A poignant, personal piece dedicated to the fears, disappointments, and frustrations of being an unemployed, environmental postgraduate, job-seeking during the coronavirus pandemic.
by Kate Balding
I feel like a small bug. A small, ugly, stupid bug with no inherent value. Perhaps you can relate. A small bug doing yoga, breathing exercises, tidying her room. But a small bug all the same.
I’ve been looking for a job for 13 months.
13 months, 59 cover letters, 57 rejections to date. 2020 was full of little numbers with long shadows, and they all added up.
To what? I grab a pocket calculator and punch out some sums. Oh. Ouch. Hit rate is over one rejection per week. Imagine that. Once a week for more than a year of your life strangers get in touch to tell you you’re not good enough. I admit even I am surprised at the frequency and I’m living it.
When I graduated from my masters in November 2019 everybody said, oh ho ho, you’ll be fine! An Oxford degree, why - you’ll be snapped up immediately. I went and got my certificate framed at a proper shop in town and hung the gilt letters up above my desk trustingly. There is a mysticism surrounding Oxford and it affects those who go there as much as those for whom the university is a dream. It’s a promise of greatness, a tragic almost ‘American’ promise which the majority cannot redeem. As the months of rejection went on, I watched the glow of the certificate tarnish in front of me. I tried to shush my internal doomsayer and set to work on my CV.
I’ve honed, sculpted, chiselled and rehashed every ounce of my CV. I asked people to help me: head honchos, old mentors, kind aunts and of course my fellow un-employees. Everyone was happy to offer an ounce. This was nice, reassuring and thought-provoking until all the ounces started cancelling each other out. 3 votes for mini bio, 3 for without. Not totally sure if anyone really knows what they’re talking about.
As for cover letters, they’ve begun to remind me of evening gowns. Things which no matter how painstakingly you re-style will only really do for one occasion out. I have a letter if you want cool, competent and professional; one for curious, friendly and down to earth. I have long letters, short letters, funny letters, serious letters. I have artistic letters, boring letters, some signed best wishes, some yours sincerely; some addressed Dear Sir/Madam, some Dear Madam/Sir. I keep them all in a folder on my laptop and consider renaming it ‘Sad Wardrobe’.
'Those who lost positions re-entered the pool with experience on their side.'
I know I'm not the only one struggling. For months the environmental sector didn’t advertise a jot. Hospitality and voluntary options swiftly dried up. Those who lost positions re-entered the pool with experience on their side. They crowded us out, the inexperienced swimming behind. I’m so inexperienced and I hate the experience of hating those I’m competing against. I hate their success and I hate the fact that I’m the defunct alternative.
I’m tired of scanning through emails to find unfortunatelys where, as a student, delighteds used to be.
Oh - new one in: we have decided not to bring your application forward...received 300 submissions for this role...sheer volume...unfortunately...many highly qualified candidates. Which is hard. Because I really tried on that one. Spent a good two days of my life. I even made sure I used the Scandinavian accent on the ‘o’ when addressing the hiring manager so it became an ‘ø’. 300 other submissions though. Rough. And it was clearly a bulk email. I sent my application 5 days ago. The opening window wasn’t very long. By my calculations that means no one actually read the cover letter. They didn’t even see the ‘ø’. No feedback, of course. I’m swearing in my head, words that end on a hard ck and do something to convey sharp endings of soft beginnings.
'I imagined myself stepping back into the great big unemployment queue, picking up my place marker quietly.'
It was all becoming stupefying. I was swilling around in my own frustration, sculling through cover letters with blind wildness. I called an old friend from school. One of those friends with steady shoulders that you can laugh out loud with when it’s pissing down. He’s also unemployed but it’s summer and lockdown restrictions have eased somehow. We bundled ourselves into his Golf and headed south. We camped in gardens of loose acquaintances and climbed over coastal paths with purposelessness. After dropping ourselves into the cauldroned river below Widgery Tor we clinked beers to our old mistress monotony. I felt life being squeezed. It helped, the walking, the breeze - the conversations that accompanied us and those we met on our haphazard wanderings. But we had to go home eventually. When I pushed the car door closed behind me I imagined myself stepping back into the great big unemployment queue, picking up my place marker quietly. My friend would do the same and we would all wait, one behind the other dying politely.
Somewhere within the months a poem found me. It was accompanied by a eucalyptus leaf and written by a man named Zabawa.
If you work for Other People
They’re in charge.
If you work for yourself
You work for Other People.
I don’t get it. I can’t tell if it’s optimistic or pessimistic. If it’s telling me to work for myself and help others or if it’s telling me there is no way out. That the world we live in revolves around work and Other People’s power. Mystery unresolved, I sit and stare at another question the short poem posed. How do you work for yourself? Could I be my own boss? Or did it mean more deeply - How do you work / for / yourself? A warm question, half-lost.
Two rejections in one day. That’s new. Am I getting better or worse at this? It doesn’t hurt so much but it has turned into apathy. Does that mean I’ve somewhat given up? Is this the start of a total annihilation of self-belief? I’m out wide, wide open and shouting but no one sees me - so I switched paths for a couple of months. Fraternised with a law conversion, borrowed a friend's black suit and bought a blouse to impress it. I networked, learned all the terms, filled a notebook with glorious self-worth.
It was all going quite well, I landed an interview at last. Enter two investment bankers with acquisitions under arm. The meeting was on Microsoft Teams and they were polite, calm, erudite. I remember the borrowed suit clinging to my pits when they rejected me. I guess, once again, it wasn't anyone's fault. It was just I wasn't quite right.
We’ve just started the third lockdown which is odd because I’ve counted four. But then everything’s been a blur; it is very plausible I just made one up. I guess it doesn’t matter much. No energy to recount. But I find it strange thinking of all these people on their laptops pushing data about. Like little robots tapping away, never meeting or able to touch. Thinking about it, don’t we all sound like we’re trapped in a never-ending dystopian book?
I wonder if the lack of stimulus will eventually drive people insane. One day you’ll be walking down the street and then suddenly strangers will start falling down, all muffled-masked jabbering. In another sense, I feel like a child in a sports hall, with a teacher playing Simon Says. At first, he shouts High Knees! but then he says Jumping Jacks! Each spur-random rule surprises me. Perhaps I’ve already gone mad.
'How can you know if you are killing time or if it is killing you?'
I woke up remembering a dream where I was walking through a meadow, leather shoes and ribbed socks, pondering the life of skylarks. All they do, so it seems to me, is rise and fall. It makes me think of a song. Today I feel fairly stable, yet fear still checks me, reminds me to keep looking over my shoulder to make sure nothing is in pursuit. I can’t see anything yet. I think I’ll read one of my Christmas presents: Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. How can time be lost? Isn’t it wasted or misspent? Then of course people say you can make time or find time. You can kill time too. How can you know if you are killing time or if it is killing you?
I got another rejection, it hurt, I cried. So I do still care. Good, that’s reassuring. I look down at my chest, glad there’s still something in there.
I think that if I am a small bug then maybe I’m a bee. Working and looking for the love of the hive with all the life-affirming heat, chaos and sweetness it breeds.
'I just wanted to share the reality of so many of us right now, unsure how our dreams could have died already'
I hope I haven’t frightened you, reader, that wasn’t my aim. I just wanted to share the reality of so many of us right now, unsure how our dreams could have died already, how our confidence could have been so easily misplaced. This is what unemployment has been like for me, Kate, real-time liver of millennial malaise. Liver of millennial malaise… makes me sound like a vital organ filtering toxins from the generational blood stream. Maybe I am today.
I’m just one of many small bugs inside their small, little rooms. You may not think we have much to say. But we’re bugs with wide wingspans tucked safely under shells, and when the weather is fair we’ll rise and reclaim the lost days.
Postscript: 12th March 2021
You are not going to believe this. I don't believe this. It's the evening before this article is published and, I swear to god, I've just been offered a job. This is pure poetry. It's lunacy.
13 months, 59 cover letters, 57 rejections, and, now - I literally can't believe it - 1 offer. I'm in shock. All the pain, frustration, and exhaustion: legitimised. It's with flat-out disbelief that I offer you hope. Not where this Head of Editorial saw it going. WILD.
Head of Editorial at imprint - Half Irish, half Kiwi, Kate peaked in life when she interviewed Sir David Attenborough for her BSc dissertation now many years ago. Runner, eater, debate-haver, and planet-carer, you can find out more about her from her environmental podcast https://tinyurl.com/y9gco5wu or her Instagrams @kate.balding & @katesallforms. Read her previous pieces From a Suffolk Green, From the Reconciliation Room, or interview: Talking Suicide.