Recently, a family friend told me that I still didn't know anything. She said that I have to acknowledge that although I hold a master’s degree, although I have studied for five years, I am not yet a professional. I am not an expert, nor do I have enough skills that someone would hire me as a professional. She explained that everything I do from now on is still part of my educational path.
She is right, for sure. Nonetheless, her words hurt me somehow. Not because I consider myself to be someone particularly important; but it is something that university tells us: that we are the ones who will ‘shape the future’. Especially in England they made us feel incredibly special and extraordinary. In such a classist society you get the feeling that, once you have entered a so-called ‘internationally recognized university’, it will pave your way for the future. You suppose that, as soon as you have completed your degree, people will desperately want to work with you. That enterprises and organizations are literally waiting for you.
Maybe I bought into this message too quickly. Maybe I was too credulous to believe that this degree would directly lead to employment. In fact, I think it is not just my own naïveté, but a larger issue. Laurie Penny, in fact, states that degrees are more about desperation than aspiration. They do not necessarily lead to employment. She is unsure if, especially in England where the university fees are extremely high, higher education is worth to enter into debt. Penny apologizes for having lied to the students she was tutoring and for telling them to “go ahead and study what they loved, because university was a route to employment, and they could get a great education without having to worry that they’d end up poor and sick because of it”. Penny is right. The competition, the feeling of selling yourself to the ‘market’ makes you feel sick and worthless. I know dozens of students who felt incredibly low during the last few months. Low self-esteem and barely any energy left to retry it again and again. You get desperate and apply for everything that sounds a little bit like something that could be ‘useful’. You dehumanize yourself, you try to make yourself more employable and you fashion yourself ‘into a walking CV’, to use Penny’s words.
But what is it that should be different?
I am not condemning university or studying as a whole. I am deeply inspired by studying. I have met the most inspiring professors and practitioners of my life while studying at LSE. I loved the readings; I loved the lectures. I was truly challenged and overwhelmed by the knowledge some individuals hold and how they transmit what they know. But what I do condemn is that we are not prepared for what comes afterwards. We are not prepared for the world of practice. We need people who already know what comes afterwards and who actively support us during this process. Or at least people who assure us that we are not ‘failing’ although we might be unemployed for months or even for years. I would need someone who tells me that I don’t have to sell my body and soul to any enterprise, nor to any international organization. That I should stay true to myself, my ethics and my values.
What’s the solution? How can we make the experience of graduating and entering into the ‘job searching hell’ less straining? How can you start your first job after spending months of feeling rejected and ‘never enough’?
First of all, there are always two sides to each story. We have to understand that those who are recruiting also have their perspective. They receive hundreds of applications. They can’t see each of us in our own wholeness. They look at us as CV’s. As degrees. I believe that the educational system and the professional journey will always give us the feeling of not knowing enough, not having experienced enough and of never being enough. You always have to do more, be more. Produce more. Learn how to more convincingly sell yourself. Volunteering, internships, administrative jobs, working for extremely low salaries.
Secondly, I want to emphasize that we cannot take their choices personal. Most of the times it is not a decision against us, but for someone else; someone who is more suitable for the position. My advice to myself and to everyone who is in such a situation, is, to hold on to our values. We cannot dehumanize ourselves; we are not our CV’s. We are not what we know. Or what we do not know yet. Brené Brown says that “what we know matters, but who we are matters more”. This sentence is so powerful and so important. We should never feel insufficient. We are allowed to feel enough. Feeling enough is a fucking art nowadays, and Brené Brown, again, explains so accurately why: we live in a ‘never enough culture’ respectively in a ‘culture of scarcity’. We are never perfect enough, never thin enough, never powerful enough, never popular enough, never extraordinary enough. The culture of scarcity describes that we always complain about not having slept enough, not having enough time, not having studied enough, not having done enough. As if we were always lacking something. Lynne Twist writes that “by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, this day”. Instead of valuing what we already are, we often emphasize on what we are still lacking. There is a capitalist force at work that affects all of us, regardless of the class background: our system is marshalled to figure out ways how we all work more. David Graeber, anarchist and anthropologist, has warned that the increase of so-called ‘bullshit jobs’ (jobs which are essentially unnecessary/do not need to be performed) leads to a profound moral and spiritual damage of our collective soul (see https://www.strike.coop/bullshit-jobs/).
We need to break this vicious cycle, immediately. We are not our CV’s, we are not our degrees, we are not what we know or what we produce. We need to re-humanize work (is there even human work?). For this endeavour we need to be courageous, we need to hold on to our values. I am not accepting de-valuation, nor exploitation, nor unpaid employments. If we do accept it, we normalize something that should not be normal. In spite of everything I have said about university and degrees, there is to say that we should still get the best education we can. Not primarily to get a ‘good job’, but to understand what is being done to the world around us, and more importantly, to change our collective circumstances.