What does it mean to be employed? It means a certain kind of security, even if it’s temporary. It means being able to plan your life according to financial parameters, whether that means a six-figure salary or just above minimum wage. It means having to play all of the many small games and competitions which occur naturally in every work environment, and which can turn incredibly ugly when the whispers of downsizing start rippling through the break room. But it also means, in many ways, to have a place. You have an identity of some kind, a way to place yourself in the scheme of things, a noun other than your name which can be used to describe you.
While we may reject these identities actively in our private lives — many people feel uncomfortable introducing themselves as “an accountant” or “a server” or “a grad student,” and rightfully so — we often forget how important it can be to have such an identity to fall back on. To be able to say “I fit somewhere in this enormous spectrum, I have been deemed capable of contributing something concrete to my community and beaten out competitors for the privilege of doing so” is a fairly foundational concept in our society, and to turn away from it when we clock out at the end of the day only works when you have something to turn away from in the first place.
Having that job (a job of any kind, but especially the jobs we consider “professional,” ones that make use of higher education) has become nothing short of a status symbol in our generation. And the hierarchy functions on the now-obsolete notion that there are always jobs, and our failure or success in finding one rests entirely on our self-motivated shoulders. While having gainful employment post-graduation used to be a baseline of entering adulthood, it has now become a luxury good which we have learned to resent one another over in vying for. We all know that the market has changed, especially when it comes to the more skilled jobs, but the system that creates and supports it is a lumbering, slow-to-adapt beast. At least for now, we are functioning in a chain of social currency that no longer has any basis in reality.
And the problem is all the more severe when we turn from criticizing the inefficient system to shaming the individuals caught within it. Because when the sense of competition is overwhelming when it comes to finding and keeping a job, the easiest and most instantly-gratifying solution is to look critically at your peers and make judgments on their current professional situation. This is, of course, entirely supported by the generations who preceded us, people who operated in a system which provided more promising job opportunities and a better ROI for higher education, not to mention tuition that was reasonable enough to be paid without putting them in massive debt before they were even handed a diploma. If our parents and bosses are telling us that the ones who aren’t making it are simply “lazy,” why should we feel any differently?
There is almost no end to the criticism we can foist on the struggling young graduate. If he finds himself jobless, we can tell him to go out and get one, as though that were a decision that is made with the levity of selecting a snack out of a vending machine. If he follows this advice and manages to get a low-pay position behind a cash register (which prevents him from engaging in internships or dedicating himself to the pursuit of a job in his field of study), we will tell him that he’s wasting his time with his work. If he takes an unpaid internship in the hopes of parlaying it into a secure position within the company, we will tell him that he is destroying the job market by working for free, and that he is only showing future employers that he is willing to be exploited. If he does end up securing a job in his field but finds the pay too low to live independently, we will taunt him for still living with his parents, and being the symbol of a listless generation who doesn’t want to put the work in. And whatever he chooses to do, he is going to be shamed for having so much student loan debt.
It’s easy to say these things to him when he is in the thick of an incredibly unsatisfying career launch, but more frustratingly, it’s dismissive. It conveniently forgets all of the kaleidoscopic economic issues and poor advice from authority figures that led him to being on his parents’ couch with no response to his 200 cover letters. It reduces his struggle — and the struggle of millions of his peers — to a question of hunger. If only they were all just slightly more motivated, just slightly more willing to work, all of their problems would be solved. (Except for all of the young people currently getting taken advantage of by a series of unpaid internships, they are willfully a part of the problem.)
We are aware now of how it works. We get instructed at the age of 18-ish to sign away a huge amount of our future money to pay for a degree that will prove to have very little in the way of opportunity post-graduation (with a few exceptions, of course, I can hear your protests already, engineering majors). We finish our studies, and the general response to realizing that all of those shiny brochures and persuasive counselors sold us a very elaborate, expensive house of cards is a half-hearted shrug. We arrive in the job market to find that so many entry-level positions have been corrupted or cut entirely because of the vast pool of young people willing to work endless hours for free, and that the change in employability has rippled all the way up the chain. We realize that, if we are not from a family who can afford to pay for our lives entirely while we cross our fingers that eventually this job will start paying, we have no means of being competitive. We realize that no one is even looking at our cover letters, most likely. And we realize this when it is much too late.
The point is that everyone is struggling, and to lord your success over someone else — or denigrate them over their inability to “make it” to your standard — is simply cruel. There are real ways to start chipping away at these problems (both within higher education and in the job market), but absolutely none of them include shaming someone for not having a job or not having one you perceive to be substantial. When you snidely instruct someone to “get a job,” or “get a real job,” you are putting all of the responsibility on their shoulders for what got them here, and how to get themselves out. Yes, we all must deal with the cards we were dealt, and live with the consequences of our choices (even if people promised us that they were a good idea at the time), but rubbing someone’s face in the circumstances that led them there only serves to make them hate themselves even more.
Because when you are unable to find good work, when you are seeing no results on all of the effort you’ve put in, when you are constantly being told — financially and in more literal terms — that you are not worth much, you do hate yourself. You feel every inch of being useless, of the envy that comes from seeing other people succeed where you were unable to. And while there are certainly people who are lazy, or willfully staying out of work, they are far from the majority. Most people who are trying but having trouble are victims of a million different social problems converging on them at once. And if there is one thing we can all provide each other, regardless of position on the professional ladder, it’s compassion.