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.