16 years old. GCSE examinations. Pressure starts to mount. The exams are difficult and you don’t see the point in some of the subjects, but you keep your head down and emerge with decent grades, more than enough to get you to your A-levels, which are important, because they will get you to university, which is important, because it will get you to where you want to be in life.You have no real idea where that is at this juncture, but your teachers and your parents are adamant that you’ll get there. Just keep your head down.
18 years old. A-level examinations. It’s bulls*t. You picked the courses because they interested you the most but somehow, someway, they have managed to make you lose interest in the lot of them. You were just beginning to formulate ideas about who you wanted to be and what you wanted to do – a psychologist maybe, a teacher, an historian. You’re at an age where you can expect to be taken seriously, but people give you that knowing smile and keep telling you that its absolutely necessary that you pass your A-levels, because then you go to university, and that will get you to where you want to go in life.
19 years old. Perhaps you take a gap year, figure things out for yourself. You work a little, reach a few conclusions. You decide that yes, maybe your parents were right all along and that uni is the key to happiness. After all, retail work isn’t exactly life-affirming and you can’t imagine doing it for the rest of your life. Uni will sort it. Uni will get you out of this pit. You have an idea, you’re committed, and nothing is going to stand in your way. Your lust for life takes you to many places, new hobbies and interests, new favourite things, new people.
20 years old. If you weren’t here already, you’re learning the hard way that the vast majority of people go to university not because they want to learn or because they’re particularly interested in what they’re studying, but because of the ‘lifestyle’. They seem to care less about their course and the direction they’re heading in and more about what gigs they’re going to and who they’re sleeping with next. You start to realise why people have such a stigma about students. But the course is great, and for the first time in your life you feel as though you have direction, that you’re going somewhere and its up. That feeling of ascension lasts right the way up until your final year, when it begins to dawn on you that perhaps you’ve spent three years studying something that is not really applicable to anything – that you can’t stick it all on a CV and expect to be employed, like they said you could.
22 years or later. You graduated. Somehow you can’t help but feel underwhelmed by this momentous achievement. It feels hollow, futile, more perhaps like the bitter numbness of being caught in a scam. The knowledge is still fresh in your head but it feels worthless, like foreign money you forgot to exchange back into legitimate currency. You feel like forgetting everything, because the real world works nothing like you’ve been led to believe, because the minute you point out that you are or were a student the only jobs available are in marketing – or you just happen to bump into one of those employers who went to the ‘university of life’, which basically means he thinks you’re an airhead with no understanding of anything. Oh yes, you start to comprehend the dire gravity of your situation. People turn you away because you’ve just graduated, which means you probably haven’t got any experience under your belt, which means you are worthless to practically any employer. Everywhere you look, it says in bold capital letters: PRIOR EXPERIENCE REQUIRED.You wonder how you will ever find your place in the world when no one is prepared to actually see if you can do what you’ve spent three years learning to do.
If you can find a job, it’s fine. But God, what if you can’t? And why should you find any old job, when you’ve spent three years or more training to do something in particular – which everyone said you’d be able to do when you graduated. It’s why you went to uni in the first place. Why, oh why didn’t they mention these difficulties before you enrolled? It might have been better to stick with that crummy retail job, at least you could have hopped up to a better salary in three years. Maybe. Instead you’re stuck looking for your first job all over again.
Now you’re in debt up to your eyeballs, unemployed or poorly employed, wondering how you’ll ever do what you wanted to do. The chilling prospect of that nightmare scenario, that thing you were trying to get away from all those years ago, lingers every day, waiting for you to throw your dreams away and consign yourself to a decade of monotony. No one cares. Some even tut and murmur; “bloody students”.
Has your life ended? Should it? Your dad tells you a degree is only worth what you make it, but no matter how hard you try no one will give you that chance, no one is interested in wet-nosed graduates who’ve never worked the industry before. Your mum tells you she’s proud of you no matter what, but you know for a fact she was hoping you’d be doing something other than nothing by this point.
Before you know it, university and your studies are a whole year away, and you have climbed no higher up the stairway to heaven. The limbo is viscous and absorbent. You can scarcely remember what you learned and you wonder why you bothered with that crap in the first place. You want to wind the clock back and return to those days when you had a sense of direction, when you had energy and enthusiasm for life and its challenges.
But it’s too late for all that. The best you can hope for is to take the first job that comes and pray that somehow, it will lead you to something more.