The Graduate Job Slog: Precarity, Unpaid Work and the Long Job Hunt

The opinions expressed in this article reflect those of the writer individually and do not represent The Hysteria Collective as a whole.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Keep chipping away. You’ll get there eventually.

As grads, we have heard all the cliches. Whether we’re consoling ourselves over pints in the pub or decked in slippers and a dressing gown in the kitchen of a shared house, the “how’s the job hunt going?” conversation plagues us daily.

Job hunting is by no means easy. With more than half of young people now pursuing an undergraduate degree, some report that degree inflation is making landing a graduate job more difficult.

What is degree inflation? Basically, the more of us who have degrees, the less our degrees stand out to employers. Employers are increasingly expecting degrees at a minimum and demanding extras such as 2+ years of work experience or postgraduate studies for entry-level positions. The publishing industry is deemed so competitive that a whole subculture of so-called ‘publishing hopefuls‘ has cemented itself in Facebook forums and the social media sphere. ‘Hopefuls’ compete with thousands of applicants for internships and positions that are either unpaid, pay the Living Wage or a salary regularly beneath £25k. ‘Hopefuls’ share CV and cover letter tips, support each other through numerous rejections and share ‘sidehustles‘ such as starting a podcast, bookstagram or BookTok to ‘stand out from the crowd’.

“I have put in so many hours volunteering that it’s overtaken time spent [on] my master’s in the hopes of standing out in the saturated job market where I am competing against sometimes 1,000 other applicants. I love all of the unpaid jobs I’m doing, but it would be great if more of it was paid.” – Natalie Jayne Clark

While the industry says that a degree is not a necessity to get into publishing, finding your way in without one (or two) is pretty rare.

Meanwhile, in other industries, there are widespread staff shortages. In early 2020, The Hysteria Collective spoke to hospitality workers about the impact of the pandemic on their industry. Reporting reduced hours, being pressured into taking holiday leave and widespread redundancies, it’s unsurprising that many hospitality workers left the industry. As the UK recovers from the pandemic, the industry now suffers from a staff shortage. (Brexit is, of course, undoubtedly a factor but one which articles elsewhere will cover with greater eloquence.) With bosses desperate to fill these roles, some restaurants have reported interviewing underqualified applicants and raising wages for fear of having to cut opening hours and reduce menus over the busy Holiday period.

Some might ask why graduates aren’t going for these roles. Well, they are. It has been reported that 1 in 6 workers in the UK are thought to be overeducated for their position which can lead to employee resentment and a lack of job satisfaction.

However, there’s something to be said here for the increased refusal of poor working conditions and work/life balance. Younger workers, including millennials and Gen Z, have less time and patience than their parents’ generations for responding to emails out of hours, being shouted at by bosses and expecting stress and burnout as standard. Unlike their parents’ generations, they increasingly don’t have access to sick leave, to pensions or to paid holiday and thus have little time for previous generations’ tolerance for abuse in the workplace in the name of ‘job security’.

However, it’s not just younger generations facing precarious work. Guy Standing has spoken widely about the rise of what he terms ‘the precariat‘. While the proletariat represented “the working class of the 20th century”, the precariat is its 21st-century offspring with habitually precarious labour and living conditions. This would include workers of the gig economy, such as Uber and Deliveroo workers, as well as Amazon workers and anyone deemed a subcontractor rather than an employee and therefore, denied rights typically protected by employment law. The number of people working in gig economy roles has nearly tripled in the last five years and, despite criticism, doesn’t seem to be reducing any time soon.

The rise of freelancing and self-employment has workers increasingly acting as their own bosses, with a certain amount of flexibility but also with increased responsibilities for equipping themselves financially in case they become ill, putting money away into a pension or working out their own taxes. Likewise, volunteer work is the norm across a range of industries including for those of us in the arts.

“I feel like I often prioritise my volunteering work over my degree, as that is what seems more important these days. A degree is no longer enough to make you stand out.” – Amy Britton

The Hysteria Collective was founded to provide a volunteer space for creatives to cultivate their craft and gain work experience so they could access previously inaccessible paid work in the arts. However, if there is one thing creatives know, it is that not every platform or opportunity is quite so upfront about paying its workers. Creatives often find themselves chasing payments that may never come or even having to threaten organisations with small claims court to receive the payment they deserve.

The labour market of the 21st Century is not the same as that of the pre-Internet age. The rise of precarious working, volunteering and degree inflation has pushed many of us to settle for roles that don’t match our skillset and leave us unfulfilled, exhausted and resentful. Grads with multiple degrees and years of experience find themselves spending months writing cover letters and interviewing for companies that often don’t even reply. It is clear that today’s economy and labour market is not adapting quickly enough to the increased skillset of its workers but it is uplifting to see less and less of us refusing to condone abuse in the workplace in the name of that 20th Century shadow of ‘job security’.

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