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The grim side of graduation

Prospects for today’s students look bleak

Artillery Row

Is getting a degree “worth it” anymore? The short answer is no. The long answer is also no, unless you want to be an engineer.

The Romantic vision of dusty libraries, wide-eyed students, wise academics in black robes and the project of mutual enlightenment is a long-faded dream. The student-university dynamic has been reduced to a business transaction. Students give an institution money; in return, the institution gives them a certificate which students then leverage for career advancement. Only, those certificates do not purchase much leverage anymore.

One does not go to law school to become a lawyer. One goes to law school in order to get a foot in the door of a law firm as a coffee fetcher. If you studied history or natural sciences, chances are you’ll become an unmotivated teacher, rather than a researcher. Did you study English? Well, it’s the HR department for you. Almost no one has a job in the field they studied anymore.

To have a degree no longer singles you out as special

In the 1980s, going to university was reserved for those special few who were deemed to have talent and drive enough to aim at highly-paid, highly-respected professions — doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer, teacher. A university degree was regarded as the golden ticket of social mobility. You would sacrifice earning that immediate wage with the rest of your friends in the promise that you would jump ahead of them on the career ladder in five years’ time, earning the big bucks by thirty-five rather than forty-five, if your friends ever got the chance to earn the big bucks at all.

How can I make my parents see that this is no longer the case?

During the eighties, only fifteen per cent of people went on to any form of higher education. Today, the number of people with a degree is closer to one in two. To have a degree no longer singles you out as special. It does not make you competitive when it comes to employment. To have a degree makes you perfectly … average.

I am a graduate fresh out of the University of Cambridge, and I am struggling to find a full-time job of any kind. I am told by the supermarkets that I am overqualified and told by the local firms and London corporations I am underqualified. Most people tut at me when I say I have applied to the supermarkets for work. “But you’ve got a degree from Cambridge!” they cry. “The world is your oyster!” I can’t make them understand that the supermarkets offer some of the highest-paid, secure employment in the area. When you come from a working class family and have no savings, beggars can’t always be choosers, and you can’t “just move elsewhere” at the drop of a hat.

In an attempt to delay entering the competitive world of work, it seems many students are electing to study for longer. Of all the friends and classmates I graduated with, I am the only one going into the world of work. Every single one of them is embarking on their second — or even their third — degree. This is not because they believe another degree will improve their career prospects; they readily admit it won’t. Their primary motivation for seeking further education is making joblessness “next year’s problem”.

What if, like me, you prefer the practical to the theoretical — and are unwilling or unable to take up more debt in order to stave off the doom-scroll through Indeed?

No one thing is causing job scarcity and wage depression. Automation, immigration and zero-hour contracts are changing the number of lower-skilled jobs around, forcing many people to “upskill” to remain employed. There is no valu-demand, though, when millions of people have the same skills as you. When people upskill on mass — by going to university, for example — the wage depreciates again, and the cycle compounds itself.

The threshold of a “degree-holder” is no longer a Bachelor’s, but Master’s or PhD.

The lives of graduates are characterised by transience and unattainability

The raising of the retirement age is perhaps the biggest contributing factor in the run on jobs. With people living longer, and the shortfall in pension payouts, the older generation is staying in work longer. The younger generation is coming up behind them, but no one is leaving the job market: there is a squeeze on the number of jobs available. Given the choice between retaining their older employees (perhaps a bit slower but loyal, dedicated and highly experienced) and hiring a specky graduate (creative but flaky, inexperienced and often clutching political baggage), it is no wonder employers are sticking with what they know.

Young people are adapting, creating new jobs the older generations would struggle to fulfil, like “social media manager”, “content creator” or “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion facilitator”. These jobs are hollow, though. They do not imbue one’s life with meaning, because, if we’re honest, the role of “social media manager” could be gone tomorrow, and most of us would be none the wiser.

The disillusionment graduates feel for the job market is symptomatic of a far deeper and more corrosive disdain — contempt, even — for the future. Graduates feel tricked. Whether it be rent hikes, relationships, mortgage deposits, being unable to finance a family, the receding horizon of retirement or social isolation from lives spent online, their lives have turned out to be the direct inverse of what their parents, grandparents and teachers led them to expect. Their lives are characterised by transience and unattainability. One can expect to work hard — but the promise of dignity and security is no longer guaranteed.

I include myself amongst the disillusioned. It was not my intention to paint post-graduation life in such depressing tones. Each time I attempted to dwell on the bright side, though, I felt as though I were lying — masking my true sentiment. Ask me in a few months time, and I might tell you that I was making a pessimistic fuss over nothing. For now, I can say I was true to a moment.

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