We've always been told that if we work hard and follow the rules, anything is possible. So why does everything — from home ownership to the dream job — feel further and further out of reach? SCAMbition is an exploration of where we live right now; it's the stark reality that we can't afford a deposit while we're paying student debt, that the dream job might be no job at all, and that ambition might just be the biggest scam of all. Of course, the only way out of a scam is through it and so while the future might not look like we thought it would, we're ready to reshape it in a way that benefits everyone, not just a select few.
"If you are not in the office, you are making it easier for your boss to fire you during a time in which they’re forced to make cuts. Don’t do that!" A woman’s voice is piercing my psyche, practically jabbing my chest with a pointy finger of accusation. "You have got to volunteer for hard assignments," another demands. "That trip no one wants to take? That team no one wants to head up? You will do it!"
No, I’m not holed up in a sadistic career bootcamp. It’s just another Tuesday night scroll through TikTok. All over the app right now are career videos advising us of all the things we could – and should – be doing to "recession-proof", "crisis-proof" or "future-proof" our careers or jobs. Just this week the term "career cushioning" (an annoying new way of saying you're keeping your eyes open for new jobs in case yours falls through) took off. The TikTok world dedicated to this space is just as stressful as it sounds and, judging from the comments on the videos, its audience is predominantly women — and views are climbing.
The hashtag #recessionproof currently has 45.4 million hits on the social media platform. Alongside subjects such as "how to get rich", "thrifting tips" and "stock tips", there is a growing number of videos that purport to make the average person immune to the economic uncertainty happening all over the world. All that person has to do? Graft harder, obviously.
It’s no coincidence that the videos are reaching peak popularity. We’re still living through the uncertainty of COVID, intensified by daily warnings that we are "going through unprecedented times" or that the UK and US are teetering on the cusp of a recession. The videos are a knee-jerk reaction to admittedly scary times. Your destiny is in your hands! they seem to say. It's a tiring and unhelpful narrative when it feels like the cards are stacked against us.
If you're an introvert and someone says that you need to be networking, that's probably just going to leave you in cold sweats at night. Maybe think about what actually energises you. Reconnect with your values.
Back in 2020, for the first time in history, the US entered a "shecession", marking an economic downturn where job and income losses affected women more than men (11.5 million women lost their jobs compared with 9 million men). And it is expected that as a result of their pre-existing inequality, women will once again take the brunt of the UK's current cost of living crisis (with women of colour being even more vulnerable to sudden losses of income). So of course it makes sense that a large proportion of the audience of these videos are women, who seem to be disproportionately impacted by crisis. But amid widespread burnout and exhaustion in the working world, what good do videos claiming that the power to keep our jobs is in our hands if we can just work a little bit harder do but force us to point the finger inwards?
"We’re currently living under an enormous cloud of uncertainty (both politically and economically), which is affecting our daily lives in ways we aren’t fully able to understand yet," Hattie MacAndrews, a London-based, iPEC-certified confidence and mindset coach, tells Refinery29. "The impact on mental health is significant as so many people are left battling with an overwhelming fear of the unknown, fuelled by the uncertainty around what’s happening. The media is responsible for a huge amount of fear-mongering, which increases anxiety significantly, and the idea that an employee should be responsible for future-proofing their own career plays into this massively."
When we talk about this fear-mongering it’s important to acknowledge that the language of these "crisis-proofing" videos feels somewhat familiar. It recalls Lean In (Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book and now widely panned brand of self-empowerment feminism) and similar iterations – levelling up, hustle or girlboss culture – all of which ultimately put the onus on women to "graft" or "work harder" rather than taking into consideration the systemic inequalities that can limit or impact women’s success in the workplace. There is shaming rhetoric attached to phrases such as "you are making it easier for them to fire you", almost as if to say that redundancy is a totally preventable thing (completely untrue) so should it happen, the fault is entirely ours and our supposed lack of proactivity.
"The narrative that people should be responsible for recession-proofing their jobs is incredibly unhelpful and anxiety-inducing, to say the very least," adds MacAndrews. "Most people work incredibly hard to keep their jobs, take care of themselves and/or a family, maintain some semblance of a social life and keep a roof over their heads." She sees this narrative as placing a huge amount of unnecessary pressure on individuals who are likely already at full capacity and doing the best they can. "With the way things are currently, no one truly knows what’s to come … and a lot of decisions and outcomes are out of our hands," she says. "So for us to start imagining the worst will only add fuel to the fire and have a negative impact on our confidence, mindset and performance."
Of course, not worrying or spiralling when it appears we’re in dire times and things are about to get even bleaker is easier said than done. We’re only human after all. But according to Melanie Pritchard, an Oxford-based family lawyer, success coach and wellbeing trainer certified at The Coaching Academy, it’s about trying to channel that anxiety into more positive, actionable steps. This starts with realising that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to managing job loss anxiety. It’s about playing to your strengths. "Don’t be driven by fear. Any sort of advice [you receive] needs to be tailored to the person," she tells Refinery29. "If you're an introvert and someone says that you need to be networking, that's probably just going to leave you in cold sweats at night. Maybe think about what actually energises you. Reconnect with your values. If someone could wave a magic wand over the next six to 12 months, what would some of your goals be?"
At a time of heightened anxiety, these recession-proofing videos – often, surprisingly, from reputable career consultants – can feel like a very compelling form of doomscrolling (we all love to do it) or catastrophising (a therapy term which means fixating on the worst possible outcomes). When I combed through the comments under some of the videos, one stood out, encapsulating what many of us may be thinking: "All that work for no extra money." It’s true. There is nothing wrong with working hard and, as MacAndrews says, it’s likely you’re doing that already. But should we be overexerting or burning ourselves out preparing for an outcome that genuinely may never happen because so much of our future of employment is out of our hands? For registered occupational psychologist Suzanne Guest, it is key to take a more measured, realistic approach. Baby steps, if you will.
"It is of little use to spend too much time thinking about the things that are out of your control," she says. "For example, we have little control over the economy or the way our sector is faring in the economic crisis." We are all guilty of fretting about things that we can’t change, as frustrating as it may feel. Worrying, of course, is not something that can be easily switched on or off but we can start by doing things that make us feel like we’re more in control. Guest continues: "Social media can be a difficult place when we feel anxious and toxic positivity posts are rarely helpful. You do have control over the type of accounts that you follow. If you find that accounts make you feel down and offer little in the way of practical advice, then unfollow those types of accounts."
It’s not about denial or burying our heads in the sand or being naive about the chaos of the world around us. It’s about channelling that anxiety into helpful, manageable steps. Pritchard has some tips for counteracting the spiralling and taking each day as it comes.
As hard as it may be, work on intervening when you feel your thoughts begin to spiral
Talk to friends, family or colleagues about how you’re feeling. Chances are your thoughts will be validated, and acknowledging what you’re afraid of can go a long way in terms of shifting that fear and helping you to find a new, empowered mindset. Also, whether it’s focusing on your breathing, taking time for a self-care activity, or a change in environment, there are various exercises that can help you ground yourself.
Take each day as it comes
Catastrophising is a slippery slope when you lose sight of what’s directly ahead of you. With so much uncertainty in the air, no one really knows what the next couple of months or years look like. So try not to let yourself get swept up in the bigger picture.
Take control of your finances
Now is not the time to shy away from reality. Get clarity on how much you’re earning each month vs how much you’re spending. Are there any areas you’re overspending in, which you could instead be saving? Making small savings regularly is better than nothing and will help to keep you feeling like you are in control.
There’s no harm in creating a ‘just in case’ contingency plan
Do this if you feel like it will soothe your anxious thoughts. Remember: knowledge is power so educate yourself as best as possible within your industry, do some market research and find out what similar companies are doing. Are they profitable? Making cuts? Laying off staff? Dig deep and remind yourself that there will always be another job out there – you just have to find it. Keeping this at the forefront of your mind will help put a pause on those destructive "what if" thoughts.
Write a list
Try and write out every logical reason that you will keep your job, to remind yourself there’s nothing to worry about. You can also turn this into a mantra, write it on a Post-it and pop it on your mirror. It might read something like: "I work hard, I am capable and I am good at my job. There are plenty of jobs out there. Everything will be okay."
Keep on going
Easier said than done but sometimes the best thing to do is to just put one foot in front of the other and plough through. Focus on what you’re good at. Get your work done. Enjoy your working days. Remind yourself of all the reasons you love your job. Take time to have lunch with your colleagues. Switch off. Life is abundantly better when enjoyed, and sometimes you’ve got to take the small wins where you can.