Whenever somebody asks me how I feel about graduating, I can’t help but picture Benjamin Braddock submerged in his backyard pool. Even though it’s nearly 50 years since The Graduate came out, the feeling is timeless – wading, waiting and drowning. While Dustin Hoffman’s famous college boy was struggling to stay afloat in a sea of options, these days it’s a sinking feeling of a different kind. For the modern graduate, our problem isn’t an excess of choice, but rather a shortage of doors through which we can squeeze our eager feet.
Our entire academic life, we’ve been prepped for competition. We’ve been graded, ranked and given shiny gold stickers. We’ve been told that if we study hard enough, good things will come our way. But now, the equation feels a little more complex. It used to be that enthusiasm and hard work would get you a job. These days it feels like there’s an unknown factor involved; namely, luck. The students are as industrious as ever, but it seems the school principal has run out of shiny gold stickers.
It’s not just an Australian issue, either. In a heavily circulated piece for The Guardian, ‘The Graduates of 2012 Will Survive Only in the Cracks of Our Economy,’ Paul Mason argues international financial markets have failed to innovate at the pace of forward-thinking young people, resulting in high graduate unemployment and a rewrite of the educational narrative. The notion that higher education will lead to a job, a career, and then financial stability has become an outdated assumption.
Charting this distinction, Mason writes the new narrative, and it’s far from a fairy tale. “Wages don’t rise; you can’t get on the property ladder. Fiscal austerity eats into your disposable income. You are locked out of your firm’s pensions scheme; you will wait until your late sixties for retirement. And if it all goes wrong, it’s touch and go whether the welfare safety net will still be there,” he writes.
Encouraged from primary school age to begin crafting a path to a particular career – with the aid of everything from role-playing to NAPLAN tests – the modern graduate has been “faced, almost since puberty, with a battery of psychometric tests, exhortations to excellence, and life-limiting vocational choices,” says Mason.
The Dutch have tried a new approach where full-time positions are split between two workers, thus lowering the overall employment rate – but one could imagine this being of limited benefit in a time when casualisation is already seeping into a number of industries.
One might suggest Generation Y needs to shape up, or ship out. Just because things are harder doesn’t mean you fall into a heap – we’ve still playing by the old rules, when the simple fact is the game has changed. If the innovative world we were always promised hasn’t come into being yet, maybe our job is to make it happen.
This article first appeared in RMIT’s City Journal