Catherine Gleave reflects on post-graduate fears in a world where women are increasingly becoming jacks of all trades…
“And what do you intend to be?” chirps my uncle over lunch. Half choking on my fish, I blindly grope for some water. In an effort to prevent my premature death at the hands of a prying relative, and buy myself a few seconds before I’m forced to address what he actually means (“remind me why you spent £42,000 on an English Literature degree?”), I lower myself into my glass and contemplate my options. While I’m mildly surprised that he hasn’t rounded on my singledom, or my lacking financial acumen, I’m at a loss as to how to respond. Thirty seconds later, I can see his eyes begin to narrow as I’m still yet to offer a reply. Surfacing from my drink, reluctantly calling time on what might have been quite a pleasant session of water boarding, I splutter “Oh, I don’t know… a journalist?”
Cue the inevitable squawks about how print media might as well be euthanized and some vague, offensive anecdote about a non-relative who once tried to be a journalist and ended up destitute in a bin, shouting at strangers. I offer a gracious half smile before pouring myself a glass of white wine the size of my head. In a moment of recklessness, I decide to come clean: “Honestly, I don’t actually know what I want to do—I have no idea what’s coming next…” Visibly aghast, my uncle continues with the doggedness typical only of a baby boomer and Jack Russell, and readies himself for a deep dive into my career prospects; visibly thrilled by the opportunity to grill me with the same tenacity that overcooked the salmon.
Tuning out from his blathering concern, I glance at both my parents, who view him with intense sympathy, nodding away at his soundbites of quasi inspiration. “A clever girl like you should have a plan”; “Get on the career ladder now before it’s too late!” Swallowing my Pinot, I do my best to summon some cheery good-will in the midst of my rising panic, and muster a lacklustre “Well… there’s always sex work!”
The silence that follows makes me uncertain if I’ve won that particular discussion.
Lying awake in bed late that night, I struggle to shake off our earlier discussion. It seems so easy, I think, for other people to know what they’re meant to do with their lives. Surrounded daily by pals who seem to know what they’re doing, I’m under no delusions as to what having-your-shit-together looks like; the double edged sword of having friends who are killing the game, is realising that if you can’t identify the hot mess in your friendship group, it’s probably you.
Tossing and turning, my mind turns to my friends in academia, the girls in the army, solicitors, publishers, doctors and civil servants… who all seem so gorgeously sure of themselves, and wish for a spark of self-assurance and ambition to happen in me. For some career security, I’d happily plumb drains for the rest of my life if I thought I was even vaguely dexterous with a plunger. But this is the problem: my skill set is a bit, well, unreliable: I’m not good with gore, so doctoring was off the cards immediately; maths bores me senseless; and, in GCSE science, I was part of the ability group that was allowed to boil water very occasionally, and only once a risk assessment had been sent home to parents. Truthfully, the only thing I’ve ever sort-of excelled at is Under-15 hurdling and writing, and that’s not much to cling to in an increasingly cut-throat job market.
More and more millennials are running into this problem, as we’re each beginning to perfect the art of the side-hustle, amid rising suspicions that a traditional career path is no longer on the cards—on its way to the scrap yard to hang out with all those other ravaged, burnt out institutions like home ownership and EU citizenship.
It doesn’t seem like anyone is doing just one thing: for all the bloggers I follow, each one is more often than not also a videographer, a podcaster and undoubtedly producing more merchandise than you can shake a stick at. It seems like being a Jack-of-all-trades is the newest trade-off for those of us who aren’t quite sure what we’re doing next, and don’t fall neatly into a professional band width. While I’m in awe of the women and men carving out a career on their own terms, my internal voice (which, for some reason sounds like my mother) will squawk unhelpful things like “5 year plan!” and “financial stability!” and suddenly I lose all my bravery, and start job hunting.
Like many young professionals, I approached my career in the same way I approached school, university and exam season: I wanted to know what I had to do and the time-frame in which I had to do it; I needed some assurance that I could achieve all the things I wanted. I wanted to hear from someone that a formula for success existed and not that we’re all just permanently scaling a climbing frame for the rest of our lives, trying desperately not to fall off.
Later that week, I meet up with a friend over coffee and talk her through my latest encounter with my aggressively well-meaning relatives. We both agree that this is how it starts: first they come for your career; then your love-life; and then your procreation. Exhausted by the constant barrage of advice coming from all corners, and now slightly hammered (the coffee quickly turned to espresso martinis) we start to offload our anxieties on each other. As I’m telling her for the fifth time how beautiful, talented and sorted she is, she flashes me a look of utter shock: “You what? Sorted?! Are you joking!” she shrieks. In disbelief, I just look at her open mouthed, “but you’re doing so WELL?!” Taking me by the hand, my darling friend leans in and whispers: “Hun, I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing.”
In the weeks that follow, I furiously trawl my friends for answers on their lives and livelihoods. A woman possessed, I sought out solidarity like a truffle pig, and snuffled my way through coffee trips and cocktails, sharing my inner most insecurities and frustrations hoping to find solidarity, reassurance and understanding in return. I found brilliant women owning their rootlessness, sharing their own anxieties about what’s next and realised that the future—this massive, overhanging expanse of potential— is, for so many of us, as cripplingly exciting as it is anxiety-inducing.
Even those who appear to be on their chosen career path have confessed to me that this dizziness applies to them as well. For all the friends who appear to have avoided professional off-roading by choosing more traditional careers paths, they still susceptible to concerns about the future. It seems like nothing changes; as soon as you can answer the question “what do you intend to be?” the same irritating member of your extended family will just move on to ask “where’s the promotion?”
What I’m beginning to realise is that building a career is a lot like playing a blind-folded game of pin the tail on the donkey. We’re all just dizzy and blindfolded, with no idea if we’re just wobbling around in the dark, headed in the wrong direction, or actually going somewhere. For myself, I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that, as I take my baby steps towards a career, there will be fewer people to point and laugh as when I blindly walk into the wrong end of a wall in the name of a party game.
While I don’t think anyone will ever be able to give me the reassurance I’m looking for, I’ve found reassurance in the knowledge that no one really knows what they’re doing. And somehow, for now, that’s all the success I need.
Follow Catherine on Twitter: @CatherineGleave