Friday, 12 March 2010

The world was emptier then

How is it that people used to just fall into things? Doors were open, people were available. Ian McEwan recounts how he started out:
Determined not to have a proper job after having seen the civil service pay scale chart from entry level to retirement age, he spotted a new MA course at the University of East Anglia that allowed for the substitution of one module with a piece of original fiction. He phoned and was put straight through to Malcolm Bradbury. "I'd read a couple of his books and I was amazed that he was on the end of the line. But the world was emptier then. It seemed there was a limited amount [sic]* of people on the planet, and you really could phone them all up."
It's a phenomenon you often come across when reading accounts of twentieth-century, middle-class working life. Most recently, I witnessed young graduates stumbling into gainfulness in Lynn Barber's 'An Education' (posted on here) and in Ferdinand Mount's 'Cold Cream'.

Now these people were well-connected. But connections, whilst as important as ever, aren't sufficient. Nowadays, to get most graduate jobs, you need to demonstrate an existing interest in the field, usually by using up your student vacations hanging around an office, sometimes for nothing (fancily described as an internship). You invariably have to go through a rigorous interview process and sometimes sit some sort of written exam. You will need to have been involved with all sorts of clubs, societies, publications and events, turning your leisure time into a preparation for work. And you certainly need to have done lots of research on who you're meeting and why you want the job.

I turned up for the interview for my first proper job twenty years ago (a now coveted two-year graduate traineeship) having spent the previous year playing rugby in France and generally bumming around for a while in the US, never having done a job more sophisticated than builder's labourer. I doubt very much that I would have got the job today. Would I even have got an interview?

In the late-90s when I was hiring graduates I noticed how suddenly every applicant seemed to have done an internship - even between their first and second years, which I thought hugely beyond the call of keen bunniness. I guess that's when the rot set in.

I can't come up with any other reason why it was easier in the old days than McEwan's: 'the world was emptier then'. Presumably there was a shortage of graduates and a growing number of jobs that graduates were suited to. It seems that now the situation is entirely reversed.


* Wow. It feels good to 'sic' the great McEwan. The petty, pedantic pleasures of having a blog.

11 comments:

dearieme said...

40+ years ago I was a final year undergraduate and was headhunted by two employers. I wasn't "connected", nor had I done vacation jobs for them. It just happened. Two executives flying in to interview me, at their request. Great days, eh? Nowadays the niches are full. It's not even clear that you can find a society wih more empty niches by emigrating, though that was the classic reason for tooling off to the USA or Australia - life was less competitive there.

dearieme said...

Mind you, immigrants weren't welcome everywhere.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1257333/51-headless-Viking-skeletons-Weymouth-ditch.html

Gaw said...

What it must feel like to be a coveted resource and barely out of your teens!

Great linked story! Heartening to see some public-spirited types doing their bit to ensure the world remained emptier.

ghostofelberry said...

i think one reason i couldn't get a graduate job, despite having a BA 1st and MA Distinction, is i wasn't raised in London with rich parents who would subsidise me to work for free. There are so many graduates now that an Arts degree is worthless, and since every entry level job is tedious and ill-paid, employers will always prefer a 2:1 who has spent hard time in the salt mines of photocopying, without pay, to a 1st who hasn't worked a day in his life. i gave up applying for graduate jobs after my 250th or so rejection.

ghostofelberry said...

Just remembered an appropriate anecdote - a couple of years ago i shared a house with a famousish photographer in his 60s. i asked how he'd got into being a pro photographer, now that young people have to do a uni course, probably a postgrad degree, work for free, hustle for years, go to warzones in the hope of seeing something interesting, and even then their chances of breaking into paid work are probably almost non-existent.

He said he just popped into a studio one day out of curiosity, picked up a camera that was lying about and asked if he could have a go - next stop, he had a photo in the Observer (or Independent, can't remember) every week for the next few decades.

Peter Burnet said...

I am amazed and appalled at the hurdles my children are going through to try and start their careers, even though they have plenty of academic credentials and other qualifications. Every job application leads to an endless cycle of interviews and tests administered by different people for mysterious reasons, with no explanations of what they are about or what led to rejections. It is very discouraging and I often think about this when I try to figure out why youth are becoming nihilist and cynical today. They really do live in a world where they report more and more to a machine.

We who like to muse and argue about political and social issues tend to be stuck arguing and re-arguing classic 19th century ideals. We would do well focussing more on high-tech developments, and how the computer and instant communications have changed everything in a generation, including mentalities. With due respect to McEwan, I think this is a good example of how technological developements come with their own imperatives. If you have the ability to design some cumbersome, comprehensive, faux-sophisticated, PowerPoint-friendly hiring procedure based on clever software applications, the latest psychological tests available on the Net and a decision-making process invloving dozens of cyper-connected people whose existence can only be justified by muscling into the game, you will.

ghostofelberry said...

Actually, probably the best market to break into is HR - all part of the post-human age, treating people as resources, units.

Brit said...

HR is massively overpaid as well, and they're mostly eejits.

I've stumbled into everything I've ever done but that's because I lack professional ambition. I was once headhunted by a competitor. They offered me less money and a worse job than my current employer. Yep, mostly eejits.

Gaw said...

Elberry: The sort of extra-curricular activity they're looking for wouldn't include human sacrifice, pie-eating, rune-work etc. That is, unless you made a club of it and appointed yourself President. Willingness to take on responsibility? Check.

Peter: I don't think technology is the full answer. I suspect it has something to do with the nature and goals of the post-war state (or is it just the post-war bit?). In any event, there's an interesting book to be written on the phenomenon.

Brit: If you think of HR as Employment Law Liability Managers they're very useful. It's a full time job in a larger business ensuring you're not in a position to be sued by your employees. In this way, they tend to pay for themselves.

dearieme said...

"What it must feel like to be a coveted resource and barely out of your teens!" Only looking back on it, and realising why I was coveted; at the time I just shrugged it off. There were jobs galore, after all. When I did start work, two other parts of the organisation promptly tried to "poach" me. Again, I had no idea that that might be a bit abnormal. After all, why shouldn't companies be like girls? Ah, the sixties - even the pop music was OK.

Gaw said...

Oh, come on Dearieme. It's bad enough that you had (over)full employment - don't taunt us about the girls being easier too...