Sunday 21 January 2018

'We told our children to reach for the stars but never said work could be dull and life isn't fair'

Most parents encourage their offspring to study hard to enable them to get on to the career ladder. Sadly, many of those bright youngsters today can only find menial, low-paid employment or internships

Some weeks ago in a swelteringly hot Dublin department store, a customer threw the kind of hissy fit that led to a tearful sales assistant calling for her manager to intervene.

Another woman in the queue at the cashier's desk offered the young woman some words of sympathy.

"You get used to it," the store employee replied. "I wouldn't mind, but most of us here have degrees and some of us have Masters, and the way the customers speak to us, you wouldn't believe it."


In fact, I would. Starved of the opportunity to get on a career ladder, many graduates are reluctantly turning their once part-time jobs into full-time work.

Fresh out of college, it doesn't seem like a bad choice as they relax from the stress of theses and final exams.

But fast forward six months or a year, and they are left seething with resentment.

Their parents, reluctant to have all those years of education wasted, are left with the choice of either borrowing money for expensive post-graduate degrees that hold out the lure of a corporate career, or advising their offspring to emigrate.

Meanwhile, in shops and bars and forecourts, youngsters with their whole lives ahead of them are doing the kind of repetitive work that their parents invested thousands of euro in education to help them avoid.

So how has it come to this, that the title 'over-educated and unemployed' could be attached to so many of our best and brightest?

It's not just that there are fewer jobs. It's that what jobs there are out there are becoming almost impossible to get without experience. And even those with experience find that other criteria are being employed.

One ambitious, young post-grad told me recently of how he had gone for an interview with an organisation – only to be told later that he needed a doctorate for the part-time, three-month contract on offer.


Other graduates are on their third or fourth 'internship' and, in some cases, they are doing an internship during the day while holding down cafe or bar jobs at night to pay the rent. Most chilling of all is the sense of panic among those who still haven't found a 'proper' job and are living with their parents in what the French now term, 'adulescense'.

They are adults, but can never grow up because the chance to mature by working in paid employment is always out of reach.

Add the burden of overly high expectations into the mix and you have the recipe for a lifetime of discontent.

One young American comedian recently tweeted of how he'd like to go back and confront the career guidance teacher who once told him: "You can do anything." The hit movie in France this summer is about a group of twentysomethings who are stuck in the rut of part-time work and unemployment.

All across Europe, it is the young and educated in particular who are swelling the dole queues.

This is also the first generation who are having their successes and failures highlighted through social media. In the past, you might have only thought that everyone else was having a better time – now you get to see and hear about it first hand.

Everyone may be lying on 'fakebook' but, for the millennial generation, 'brand me' doesn't do 'deadbeat'. It's hard not to feel confused when you are being told that everyone can be rich, successful and famous.

Then you look for work, and your whole generation is being lambasted by employers for their sense of entitlement and inability to cope with the real demands of the workplace. The link between working to earn a living has been replaced by the desire to have job satisfaction, to be creative and fulfilled.

Some employment experts are blaming the parents. We told our children to reach for the stars, and didn't tell them that work can be repetitive and boring, and life often isn't fair.

The constant praise that was part of positive parenting means that criticism, when it does come, can cause a personal crisis.

The boss doesn't want to hear about your ideas – he or she just wants you to do what you're told.

Still, I do remember with fondness the intern who spent a few weeks on a TV programme I was working on.

He kept volunteering unsought-after opinions and left a card saying that he would see us all again when he finished full-time education – only this time we'd be working for him.

He wasn't joking. Having an unrealistic view of your talents can either be the mark of cut-throat ambition or grand delusion.

But the truth is that there are very few fascinating jobs out there, and even those with top, sought-after degrees may be shocked by the fact that they have to start on the lowest rung of the career ladder.

Those jobs that are actually advertised often carry a list of desirable attributes that would not look out of place on the CV of a high-ranking CEO. It could be termed employment enhancement porn – job ads that create the illusion of looking for a cross between Richard Branson and Norah Casey when the reality is answering the phone, filing, or telephone sales.

Ireland has the highest number of graduates in the EU, so it's not surprising that employers have also seen a way of capitalising on the over-educated and unemployed via internships and the job-bridge programme.

My personal favourite was an 'internship' which involved a lot of work and responsibility, but carried no wage; just the opportunity to 'increase your profile'.

Given that everyone who touts their business online now needs someone to write on their website, it's no surprise that students are seen by employers as a great source of free 'content creation'.


One graduate of my acquaintance took an internship on the promise of a wage further down the line. Instead, she found that paid staff were being cut and she was doing more and more work and even longer hours as the weeks went on.

Degrees themselves are also being devalued. The latest mantra is that a degree is really the equivalent of the Leaving Cert, and a Masters is really a degree, so a Doctorate is what a Masters used to be.

Some employers are now looking at Leaving Cert points as part of the cut-off process, on the basis that 'anyone can get a degree'.

If you get an actual job interview, be prepared for an 'all-singing, all-dancing affair'.

Graduates have told me of day-long interviews which involved group work, individual interviews, requests to mark your fellow interviewees, role-playing, and supposedly social drinks afterwards, where you are again under scrutiny.

One job applicant, who had studied languages, was interviewed in three different languages, by three different people over the phone, as part of the pre-screening process.

Others have been asked to make videos, produce multi-media CVs, and re-imagine the company's web presence.

Trick questions are now the norm: "Outline a situation where you showed leadership, but it can't be anything to do with work or college," one candidate was told.

"How many pots of blue paint are sold in the world each day," another job-seeker was asked, and "without being able to access the information online, explain the logic behind your answer".

The behavioural interview has replaced the 'What are your strengths and weaknesses' cliched questions for big companies.

Candidates are being quizzed on how they responded to particular situations.

This is apparently based on the belief that people repeat their behaviour, which leaves little room for that old adage that, when you're young, you learn from your mistakes.

Being asked for access to your social media is also increasingly common so, even if your account is private, employers want to see how you behave outside of working hours.

One applicant was told, when he looked for feedback, that as his Facebook page showed "a level of immaturity" he was not being considered for a further interview.

A job-seeker who ticked all the boxes at the earlier interview stage, was informed that he was being ruled out because, "you just weren't hungry enough".

Time and time again, job-seekers are advised to make their CVs stand out by doing voluntary and community work.


So what do you say to the student who was asked: "Tell me something interesting about yourself, but I don't want to hear about your mountain-climbing for charity. I mean something really interesting."

Perhaps she should have suggested that the interviewer deal with his boredom in other ways.

Anyone who deals with young people on a daily basis will agree that there are some who 'have a great welcome for themselves', as they say in rural Ireland, but they are outnumbered by their enthusiastic and hard-working peers.

It is that group that I feel most sorry for. Looking over their CVs, you can see not just the fact that many are working to pay their way through college but they are also very involved in voluntary work, in fundraising for charities, in trying to make a difference in their own communities.

They have enthusiasm, drive and talent, and there seems to be no place for them in their own country.

Isn't it about time that we gave them a chance?

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