I'm 21 and have never had a job. How can I start patching up my life?
March 17, 2019 5:44 PM   Subscribe

I am finally on the road to recovery after dealing with a lifelong, severe anxiety disorder that nearly killed me. Due to my mental health and my own poor decision-making, I’ve never had a job--no part-time, no working-for-my-uncle, nothing. I’m currently doing a BA in English Lit but have missed all the deadline applications for internships this summer. Have I screwed myself over? Can volunteering for one summer be suitable “padding” for my blank CV?

I’m 21F, based in Scotland and am in my 3rd year out of 4 of an English Lit degree. I’m in therapy (CBT) and have tried multiple medications. I’ve discussed this with my therapist, but she recommended I also get viewpoints from other people, so here I am.

The anxiety disorder started when I was a kid and got progressively worse over the years until leaving the house got highly difficult. Because I’ve been struggling since I was young, I never planned for the future. I never thought I'd even survive this long. Graduating high school, making it to university … Those weren’t supposed to happen. But they did, and now the “real world” is here and I do not have any plans, ambitions, or any practical preparation. I am privileged enough to be attending a tuition-free uni and have funds from my grandparents to pay for living costs, so getting a job never became a situation of life-or-death. Plus, all these years school is the only thing I’ve been able to (kind of) handle. Anything beyond it has historically pushed me into a spiral of depression and suicidality—making friends, looking for a job, volunteering … The added pressure would completely debilitate me mentally. I’m getting help and am not in any way suicidal anymore, thank God, but I’ve lost a lot of time to mental illness and I get the sense that my peers are light-years ahead of me.

My grades are good but that’s all I’ve got going for me. The total lack of work experience feels pretty damning for future employment, and I doubt good grades will make up for it. I’ve been looking for internships, but turns out when I was in crisis-mode these past few months I missed most of the application deadlines for the feasible ones I could do. I still have an eye out, but it’s unlikely I’ll get anything. As for part-time jobs this summer, both my therapist and I agree that something like retail would be a step too overwhelming since I’m still in the beginning stages of calming down panic attacks in public settings. My anxiety is a lot better, but it's definitely still a work in progress.

So, I’ve googled around and a lot of people suggest volunteering as an alternative to work experience. It also sounds like something I could handle with my current mental health. I do think it’d look a lot better than a blank CV, but I worry that it’s not going to be enough for employers and that the dreaded “okay, so why haven’t you ever had a part-time job at 21/22 years old?” question will come up, or they’ll see that I’ve never been employed and simply toss my application. It just feels like there are so many stronger candidates out there.

Due to all of this, I’m combating an intense feeling of hopelessness right now—to my core, I feel like I’ve irrevocably fucked up my future and that I’m going to die jobless, homeless and alone. I try to imagine a good future and all I see is a big, blank void. I never prepared for this time in my life, and I don’t know what to do. A lot of that is distorted thinking and catastrophizing, I know, but I also can’t deny the reality that this is a less-than-ideal situation to be in and that I’ve made my future a lot harder for myself by not getting any employment all these years.

So, to sum up: will volunteering (at, say, an office or a charity; something mildly related to my degree) for three months this summer help my future prospects + CV at all? Any other suggestions as to what I might do to calm down the intensity of the hopelessness I feel whenever I think about my own future? Stories of people in similar situations who turned their lives around would be helpful, too. I'm deeply overwhelmed and scared right now, so I greatly appreciate any advice and/or encouragement you might be able to give. Thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (25 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: poster's request -- cortex

ANY sort of job or volunteer gig where you regularly have to show up on a schedule, manage responsibilities, and build skills is going to look better than absolutely nothing on a CV.

I have suffered bouts of severe anxiety disorder and I know what the feeling of hopelessness can be like. But trust me, just getting something on that CV is going to be better than letting the hopelessness win over. If someone asks why you haven't had a job prior, you can be vague but firm about having some things in your life that you had to take care of and that you had the opportunity to do so before you began searching for a job. Spin it in a positive way because it IS positive.

Also, I would suggest continue looking for a paid gig rather than jumping straight to volunteering just because making some money is also going to help with your healing. It will let you know you are worth something internally, and when you graduate you'll also have some baseline for what salary you can expect. Maybe there are some smaller family businesses that could use some summer help with administrative tasks like typing, expense reporting, billing, answering phones, etc. Or worst case, get a retail job. Again, the goal is to show that you are responsible and have skills you have built through a summer job.
posted by joan_holloway at 6:02 PM on March 17, 2019 [8 favorites]

Oh honey, I wish I could give you a big hug right now. The jobs your peers have held up to now have mostly demonstrated that a) they'll show up when they said they would, b) they can take direction and c) play nicely with others. They haven't been running Fortune 500 companies. Your future boss won't care that you don't have four years of burger-flipping experience if you can show them that you can do a) b) and c)! Paid is better than unpaid (duh!) because YOU GET PAID!!! But any experience will help.
Ten years from now you'll look back and remember the degree of anxiety you felt over this and feel the same tenderness as sympathy for that young person I'm feeling now. Take a breath. You haven't fucked up anything, your just adjusting to your new wings. Break a leg!
posted by kate4914 at 6:24 PM on March 17, 2019 [20 favorites]

Are temp agencies a thing in Scotland? My first real jobs were temporary - they’re less likely to care about previous experience, and if you do well you can end up with several employers who might give you a future reference.
posted by Kriesa at 6:24 PM on March 17, 2019 [6 favorites]

Oh man you are so young. It's OK. It's totally 100% OK.

And you're right, you are catastrophising, like, majorly. You're 21!!! TWENTY ONE!! I know plenty of folks who didn't work in highschool and college and they are valuable and worthwhile people.

It's OK to volunteer.

You are going to be just fine.
posted by pintapicasso at 6:31 PM on March 17, 2019 [24 favorites]

Not everyone at 21 has worked at a job, especially not if you're 3/4 of your way through college. It doesn't say much of anything about you -- some youth have "fun food" jobs and some don't. Some have family obligations, travel, or hang around playing music in their garage. None of it matters ten years down the road. If someone in an interview asks why you didn't have a part time job at 21 (vs when -- at 19? 20?) don't take it as an indication of your worth or your mental health. After you find something to do this summer, you'll have something on your resumé -- and it won't be so much different than a resumé with two more lines of retail experience at the mall. You really are just beginning!!
posted by nantucket at 6:32 PM on March 17, 2019 [7 favorites]

Actually I don't think not having had a job by the age of 21 is that odd. Well, you've technically had a job the whole time: being a full-time student, so your lack of specific work experience isn't a red flag to future employers. That said, life is so much harder when living with mental illness so I hear how you feel you're behind, even if you technically aren't. I've worked from a young age but have never worked retail or as a server: I have so much respect for people in those industries but also know it's not something I'd enjoy or probably even be very good at.

Are there people you could ask to be a reference, such as a former teacher or lecturer at uni? That is important for future work opportunities, so I'd brainstorm people you could ask. Most people would be glad to help and maybe even honored you thought of them! (As a teacher, I write a lot of recommendations and job reference forms; it's part of my job and I'm glad to help people move on to the next stage of their lives.)

I agree that volunteering sounds like an excellent plan! What are you interested in? The good and maybe bad thing about an English Lit degree is that the possibilities and applications are endless! You could help at a library, work behind at the scenes at a non-profit like on their website or on grants or social media, volunteer to teach English to newcomers, etc. You don't have to jump into volunteering full-time: in fact, you could try a few things first, like ask to shadow for half a day and see about the work and the people there. Confidence is key, of course, but so is being modest about your experience and knowledge. Being willing to work hard and learn as a team player is what most employers and orgs want most in new hires and volunteers, and it sounds like you have so much to offer. Good luck!
posted by smorgasbord at 6:32 PM on March 17, 2019

I would just echo Kate 4914 (whoa, which is my son’s DOB) in that you are so young, and any leg up you feel like your peers might have is really not that significant.

I graduated law school in the US with 26 year-olds who, when they got there at 21-23 had never really had a job (I was the elder stateswoman at 26 when I got there, 29 when I graduated and the jobs I had before that were predominantly bartending).

I totally understand your anxiety here, but you have a lot of time to catch up. You can do it - this internet woman is pulling for you!
posted by Pax at 6:36 PM on March 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

This may or may not give you peace of mind but you have not fucked up your life. You are not lightyears behind. You have not fucked up your future.

A new way to think might be: I have my entire life ahead of me. I am very young. I have done well in school. There is time.

You can literally do just about anything you want. You don't have to turn your life around- there is nothing to turn around. You have time, intelligence, enthusiasm, and energy on your side. I am 46 and about to embark on graduate school. If I were 21 again, my god the options are endless. See this time in your life as a wonderful opportunity. You mostly get to steer your life in the direction you choose. This is an exciting and empowering fact. The fact that you haven't worked at age 21 is not a fail. If you're worried you've never been employed, get a job and boom you're employed.

There is freedom in not comparing and focusing on yourself. If you need to compare, compare yourself to who you were yesterday and where you're going. It sounds like you've made some good progress.

Working is also good for the soul, as is volunteering. Especially physical labor. It can get you out of your head.

Working does not have to be retail. There are plenty of jobs where you can be in your own world, so to speak. Bussing tables, washing dishes, janitorial, landscaping, stock person, etc. all have minimal or no interaction with customers.
posted by loveandhappiness at 6:56 PM on March 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

On top of agreeing with the previous comments that you are and will be just fine, you also have not been jaded by all the nonsense that goes on in typical jobs that students do. In the future you will probably encounter less than ideal bosses, training, and so on, but right now, a lack of cynicism and being on a positive trajectory are great pluses in your favour.

Whether you find paid work, volunteer somewhere, or do an internship, or whatever, please don't compare yourself with others, and reframe what you have not yet done (at the ripe old age of 21) into what you can and will do in the future.

Good luck!
posted by Calvin and the Duplicators at 7:37 PM on March 17, 2019

The only reason I had a job at 21 is that I'd dropped out of uni and didn't know what else to do with myself. And that job sucked, and it didn't help my CV one bit because I was young and stupid and completely burned my relationship with my asshole boss, and after quitting I went back to uni and did something else until I was 23.

You're 21 and you're a uni student who has not dropped out. Your life may well want patching up - I'd be surprised if it didn't, after years of dealing with severe anxiety - but that patching-up is going to be largely internal, and a great deal of it is going to be about learning to put an appropriate weight on completely ordinary circumstances like never having had paid work at 21 years old.

I understand and accept that "don't worry about it" is not immediately actionable advice for a person with anxiety, but it's what you need to learn to do all the same.

I do not have any plans, ambitions, or any practical preparation

Working with a competent therapist and seeking opinions from other people sounds to me like a perfectly cromulent plan and completely practical preparation. As for ambitions, I suggest focusing on getting a handle on the anxiety and then seeing what becomes apparent.
posted by flabdablet at 7:41 PM on March 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

From a time perspective - you're way ahead of me. So don't stress out! I was 26 when I got my first full time job!

So yes, volunteering is great. It opens doors for you in more than one way - the work experience can easily lead to paid work, and the networking you do while volunteering - meeting other volunteers who have paid work can lead to you getting a job via those connections too. My first job experience was volunteering in the church bookshop we had opened on the main street. After a number of months I had convinced the supervisor I was trustworthy enough to be given charge of the shop, so when he was ill or unavailable I could open up in the morning on my own, and count out the till / close up the shop in the evening.

While doing that I applied to major retail supermarkets. I could put out there that I independently managed a store and was well versed in running the till / money count and operating the credit card machines. I got that job easily over the other entry level applicants who hadn't had that sort of experience. I still continued at the bookshop on the weekend.

Then I applied to full time job, and got it. I still did supermarket work on the weekend, but I gave up doing the volunteer gig.

Anyway, the point of that is to say, everything is a set of baby steps. I'm now a manager and frequently have to employ younger people, and yes, a CV with volunteering in it is definitely better than one without, and like me, volunteering can open doors and provide networking connections. Volunteering can also be meaningful and bring joy to your life, all other benefits aside. Even the retail supermarket job gave me insight into retail operations, staff management, etc which I would not have gotten otherwise, and was valuable far beyond whatever money they paid me for my time.
posted by xdvesper at 7:48 PM on March 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Please keep focusing on the progress you've made! Try not to let this worry about work experience bloat out that aspect of your self image.

I think volunteering sounds great. Give it a go and if you need to switch to another sort of volunteering, do that. Look into a job when you feel more ready for it.

I hire young people more on portfolio examples than CVs but I would say that the main thing I look for in a new hire is the ability to follow instructions. This isn’t any sort of inherent ability - you have to learn how/when to ask questions. Volunteering will get you started with that.

Personally, trying to "catch up" to my imaginary peers has led to some truly regrettable life decisions. I feel that the term life "trajectory" isn’t a useful metaphor. It gives the sense that you're a projectile and that not having your cannon loaded with enough powder or pointed high enough on launch means that you'll never be able to reach the target. Life is twisty and it moves in fits and starts.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:13 PM on March 17, 2019

Good morning - your situation sounds tough but I agree with everyone else that it's not so unusual to have little work experience at the end of your degree!

My strong recommendation would be to look into summer jobs at your uni library or at the uni itself. The most low-key jobs I had as a student (at uni in Scotland) were as an admin or working in a greenhouse or in the library - these were advertised through the university job service. Lots of them didn't have full-time hours, which meant I also had to work in a bar at night, but if you could only work part-time perhaps that would suit you better? For example, for a few weeks, I had to go in the morning and water plants in a greenhouse and take temperature readings.

As a (semi) academic now, I would also suggest maybe approaching your tutor or advisor to ask if they have any work available over the summer - data entry, scanning etc. However, I appreciate this may be rather intimidating and anxiety-inducing, so don't do anything you feel is too much. Lots of my academic colleagues could really use a reliable person for a few hours a day over the summer to sort out their data/scanning/research - and university departments are generally pretty quiet that time of year.

Not sure if you will be there over the summer but hopefully there may be similar options in your hometown. Temp work is also a good option - certainly I know there is temp work in Edinburgh and Glasgow over the summer which is office-based.

If you would like to memail me with location details I might be able to offer more specific suggestions - you've got this!
posted by sedimentary_deer at 2:19 AM on March 18, 2019

As above, don't panic about not having had a job so far -- some of the students I teach on honours degrees work during their degree, but many don't. It sounds like you're being entirely sensible about this.

Have you asked your lecturers whether they know of any summer jobs coming up at the university that might be of interest to you? We (in a different subject area) usually have some research internships for Y3 students with good grades, and these often aren't sorted out until late in the spring term.
posted by offog at 2:30 AM on March 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hello! First- to reassure you - at 21 you don’t have anything to “turn around”. Having no work history and being a student for your whole life is completely normal and in no way disqualifying. I doubt a single recruiter will ask you anything about it once you have your first position.

I’ve been tasked with hiring people for entry level jobs in offices a bunch over the last few years- and I’m actually reviewing CVs right now for such a job. I’m in America, so I’m not sure how much that’ll change things. Having a sparse CV hasn’t mattered to me at all- even a short term position is really fine, and vollenteering absolutely counts. That’s why it’s calles “entry level”.

Assuming you’re planning a career that is less blue collar, vollenteering in a place that has an office atmosphere and regular scheduled hours is preferable to a drop-in, help clean up kind of thing. Having the experience is not just good for your prospects, but it helps you to understand what tasks are and aren’t tolerable to you and does so in a less tense environment. For example- some people hate talking on the phone so much that they are just not capable of it, and you are going to want to know that’s a thing before the future you applies to a bunch of call centers, you know?

I hope that helps!
posted by Blisterlips at 5:27 AM on March 18, 2019

Seconding temp agencies - if there's a local branch of Reed or Office Angels you can contact them or go along, explain your situation etc. and see what they can hook you up with. They may ask you to do some basic tests like typing or word processing to show you have those skills if you don't have work experience that demonstrates them.

I didn't have a great early work history either and this is how I got my foot in the door with some temporary admin/customer service jobs, which I was then able to pivot into a full-time admin role that eventually grew into a professional career track (I now manage an internal communications team, which is not a job that I knew existed when I left university).

As everyone has said, it's definitely not too late and you're not the only person in a similar position at this life stage.
posted by terretu at 7:24 AM on March 18, 2019

As somebody who has worked with a few new graduates per year for the last 10+ years, I'll just highlight some of the things I've seen new graduates struggle with. This is in a professional environment and we only hire people who do well at university.

- Being overwhelmed by the realities of working a full day,plus commuting or traveling for work (yes, spare time is limited and you'll be tired, and if you elect to live a long way away we still need you to commute in your own time, not ours)
- Review processes and feedback (there may be a right and a wrong way to do things, you will be expected to finish your work to the required standard and people will tell you how to improve your work if it hasn't reached that standard)
- Struggling with appropriate communication (even though all your personal communications may be via text messages/in a chat format we will need you to learn to write a professional email, to pick up the phone and talk to people and to have skype meetings, where you present information to one or more individuals, share your screen and present a document etc)
- Giving off a vibe that you feel entry level work is beneath you as an educated, smart young professional. All entry level work includes a certain number of mundane tasks. If you embrace them gracefully that's a positive.

We assume that a degree educated person can learn new things and the points on my list are all about mindset. Any part-time, full time, temping job will allow you to change your mindest from education to work. So if you wanted to do anything just get one or more short-term jobs outside term times.

The only additional thing 'relevant' work experience does is give you a small insight into what that kind of job or that employer is like. Now, I can assure you that no intern of my organsiation leaves with any understanding of what the job would be like after a couple of years. That's because you develop a lot and roles evolve. But an intership can give a sense of what they'd spend the first year or so on the job doing. If that already doesn't work clearly it'd be best not to waste your time or ours. But chances are you'll change direction a few times over the course of your working life so that is less critical at your level.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:10 AM on March 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I assume others have already mentioned this in previous comments, but just in case they haven't: If you are indeed asked why you haven't had a job yet, you simply say you've been focusing on your education, and now you're looking towards the future. It's a good answer, perfectly acceptable, and the truth.
posted by cgg at 8:34 AM on March 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

1) Have you talked with current/ former professors/ admin assistant about whether they have any suggestions for a summer internship?

2) In the U.S., at least, organizations may not always advertise formal internship positions, but upon request are sometimes willing to work with college students for internship/ volunteer opportunities. You probably aren't looking at the "big name" organizations, but rather the hometown historical society type places that are open 3 days per week.

3) You could also look for fall internships.

4) Are there some student organizations that you could get involved with?
posted by oceano at 9:20 AM on March 18, 2019

Seconding (nthing) the "just say you've been focused on your education." The media likes to push the idea that everyone has a string of summer jobs in high school and a part-time job in college, and by the time they graduate from uni they've got three years of various work experience, but it's not true. Plenty of kids graduate with ZERO work experience. There are ways to write a resume with no work experience.

That said, work experience is better. Look for a paying job, even one that's only a few hours a week. But if there's nothing nearby that you can do, look for nonpaying jobs.

If your school has some club or volunteer opportunities, see if one of those suits you. "Editor of poetry club zine" is work experience. So is "I operated a cashbox at the annual library book sale." Tutoring is work experience; so is typing papers for other students. So is being the go-to person that everyone knows can answer questions about a piece of software. So is being the designated driver at parties, although that's not as easy to relate to your degree.

If you enjoy fanfic, the OTW is an all-volunteer org where everyone works remotely, and they're more than happy to help people figure out how to turn their OTW experience into resume-worthy bullet points. (If you don't like fanfic, the OTW is not a good volunteer org, because it's steeped in fanfic culture. But if you do, it's perfect.)

Look to your hobbies and interests; find some where you can do tasks for someone else, on something like a schedule, where they acknowledge the work you've done. That's volunteer work. It can include:
  • Moderating an online forum
  • Proofreading blog posts for friends
  • Hosting your own blog or podcast (hey look, media and journalism experience! ...Drawback: you may have to give a link to potential employers)
  • Being a Steam Curator & posting game reviews
  • Running errands for teachers
Employers of a new graduate are going to be more interested in "can you articulate your skills and abilities" than job history--they expect that your job history is limited. Figure out your job skills - including "excellent written communication skills" (which I can see in your ask right here, and trust me, that counts as "excellent written communication" omg you would not believe what managers get away with putting in emails) - and sort out how you'd answer interview questions like, "how did you learn this skill, and tell me about a situation where you used it."

And figure out what your current dream job is. If someone would pay you to do something you loved for 20-40 hours a week, what would that thing be? List the experience you have and look for work with skills that are useful for that job. Nevermind if it's out of reach, or no such job actually exists - the point is to have an internal sense of focus.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:25 AM on March 18, 2019

Lots of good advice above. I just want to gently suggest that your anxiety is in play here - leading you to maybe catastrophize a bit about what is not a terribly unusual situation and not at all impossible to sort out.

Whatever techniques you use for managing your anxiety, you might want to employ them when that anxious voice starts up telling you that a lack of work experience at 21 is a major problem.

You’re doing great here - you’ve identified a potential roadblock and asked for help. You’re going to be fine. If anyone asks why you didn’t work earlier - unlikely - you can say you were focused on your studies.
posted by bunderful at 9:47 AM on March 18, 2019

...You're 21. Not having had any jobs is 100% normal. No one will toss your application or ask you why you haven't had any part-time jobs at age 21, because that's perfectly normal.
posted by waffleriot at 11:07 AM on March 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Any job is a good start in my opinion, people get so hung up on having proper internships. A position where you work with the public will be useful whatever you end up doing. After getting experience, you can move onto something more skilled and higher paying.
posted by greatalleycat at 1:19 PM on March 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Take it from someone who played it really safe (education, career, bla bla bla) and now regrets the last 30 years: Don't play it too safe.

Go abroad, volunteer, meditate, live in community. Anything but the typical education/career path. It will help you develop faith in yourself, which a lot of folks with anxiety lack.

I'm happy to chat with you over PM if you like.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 4:53 PM on March 18, 2019

You haven't messed up, but your instincts are correct that now is the time to get a job. One that makes money (even if it isn't much). I know a lot of people are saying you have plenty of time, but this is a critical step in adulting. I hire people right out of college (for a design job) and if they had ZERO work experience it would be a red flag. You are still in school so it's not odd.

Get a summer internship, lots of places are still looking for interns. If that doesn't work, get a job waiting tables or working at a cafe. I'd suggest against volunteering unless it's your only option. There's something overly privileged about only having volunteer experience. I think work ethic is the key skill for resume building right now.
posted by KMoney at 6:04 PM on March 18, 2019

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