Covid, the storm wake-up call. Exposing students to the truth and reality of the job market.
Photograph: Diane Macdonald
As a student, our lives travel from station to station. Hopping to our next assignment, next assessment, and next job shift. Each structured around our routines, timetables and social lives. Our design projects propelling us forward at full speed, with each project outcome entirely entwined to our inner self-worth.
Then post-graduation, we are to be spat out of our structured system onto an empty road in the middle of nowhere. The bus of: “structured approval” stops, and we step off into an empty wasteland: no-one knows our name or cares who we are.
Scattered across this wilderness, we’re fed billboard messages telling us that this is the time to “grow-up”. While being constantly reminded that as Gen Z’s we are: “spoilt, lazy and entitled”.
Yet reality is far from this, on average during our 20’s we will change jobs every 18 months, (that’s around 13 jobs before we’re 30). During this time many of us have, and will, have to move back in with relatives. Taking on vast debt, with far less saved and far less stability surrounding our lives. No wonder peak alcoholism and drug addiction begins at this age.
A few months ago, we stepped off this bus. Undertaking DPS while others across the country graduated. At that particular moment, the majority of us may have found ourselves at a junction of the two classic roads forward.
The first road perhaps prompted us to run full speed into our DPS year: up and along the road of exploration and adventure. Jumping into something crazy, telling ourselves a “real” job will land someday. Drawn off around the world, designing in Kathmandu while learning to paraglide; or joining a start-up in Silicon Valley. All while maintaining a pretty awesome Instagram profile and hovering over a hundred different possibilities, conversations and relationships.
This road is very enticing. Offering a collection of random experiences, each moment fun, perhaps rewarding, yet temporary. Perhaps an opportunity to build “identity capital” for dinner party conversations for the next five years. But, do we really remember all of each of these encounters? Are these experiences adding up to the true fulfilment of our values?
Or does the journey of turning and sampling every new corner leave being terminally distracted by every new sign that we encounter along our way. With no discernible direction perhaps leads us back to the start all along.
Sonoran Desert Road on June 20, 2017, southwest of Tucson, Arizona. Photograph: Caitlin Ohara
Alternatively, we may have begun DPS down the second “pragmatic” road, a continuation of our structured education. Window shopping through laptops for the next-best mentor, developing perfectly manufactured portfolios and linked-in profiles. Flocking to big-name design agencies, hoping a high-profile job would determine our career trajectory and our value. Relishing the high-status projects of rebranding Amnesty International’s logo, which we told ourselves: “justifies the Amazon design project”.
Our journey along this second road, is met with a hyper-pleasing gold star workplace, built on our set of robotic finely-tuned design skills to be maximised. Meanwhile we may end-up neglecting friendships through explanatory descriptions of how busy we are. A ladder of status rungs to be climbed, constantly looking to our left and right in comparing our own climb to others.
At a certain moment along this road, the status markers of the climb may obscure our surroundings. Drifting along through a capitalist society that is consumed by our skills of design production, with efficiency at the centre of our purpose. Along this path, we eventually reach a point of feeling disengaged. Our feelings lost, from us once having ignored our true desires.
Then like all Gen Z’s, a storm hit. Whichever of these roads we may have selected, the Covid cyclone blinded us putting this direction on hold.
On the surface, we are faced with a student loan system that doesn’t cover basic rent without a side hustle, roped into a squeezed job market with both skilled and temporary jobs in short supply.
The pandemic carried an interruption into everyday life, exposing areas of my own and other’s surroundings and that were once ignored. Surrounded by increased financial uncertainty we are left with little space “mental bandwidth” to make decisions about anything. Crawling to shelter in bed and watching Netflix didn’t seem so bad after all. For those of us that haven’t found our purpose or stability, a storm can feel like a complete crumbling of the self.
New records broken: high levels of unemployment across the UK and globally. Photograph- James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock
Since then, the pandemic has only left our financial stability, employability and future feeling less stable. As of such, we’re ready to put up with unpaid internships, terrible bosses and workplace of companies treating us like-crap as we don’t have another option. Managing the risks of every little decision we don’t quit, we work around the clock, fed an internalised notion that we need to be striving for more by society.
When we began our DPS journey nearly a year ago, we were told to “brand ourselves”, putting ourselves out there and “selling ourselves” sums up our internalised value: a product.
But as we know, not every product gets bought from the shelves. We’re left with a psychological hole, being originally sold, and believing that a university degree offers the “security of middle-class jobs”. When then reality hits we are left with the belief that we weren’t worth it, or even good enough.
Our notions of adulting and job-searching, down these potential roads, leave us feeling melancholic and drained in the face of the world.
Perhaps that’s the true intention of DPS year. Rather than conforming and selling our character to build on workplace traits of grit, productivity and discipline. It is our ability to come to terms with the discomfort of this detachment, instability, doubt, underemployment, and shit bosses. We’re trying to win at a system we should all be trying to break.
A third road, to be carved out and designed.