At the start of the summer, my sister moved home from university for a few months, with her entire life boxed up and in tow. Among her belongings, I found this picture of our mother.
Aside from the fact that you can all see where I get my devastatingly good looks from, the interesting thing about this photograph is that she’s about a year younger than I am now. What’s more, she’s pregnant with me.
It’s one thing to see other people your age having babies. It’s another entirely to realise you entered your parents’ lives when they were both no more than the sprog you are now. Because your parents are, and always have been, your yard stick for adulthood. They’re the grown ups. Having evolved through the stages of oblivious child and self-involved adolescent (half true), of course it had dawned on me that my parents had no magic parenting wand or extensive training, that they did nothing but their best, but this has still brought that home for me.
It blows my mind on a semi-regular basis that we can make more humans without, like, a license or something. Of all the intensely serious things I could hypothetically be granted permission to do – perform open heart surgery, negotiate a hostage situation, programme a missile, cook Christmas dinner – having and raising children feels like it should have more caveats. Or, you know, some.
But no. We are all here by the grace of someone who didn’t know what they were doing; who very likely felt overwhelmed and underqualified. (Cue me segueing into how my revelation can make you feel better about yourself)
Like you, dear reader, in everything that you do. (Ta-da!) You owe your very existence to people who were winging the most important job anyone will ever do, because that’s the only way to do it. I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it’s the only way to do anything. Getting older is not what I thought it would be, with the wisdom and the confidence and the moment a neon sign comes on above my head reading I GOT THIS. But I have got it, for the most part. And when I haven’t I’ll just laugh and remind myself that my mother went and had a baby, and then two more, and if she managed that I can handle anything.
I think they call it ‘imposter syndrome’; the feeling that you are not qualified or deserving or competent, and it plagues us whether we actually are or not. Take me doing my first aid training last month. Did I listen and ask thoughtful questions and get a certificate at the end? Yes. I rocked it. I was Hermione Granger in that class. Will I be doing anything other than winging it if I ever have to put it into practise? Ahahahaha no. It doesn’t matter if the universe and the training board has decried me ready and able. I have not morphed into First Aid Hannah, or earned enough experience points to make me immune to first aid failure. I am Regular Hannah, still knowing things and doubting things, and being pulled along by my instincts and emotions far more than my brain.
You don’t level up, is what I’m trying to say. Not on your birthday, not at your graduation, not when you hold your infant daughter for the first time. But perhaps the biggest obstacle to hitting the milestones is just realising that you – Regular You – can. That feeling at sea – feeling so out of your depth that it’s funny – is the human condition.
So try and aim a little higher than you think you can hit. Fake it till you make it, as they say. That’s how you earn one of those neon sing thingies.
Oh, and thanks mum x
Among the places I’ve applied to work in the last year are: a writing school, a regular school, a college, a publishing house, at least two other publishing houses, a literary agency, a cosmetic surgery clinic, an STI clinic, a garden centre, a bridal shop and a funeral home.
And half a dozen libraries. If there was any semblance of direction in my job search, then libraries was it. Because *fans self* books. Shelving. Cataloguing. The Dewey Decimal System (I am so turned on right now).
And finally, finally, one of them has hired me. It’s the cutest little village library out in the sticks, with a staff of about five, and a group of ladies who meet there once a fortnight to crochet. And the best part? Somebody makes a round of tea every. thirty. minutes.
It’s a couple of afternoons a week, and a few more when cover is needed, so I won’t be able to afford a holiday or a new laptop any time soon (please don’t be sad old, faithful laptop. We’d had some good times, but the sun started setting on our love affair around the time your m and v started sticking, and you spat out your first DVD in disgust) but, as strange as it may seem, everything has changed.
I’ve said this before, but stagnation comes easily – easier than you may think if you’re a properly functioning adult in motion – and change does not. I was nervous about a new job in as many ways as I was itching for one. I even feared that the basic skills required – communication, professionalism, initiative – might have atrophied like unused muscles. On the worst days, when future employment felt like an impossibility, a voice in my head would whisper this is just who you are now.
And I guess, in the end, that fear was the crux of the crisis I’ve been circling for the last two years; that despite my impression of myself as smart and capable and a quick study – and a history of being those things once upon a time – that I’d fallen down a hole people don’t escape from. I’d become lesser.
Plot twist: I haven’t. I’ve adapted like a champ. I’ve remembered that I actually like a new challenge, a new set of seemingly insurmountable skills to master. I love that moment when it clicks and I feel like I know what I’m doing. And it’s been so long since I got to do it that I’m not sure I even was that person the last time. I’ve never got to appreciate this part of myself before.
It’s been one of those moments when the smallest thing makes you realise you can do just about anything. But the strangest revelation this new job has led me to is that I was, actually, never stagnant at all; the reason it’s taken me this long to pin something down is a matter of opportunity aligning with need. Two years ago, I was looking to put my proof-reading qualification to use so that I could work from home and choose my hours. Last summer, I was applying for part-time admin jobs so that I could divvy up working days and writing days. In December, I was thinking of moving to London. If any of those desires had coincided with a stroke of luck and the right job, I’m sure I’d have landed on my feet. Each one was right for my writing at the time, which ebbs and flows. I’ve learned to let it, and for my pains have found myself whizzing my way through a project I’m more enthused about than anything I have been previously. Enter, the library; the perfect job to compliment me – touch wood – finishing a novel for the first time in three years.
I don’t believe in fate, just in being where you’re supposed to be, and things working out when you give them the space to. I still don’t know what life will look like a few months from now, but that’s a feeling I can appreciate now. It feels like a good place to be.
I just need to voice something we have all known since the dawn of time: job-hunting is soul destroying. Worse, since – as I’m starting to understand (that’s right, sixth admin job this month, I can take a hint) – I am unemployable.
You may be tempted to congratulate me on reaching what you might assume is not an easily attainable status. Like the low score at the pub quiz that might earn your team a consolatory glass of sweets, surely you need to have had an unmitigated shocker to do so poorly. You have to know, two or three rounds in advance, that you’re tanking this and there’s nothing left to play for, nothing to salvage. The most gormless of us have that much self-awareness, right?
Well, a word from the wise: not that hard. Take time off work, and everything that you are, all you have accomplished, the very years of your life up until that point, will vanish. Not to be dramatic.
Okay, I don’t know that that’s what’s happened to me here, not for sure. But with every day that I roll out of bed at nine and give my time to a vocation that’s not yet a career, I’m becoming more paranoid. How quickly did they dismiss my CV this time? Is it my use of the Oxford comma that’s turning them off? Has this been an elaborate, stress-induced delusion? Am I in fact mailing pages of achievements including ‘used to hold a perfect downward-facing dog but got lazy’ and ‘has committed to winged eyeliner every day for four years, ask all my friends’, in crayon, to random addresses?
I left my job going on two years ago with no idea of how, when or where I would find employment again, which even I am sometimes tempted to look back on and call naïve. But it wasn’t that. Whether the choice was prudent or not was beside the point. I still get what 2015 Hannah was doing. She was being unafraid. She was sacrificing security and independence for the sake of her aspirations. Or rather, future Hannah was making sacrifices for her. And now I’m here, and the welcome-to-the-real-world fairies have come to collect. I thought nothing had gone that drastically wrong, but I was mistaken. At some indiscernible point in my recent history, I became nothing more than an uncompelling CV.
I’m being melodramatic, but if you’re lucky enough to not be job-hunting right now, I want you to know on behalf of the rest of us that this is what it feels like. I want to grab the people turning me down and scream ‘MEET ME IN PERSON, I’M A CATCH’, but I don’t know who they are, or even if they’re there. The architect of this battering my ego is taking is the faceless, generic, oftentimes signature-less contents of my inbox. It’s dehumanising.
And, I’m convinced, malicious. Can we talk about those online application forms? The ones which make you pick your qualification from a drop-down list, and your subject from another drop-down list, and then fill in the dates over and over and over and you know what I’d rather be destitute. If you wanted to test my endurance, interview me on a treadmill. I’m game. If it’s about who wants it the most, like some last-one-standing Hunger Games scenario – at this point I might even be down for that too. I’m surprised they don’t ask you to scan and upload your GCSE certificates, alongside a selfie with your former boss, holding their ID and that day’s newspaper. Please have mercy. Everything you want to know is on this meticulously curated, single sheet of paper that you haven’t even asked for, because I was erroneously led to believe that brevity was the key to this whole circus.
And breathe. The more times I go through this, the stronger my sense of the countless others I’m invisibly fighting and their identical struggles. I applied for a single position last month that had over 260 applicants. It’s going to take time. Unless I have truly ceased to exist, then someone somewhere will eventually notice that I’m smart and hardworking, and worth more than my two years of ‘unemployment’ (quotation marks because I wrote a novel but NO BIGGIE WHO’S KEEPING SCORE).
I’ve been thinking I might move away. I need to breathe new life into this corpse aka my existence, and maybe I’m willing to do that at the expense of my writing. Not critically, and not forever. But – and this may come as a shock to any of you who observed me narrowing my only viable career option down to drug lord – I am interested in and capable of a lot of other things besides writing. There’s got to be balance or the whole thing falls down, and right now I’m wobbling on a heap of half-finished manuscripts and nothing is holding me up.
One of my biggest fears is that I can’t sell myself without justifying my unemployment, and I can’t justify my unemployment without sounding like my heart’s in something else. But the funny thing is, last month I started a new novel, and I’ve been enjoying writing more than I have in a year – and that’s what’s making me crave something new. I don’t know if I can explain it, other than to say that writing can’t happen in a bubble. Life feeds it, and maybe my stores are running low.
It’s now been fifteen months since I left my job. I planned to write an honest, laid-bare, in places humiliating account of why this is, but I’m not sure how to yet. I’m consistently in two minds about whether it’s nerve-wracking and uncomfortable but essentially a positive thing, or whether it’s nerve-wracking and uncomfortable because it’s a very bad idea and an awful failing. When I have a solid argument to pitch, I’ll let you know, but until then here’s one reason I don’t have a job: choices, or rather, a lack of having made any.
To illustrate this problem, here are the jobs I’ve given moderate to serious consideration this week alone:
Because: easy hours that compliment my writing schedule, limited interaction with the public, potential of changing a child’s life as they change mine, and then being played by Mandy Moore/Emma Roberts/Gemma Arterton in the movie version.
Obstacles: parents tend to want a person who can drive their kids around, and a license is another adult thing I do not have. However, I do have around twelve years’ experience with children from way back when I was one.
Likelihood verdict: something like this could work, just not this.
Because: I actually applied for a funeral director position once. I guess I like idea of it forcing me to feel, of never having the opportunity to get complacent, and of connecting with people when they really need it. That, and Six Feet Under.
Obstacles: driving, again, is a bonus. Plus I failed this situational test the job I applied for had me do, so someone thinks I’m not suitable.
Verdict: I’m going to listen to the universe. Probably not a good idea.
Because: I worry about those guys. I want to know everybody’s being nice to each other in there.
Obstacles: would very likely not be able to overpower anyone at a crucial moment. Also I have this pitchy, little girl voice that demands no respect whatsoever. Fair surprisingly well under pressure, however.
Verdict: may find it very fulfilling, may also die.
Because: I like the outdoors.
Obstacles: in the dream scenario, I’m doing this in the hundreds of square kilometres of Yosemite National Park, California, where I am not.
Verdict: I think my park ranger fantasy might be the ultimate manifestation of my wanderlust coupled with this little voice in my head that tells me to go toss my phone in a river and be at one with nature. Maybe someday.
Because: drank some wine, liked it, did indeed detect notes of red berries and chocolate.
Obstacles: have worked in hospitality before and it’s the fucking worst. This job is probably less drinking for a living and trips to Tuscany than paying for people’s dry-cleaning once you’ve spilled Merlot down them.
Verdict: already over the idea.
Because: learned that Pablo Escobar was worth $30 billion.
Obstacles: would have to research how one gets into this line of work. I have a feeling it’s more of a who you know than what you know type situation, in which case I’ve fallen at the first hurdle, but correct me if I’m wrong (my DMs are open). Also sales is something I usually find a little intimidating but your audience is more or less captive with this one. The most profitable drug operations tend to be family affairs, but I’m fairly certain I can get the other Mathewsons on board.
Verdict: is promising.
Because: watched The Martian. Would like to be able to save Matt Damon from space should the need present itself. Astrodynamics is what Donald Glover does in that movie, and the idea of something called the ‘Hannah Mathewson Manoeuvre’ appeals to me immensely.
Obstacles: skills I don’t have.
Verdict: realistically, this would be tough. But if I had the time, the money and the inclination, I could go back to school and get the A levels I don’t have in maths and physics, and then a second degree, and a masters, and a doctorate if I need that too. Our only limitations are the ones we place on ourselves or whatever. Going to put this one in the maybe pile.
Drug dealer it is then. But as much as being the next Pablo Escobar sounds like a perfect fit for me, my stomach does turns at the thought of committing; to anything from life as a drug lord to a weekend admin job. It all feels like admitting defeat, or an opportunity to get too comfortable again. Maybe all this job anxiety is an invaluable tool that keeps me pushing forward. Maybe my indecisiveness is confirmation that, really, I know which job I want. I just picked a bad one.
It’s been nearly a year since I worked a paying job. I never meant for it to be this long, but this is exactly what happens when you don’t have a plan B kids. Let this be a cautionary tale.
In the best case scenario, I had an agent and a publisher by now; maybe even a proof copy of my novel. The worst case scenario was probably me back at my old job, right where I was a year ago – and a year before that – but things aren’t that bad yet … yay?
It’s all good (translation: mostly okay). Unemployment is potentially crippling and life-ruining, but I had a place to fall back on, and parents who wanted to help. Plus I’m a handy little saver. But that’s not to say the silver linings don’t come attached to some pretty gloomy clouds. Here are my pros and cons of being unemployed.
Pro: It’s kind of great
All my time is mine to spend how I choose. My commitments are practically non-existent. I get up when I like, I write when I like, I make a cup of tea every twenty minutes and no one minds. Yes, I try to maintain a routine and cultivate discipline, but really, not having a job makes this easier. I don’t come home after a long day, mentally exhausted, and find I can’t even imagine sitting down to write. I don’t get more or less done at the weekends. I have the freedom to work when I’m most inspired, whether that’s at two in the afternoon or two in the morning.
Miniature con: friends have stopped laughing politely at my ‘let me check my diary’ joke.
Con: It’s kind of awful
All my time is mine to try and fill. My commitments are practically non-existent. Last month, I went an appalling nine days without leaving the house other than to walk my dog or to run; no socialising, no errands. I would go mad! I hear you cry. Bless. I was once a fully-functioning adult with complex psychological needs not unlike your own. You too are only a couple of skipped showers, half a dozen bowls of Shreddies and an emotional investment in House of Cards away from total recluse status. It’s easier than you could ever believe.
Pro: I’m learning what matters
I no longer have the luxury of hating every item of clothing I own after a handful of wears, so I don’t. For the best part, I make do, and it may sound nightmarish to any retail addict, but it’s actually kind of liberating.
Boots claims most of my retail expenditure on those luxuries such as shaving and conditioning my hair, but the rest of my spending is reserved for experiences. And by experiences I mainly mean beer. And by beer I mainly mean lime and soda. I don’t want to compromise too heavily on social spending – as low as that spending may already be – because that’s the kind of spending that actually helps us be happy. As for shopping, to know that I can spend so little on myself and not pine and covet is a relief.
Con: I’m learning what matters, and it’s money
Fuck you Boots. I’ve stripped make-up and toiletries just about as bare as I’m willing to, and you’re still bleeding me dry. My only saving grace is that being clean and looking pretty aren’t nearly as important as they used to be (see above).
I really want to be chill about not having an income – what do I really need money for right now anyway? – but I’ve been hardwired by the world we live in to freak out about it on a semi-regular basis. I’ve applied for a handful of part-time jobs throughout the year, because whether I like it or not, I’m going to need one eventually. I just hope I can pull something out of the bag while I still have the luxury of being a little choosy.
Pro: I’m doing what I really want to be doing
Despite the hurdles, the petty sacrifices, and the year thus far of very limited success, I’m happy with my decision to make what I want most a priority. As misguided as it might have been, I went into this without a plan B on purpose. It felt like bad karma to do otherwise.
Con: Doubts. So many doubts
Karma, Hannah? Really? Or was it that thinking of all the uncertainties ahead simply got so overwhelming that you shut them out? I would probably never have gone through with this if I hadn’t, and isn’t that our problem? Taking the first step, not seeing the whole staircase; all that malarkey.
Honestly, I thought this would feel empowering. It really, really doesn’t. I can’t separate my drive from my fear any more, and I don’t know if that’s an acceptable thing or a critically bad one. I’ve worked myself into a mental corner over finding work, one in which anything that distracts from my writing is the devil, and needing a job I don’t want is absolute failure. I don’t know how I fix this, and I can only hope the few tools in my arsenal can manage the job: time, persistence, positive thinking, and crossing my fingers.
But how far ahead can any of us really plan? How much of your life so far has worked out how you thought it would? I didn’t know my ex and I would break up. I didn’t know I’d be living safely back at home when I was offered redundancy. Either everything went to shit, or a gigantic door opened itself, and the only decider is how I feel about it.
I’ll get back to you.
My social life and I have a complex relationship. This is only in part down to the ebbs and flows of my mental health. The rest is thanks to my dread of sitting down at the pub next to someone I haven’t seen in a while, or have never spoken to at length before, and hearing these four little words: ‘What do you do?’
Other variations include ‘what are you up to these days?’ and ‘are you still at [that job you took to earn some money during your gap year, six years ago]?’. I feel my heart sink, and it shows on my face. I wouldn’t say I’m ashamed of everything my life and career is and isn’t right now, and it’s not the fear of silent judgement that makes me clam up. It’s the opposite – it’s expectation. It’s who the person thinks I am versus what I have to show for it.
I find myself forcing a positive spin. Yes, my landlord is my mum, and she gives me hugely forgiving mates rates. Yes, I’m probably looking like less of a hot prospect to employers with every passing month. And yes, the novel I’ve been telling you about sits on my bedroom floor under a heap of plot notes, statements from student finance, and a Buffy boxset, because twenty-odd agents turned it down. But I’m not worried, I’ll tell you (even though sometimes I really, really am). I’ll start on about the new novel, the one I’m feeling even better about, and bulk it out with titbits of work opportunities on the horizon (mainly hypothetical).
In short, I find myself turning the conversation to how I do define myself, because my employment status is not it. And I may be an extreme example, but I can’t be the only twenty-something – or even thirty-something – who feels a chill when they hear the words ‘what do you do?’. We are, after all, the infamous millennials. Job security and full-time employment are foreign concepts to legions of us, a degree no longer guarantees a better career or higher income, and there is a high chance that when we compare ourselves to our parents at our age – with their family and their mortgage and a couple of promotions under their belts – we feel like embryos. Embryos with debt, and slowing metabolisms.
One of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of this juncture in life is that we are all finding success and carving out our places in the world at drastically different rates. I have friends who are forging careers in accounting and publishing and civil service, and I have friends on – *shivers* – zero-hour contracts, for whom ‘what do you do’ can only be answered with a host of disclaimers and footnotes. Either they’re tripping over each other to work for free in thankless, hyper-competitive fields like the media industries; they lack the funds for training or to set themselves up in business; or, perhaps worst of all, they plain don’t know where they’re headed.
And hey, it’s all good. If you fall into the latter camp, I hope you’re not agonising over where you’re at every minute of the day. Because you don’t need to. You can’t compare yourself to others, because you are incomparable, and as Mary Schmich and Baz Luhrmann say, don’t feel bad if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. But if you’re anything like me, when you’re confronted with those words, that niggling desire to sell yourself as interesting and interested, aspirational and headed somewhere, is a big fat bummer.
But, I have a solution.
‘What do you do?’ is not the conversation opener for our generation. Its day is done. Let’s do away with it now and let those who love to talk about their careers – and power to you! I’m all ears – be the ones to bring it up. The rest of us can quietly feel better about ourselves. To aid in this process, below are some suggested alternatives:
‘Tell me, in your own words, how you define yourself.’
‘What’s been the highlight of your week so far?’
‘What’s the fattest thing you’ve ever done? Okay, I’ll go first.’ (proceed to tell them about the time you ate an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food in one sitting, on a casual Tuesday afternoon, while your mother looked on, appalled)
‘There’s a high chance our interaction is headed this way anyway, so I’m going to go right ahead and start playing you my favourite wiener dog videos.’
Feel free to add your own.