I’m what my friends call “unlucky in livelihood”. There was the time my then-dream job called me after three extensive assignments and two gruelling interviews to say they were drafting my offer letter, only to ghost me, save for an email on Christmas Eve assuring they’d “be in touch ASAP”. It took until March to accept that the letter was never coming. Then there was the company that kept scheduling interviews before asking for just one more copy task – three in total and no interview.
This last year, however, has been an altogether next level experience. In the UK, the House of Commons recently posted the Youth Unemployment Statistics – it paints a bleak picture. Youth employment is historically low and, compared to last year, 13.1% more young people are either not in or are looking for work, which is the highest rate since comparable records began. ONS reports employment for all people (ages 16-64) dropped by 1.8% compared to pre-pandemic after redundancy hit a record high in 2020. Like 14.2% of employees, I went through a lengthy restructure narrowly avoiding redundancy and at 30, I’m also a “boomerang millennial”, one of 3.5 million between 20-34 living with parents. I know my experiences are common but when facing what feels like endless rejection, logic and reason are often the first to leave.
Back in March, when I started getting rejection emails for jobs I’d forgotten I’d applied to, a friend suggested I start an application tracker. What began as a list of roles and companies quickly evolved into an elaborate spreadsheet detailing the hours spent on applications – rare was the role that simply wanted a CV and cover letter -interview prep and run times. Combined, I spent 73 hours applying for jobs, 11 in interviews and 39 on assignments; usually a mix of market and competitor research, content strategy and sample projects. Often I wouldn’t hear back after submitting or presenting the final assignment. I stopped tracking the random 20 minutes here and there of “job admin”–the tedious but time-consuming work of following up after interviews and “reaching out” to people. Obsessively consuming career advice also went unaccounted.
Weekends were for working on applications so I could send them off on Tuesday morning, the supposedly optimum time to apply for a job, and after work, I’d scour job boards, aware that recruiters favoured early applicants. Securing that dream position became increasingly ritualistic–I manifested and meditated and searched for answers in the stars, literally trawling my horoscope for clues and taking extra precaution during mercury retrograde–but all I attracted was Instagram ads for crystal healers promoting “clarity career calls”.
In Otegha Uwagba’s new book We Need to Talk about Money, she notes, “desperation is a terrible position from which to make good decisions” - as someone who has clutched sunstone after googling “crystals for career success” - I can attest. I became so preoccupied with changing my situation, I stopped questioning if I even wanted the jobs I’d applied for.
Carina Talla, an ayurvedic health and healing coach, suggests making career intentions to ensure you’re seeking change from a positive mindset. She suggests to write down a list of intentions. "What do I want to call into this blank space?", "What does my dream world look like?", "How can I turn all of this process into transformation?” are some of the questions she recommends. “Writing down your thoughts can also help to reduce the need for you to rehearse or continually revisit what’s worrying you,” adds Laura Davies, a life coach whose work focuses on creating change.
I became so preoccupied with changing my situation, I stopped questioning if I even wanted the jobs I’d applied for.
Questioning your motives when you just want to move on feels like a luxurious use of time but being intentional and setting tasks is a proven means of achieving goals regularly used in counselling and coaching. “When you can only control your actions, it can be helpful to map out a plan and set a timescale for reviewing how well that plan is working,” notes Davies, adding, “knowing you’re doing everything you can, and that you’ll change your approach if it isn’t working, can give periods of transition structure and focus.” I spent a spectacular amount of time designing assignments that didn’t require me YouTubing how to use InDesign. Ditto the hours spent finding the exact font the company uses for my cover letter. I didn’t get any of those jobs and begrudged it more for having spent so long on the applications.
Of course, polished applications are important but labouring over the visuals highlighted something I didn’t want to admit; I wasn’t confident in my writing and I tried to mask my insecurity with aesthetics - multiple rejections and endless rounds of interviews will do that. To counter this, Davies suggests focusing on the facts; “don’t be tempted to create a negative narrative around what a rejection might mean. Congratulate yourself for being in the position to ‘fail’ as not being selected for a job means that you also created an opportunity to succeed.”
As a millennial, I was raised on an ethos of self-optimization which puts the onus on the individual to set their destiny. I dutifully followed career advice - scheduling interviews on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, penning thank-you emails post-interview and practising the balancing act of appearing eager but not desperate.
I reached out to “the right people”, revised my social media presence and furiously self-branded, spending weekends watching Squarespace tutorials and finding the perfect font and colour palette to represent ‘me’. I fell into the trap of obsessing over taking the perfect leap. “When things change, we can become focussed on taking the ‘right’ next step,” acknowledges Davies, “you want to think through your options, but we can often make more progress by taking steps that make things incrementally better. Creeping up on the things we want and edging towards our goals can free us from the belief that there is only one way to get what we want.”
Despite significant privileges and swallowing all the “How I get it done” advice, the cards could still be stacked against me. “It can be challenging to accept that some things just happen and there’s nothing we could, or should, have done differently,” says Davies.
When I did finally land a role (my 51st application) I had applied on a Tuesday and within hours of the job going live but ultimately, like my pandemic experiences, I was another common statistic, one that proves the average amount of time to find a job is now 24 weeks. And millennials have the highest rates of unemployment and underemployment.
Millennials are famously the “unluckiest generation” because we've lived through an era of extremely high housing costs and relatively stagnant wages on top of a major recession, but instead of endlessly self-optimizing to try and hack a system that’s continually let us down, maybe it’s time to realize that despite doing all the right things, you don’t always get the results. “Beware of rules that you have created.” warns Davies. “We can sometimes hold ourselves back by sticking to rules we’ve created for ourselves,” she says, which in my case meant tangling my identity with my accomplishments.
We know we don’t live in a meritocracy but the prominent discourse that promises hard work equals upward mobility is ingrained. In our hustle-loving culture, self-worth and work are intrinsically linked, so if you find your job doesn’t align with your values, or worse still, you’re out of work entirely, it can feel like a personal and moral failing. But, what if work is just work. What if the idea of a dream job itself is somewhat toxic? There are so many ways to earn money and when the doors along one avenue are not opening for you, maybe it's time to try going down another.
The only thing worth optimizing is your happiness - which can’t be bought with a sunstone or manifested in a gratitude journal. “I am worthy, I am good enough, I have always been good enough, my sense of self-worth is not tied to anything external because internally, I am already an innately worthy human being,” recites Talla. Yes, it feels a bit ‘woo-woo’ but why should acknowledging that you’re worth more than your output or your job title be radical?