The ghosts of vanished ideals

Reading about youth unemployment in a Central London office, I feel bizarrely left out of the ‘graduate without a future’ debate. Graduating a few years before the Great Crash of 08’ has left me observing youth declinism from the sidelines. With my own career stalling, I desperately want to take part in this debate but since I receive a modest salary, I feel unable to do so.

Graduate angst still resonates of course but I’m 31 years old and entering what Fitzgerald once famously referred to as a ‘portentous, menacing road of a new decade…the promise of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm and thinning hair’.

Stimulating and creative jobs are now sadly thin on the ground too. However, the concept of fulfilment in the workplace is a relatively modern one. The ancient Greek ideal of eudaiomnia, a contented state of happiness, is certainly not something that would have affected older generations.

Choice is a luxury and too much choice has created an existential hunger for well-paid creative jobs that simply don’t exist. Paul Mason brilliantly captured the spectre of declinism in his Guardian article about the “Graduate without a future”. His thesis is simple and inordinately depressing too – the Western economic model is broken and fails to produce enough high-value work for its highly educated workforce.

Graduating with a liberal-arts degree from Glasgow University in 2004, I don’t recall the spectre of declinism hanging over my generation. On the contrary everything appeared remarkably complacent – an era of cheap credit, flights and relatively bright job prospects.

Within one year of graduating from a Scottish university you could retrain as a teacher and receive a full pension, epic holidays and become a middle-class professional. Such a route was actively encouraged by the Scottish Government and it became a cosy meal ticket for thousands of well-educated arts graduates, unqualified to do anything else.

Back then the public sector wasn’t vilified like it is today and on choosing to study History; I embarked upon a luxury degree and one that came with tremendous academic and social privileges. Unaware in my late teens that it would seriously define (or paradoxically harm) my future job prospects, I attended a traditional medieval university whose emphasis lay firmly on academic learning. Studying at a Russell Group university is a wonderful privilege but it was one that left me completely unprepared for the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Creating a factory supply of new teachers on route towards a public-sector nirvana might sound benign and egalitarian in principle. A society that invests in education is surely doing something right. However, I am not convinced that this golden ticket encouraged much creativity or entrepreneurship. Such a policy arguably stunted growth because not enough students were seriously challenged to change anything.

Unprepared for the future, I like many non-teaching arts graduates found myself lost in short-term contracts, temping and nomadic career wanderings that offered in creative or monetary value. Alas now I have a media job with a salary, and one I would have loved after leaving university, but looking elsewhere I find myself competing against millions of brilliant minds who are prepared to work for free.

Nothing much will change until Western economies catch up with the technological and communications revolution that has empowered the young. Like seeds beneath the snow, millions of restless spirits  lay dormant in call centres and fast food restaurants. And while Britain might seem like an uninspiring place, spare a thought for 55,000 who applied for 380 openings for Ikea in Sabadell, Spain. Now that is what you call a crisis of ideas.

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