summer job relevant to my field. While this didn't necessarily ensure that I ended up having experience in the precise thing I wanted to do with my life, it did ensure that I had a variety of jobs available to me at the end. I had options. And with this options, I could direct myself to what I wanted, more precisely.
posted by deanc at 2:14 PM on March 11, 2011

You have a food service job. You have a college degree. You could actually be a fast-food manager getting paid $32 to $45k a year at 21 years of age. Do it for a year, save up your money. On your resume, you can say you managed employees, were responsible for a profit-and-loss statement and dealt with suppliers and shippers. This is resume gold for someone so young and coupled with a liberal arts degree and an internship, can be quite useful in trying to get your foot in the door at the job you actually want. And you'll still be 22/23 years old.
posted by caveatz at 2:38 PM on March 11, 2011

So I was like you a few months ago, except I graduated at the end of 2008 - remember that global financial crisis? Yes, then.

Many, many people from my graduating class didn't find work until a few months ago. The point is though that they found work (and I mean good career-type jobs, not $8 food service): companies don't hire exclusively straight out of university. For that matter, my cohort of 'recent graduate hires' at work mostly consisted of people who had graduated a couple of years ago. It's possible. I did it and so can you.

The same smug assholes who say “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” they’re telling me “just keep applying, SOMEONE will call you back!” They all have jobs, of course, because they didn’t graduate in 2010.

Ahah. That's the thing. The trick is not to just "keep applying" - you're right in that it's an exercise in futility to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. The trick is to write better and better applications because writing job applications, like everything in life, is in itself a skill. Not getting any replies? Study howtos, ask people for advice. Getting rejections? Write back and ask for feedback (oh, and study howtos and ask people for advice). Flunking interviews? Study interview technique. The application process is goddamn hard and they should really teach us how to navigate it before we graduate, but that never seems to happen. We have to teach ourselves.

And of course do your homework on the companies you're applying for: make sure you really want to work there, and make sure you can show it. That's what they're really looking for.
posted by Xany at 3:35 PM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you have a pretty good life right now - your own place, friends, free time. You have the freedom to do something drastic. Pick something to save for, and use that as a goal to bide your time at your job. Maybe a trip, or to gtfo of your city. College towns are bubbles.

(I always recommend the Student Conservation Association. Variety of environmental type internships, from a few months to a year, all over the country. Stipend, housing, and you can defer loans and get americorps grants. Most people are in college or recently graduated. I met a ton of passionate people that completely changed my direction in life.)
posted by shinyshiny at 6:03 PM on March 11, 2011

I'm 23, not much older than you, and most of the stuff on my resume and my portfolio (games) is stuff I've done outside of school. Now that i don't have to study for tests, I can come home from work and do what I want, typically this involves making computer games. I'm one of those people that goes to coffee shops to code.

I'm trying to get into the game industry, it's a butt-hard industry to get into. This means lots of failures, false starts, disappointments, broken promises, late nights, and unpaid jobs.

But I do it because I'm deranged.

Find something to get deranged over, build the skills and if you don't quit you'll get good, and maybe you'll get lucky. If you're deranged, getting lucky won't be part of the equation, because success will be a side-product of the process of creation.

This will get you through the shitty day jobs, whether or not you end up doing it for a living.
posted by hellojed at 6:40 PM on March 11, 2011

Having gone through the same thing: Check out legal assistant jobs on Craigslist.
And always look your best and be on-point; no matter how smart you are, if you are new at something, you are a dumbass. So it is crucial to look and act motivated and solutions-oriented.
posted by blargerz at 6:55 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Many have walked this road before you.

Ok - you're now in the first stage of learning a new system. You were good at the old system (school) but this is a new system (work) and you will have a learning curve. That's okay. You'll learn things like "it's more important that you show up on time than that you do a brilliant job", that "I can't do that, I don't know how" is the wrong answer for crummy tasks ( "I've already taught myself how to do that" is the right answer), etc. Be open to learning everything you can at your current job.

Also be thinking about your next job - which will still probably be a dues-paying skill-building job with lots of crummy tasks that do not make use of your intellect, but where you'll learn important things and make contacts that will land you the next job - which will be getting closer to a job that starts to use your intellect.

Your goal in your early 20s should be to keep yourself fed while also building toward a job you'll really like (or which will really pay well, or be really secure, or whatever you value in a job) in your later 20s.

I've read a large excerpt from this book, advice for liberal arts nerds on understanding the culture of work, and thought it was good:

How to be Useful

Also, you might think about going to the library some evening/weekend and sitting down with "What Color is Your Parachute" and reading up on things like what to say in interviews etc, and how to think about what kinds of jobs to look for and how to look for them. It's corny, but look past that and it has some useful thoughts.

Last piece of advice, which I offer because I know the temptation and have seen many bright people succumb to it:

Do not retreat to grad school just because it's a familiar environment and feels like a sure thing. Do not go to grad school unless you have been out of school for a couple of years and you have a firm plan of a job you want that requires a specific graduate degree. If you go back to school just because it's familiar, you'll just be in this same position again in however many years, but with more debt and older. This period of uncertainty and crummy jobs is really uncomfortable and has its shitty moments -- but persevere and figure out the world of work.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:14 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

If someone puts a syllabus in front of me and says ‘go,’ I’ll blow them away. But there’s no syllabus for fucking LIFE.

Yep, that sounds familiar. You need to figure out for yourself what to do now. Run, don't walk to the bookstore and buy this book. Stupid title, but it totally changed the way I think about my career. Specifically, and help me figure out what I really wanted to do, and think creatively about how to get there.

Throw in a little of Steve Jobs' phenomenal graduation commencement, to take the edge off not knowing how your current experience will set up your future experience, and you should be good to go.
posted by squasher at 7:34 PM on March 12, 2011

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