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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On the Market: Reflections of an Educated, Unemployed Twenty–Something

Hi all!  Here is a wonderfully insightful guest post by Michael Oghia (bio and links below).

Posted on Facebook: December 16, 2012

You know that 12.3 million you keep hearing about? That’s me, Mr. educated, yet unemployed. I am also what New York Times writer Robin Marantez Henig called one of those “20–Something’s.” She discussed how, due to the changing economic and social times, people my age transition to adulthood much slower (and differently) than before, and delay milestones such as buying a home, marriage, and children. I have to admit, when I read her essay nearly two years ago, I didn’t think she was referring to me. I was 22 at the time, but I was an Arab–American in a foreign country surrounded by the comforts of graduate school, that sheltered, structured bubble that protects you from the outside world—or so you think.

I was convinced that academia is for me. Yes, I was heavily involved on–campus in extra–curricular activities, but I never immersed myself in formal training of either the corporate world or the numerous NGOs, institutes, think tanks and nonprofits. No, I was set on research, and how would that experience benefit my sociological teaching and research duties anyway? So, I applied to different graduate programs—twice—that I thought I would be a good fit for, but was ultimately rejected both times. And when “grad school: part–two” didn’t work out, I found myself faced with a new, dreaded reality: looking for a job.

Do you remember when the recession hit in 2008? At the time, I stared at the television in the lobby of my collegiate residence hall were I was working as an RA. I watched the stock market fall faster than Felix Baumgartner, and in that young, Twenty–Something way, I thought it would never affect me.

Think again.

After graduating with a Masters of Arts in sociology this past June, I did something else I never wanted to do: I moved back to my parent’s home in Kentucky. With a six–month loan grace period hanging over my head like a 1980s doomsday clock, I desperately started scanning and other sites looking for the perfect job, or at least a right fit. Rejection after rejection, I began to feel an unfamiliar vulnerability and lack of confidence creeping over me. Over time, I became engulfed in a world where good news is as welcome as a downpour in the desert, yet is just as rare. I was searching everywhere—from the U.S. to Canada, Australia, the UAE, Qatar, and Europe. I contacted what seemed like everyone I knew asking if they could help me.

No luck.

I really had no idea what I was doing. I had committed myself to academia since the beginning of college, so what do I do? My dream was to be a professor—to publish research articles, present at academic conferences and teach students. However, when I formerly made the switch from higher education to international affairs, I was still lost. No one ever told me what to do if my goals change, or if I choose a new path. I soon discovered there is a disparity between theory and practice. Sure, people say it’s ok for your goals or path to change, but people don’t really expect it to change or offer any practical advice on how to traverse a new direction if it does. I received career advice from many different people—who often contradicted each other—telling me to “put this on your résumé,” “shorten that,” “apply here,” don’t apply there,” “make this one page,” “make that two,” “rewrite your cover letter,” and on and on.

Then you’re told, “Call them after you apply, be aggressive, follow–up.”

Others say, “No, no, just e–mail, don’t call.” You get lost in the sea of career tips with each website’s career articles refuting the next. Four months later, I’m still unemployed, but it’s amazing what you learn when you challenge yourself, challenge your fears and overcome.

Overcome what you ask? Well, for me, after college, I thought I was so smart and could do anything. After graduate school, however, I am so overwhelmed by the problems and injustices in the world, as well as the plethora of unanswered questions, that I feel dumber than when I entered. However, aside from a new humility I had never previously known, reflecting back on my life since July, I feel like I took a crash course in “Life 101.” It’s the college course never offered (and if so, the professor never showed up to class). I’ve had ample time to spend thinking about where I am in life, what have I been through the past 6, 12, 24 months. In fact, just more than three years ago, I was getting on airplane bound for a foreign land I’d only heard about when my parents were discussing their life before immigrating to America.

People called me crazy and said, “What!? What do you mean you’re moving to the Middle East!?”

Very few truly understood, and in fact, I didn’t really either. But as it turns out, it—like many great opportunities— was simply a chance to explore the world, learn about my family history, and challenge myself.

I’ve been able to see all aspects of my life from the last six years, make connections, identify the puzzle pieces we call coincidence, and practice what my dad calls “The Lemon Theory:” turning the lemons of life into lemonade and growing in the process. I’ve been able to realize that most of the time, college equips you with not just a liberal arts education, access to new minds and ways of thinking and networks, but also it gives you a role. And that role combined with skills is ultimately what people reference when they market themselves, especially in science and business (“I’m an engineer, I’m an accountant”). However, in the humanities, it’s a lot less accepted. It’s tough to find anyone that can clinch a job merely by saying, “I’m a philosopher,” or “I’m a poet” (in my case, “I’m a sociologist”). This makes going into the social science and humanities fields—while definitely valuable and worth it in the long–term—tougher in the short–term. And for many like myself, it’s frustrating when you feel that all that awaits you afterward is neo–indentured servitude (aka, unpaid internships) that you can’t afford to take, especially if you don’t have the means or the privilege to live with parents or family.

But my generation cannot succumb to the stereotype some have labeled us: entitled. As David Burstein points out, there are many hard–working, innovating “Twenty–Something’s” working for positive social change. Our cohort is saturated with potential, but we are living in a society filled with archaic structures and systems that severely limit how this potential is tapped. How do we overcome it? How do we even market skills that didn’t even exist three, five, 10 years ago, or weren’t considered nearly as important? How do we contend with a globalized market in a globalized world? For all of us who are unemployed, what we can do is change our attitude. Be proactive, network, be open to new prospects, update your LinkedIn account, and visit your university’s Career Development Center. But most importantly, stay positive, and stand with each other, your fellow Twenty–Something’s, in comradery.

I’m sure that if you can identify with my experience, sometimes you just want to give up. You’re in your 20s, and tired of living at home. You want to be independent again. You don’t want to rely on anyone, especially your parents. But you have to stay positive, and you have to persevere. I always think to myself, no matter how bad it gets, no matter how dejected I feel, no matter what is thrown my way, I refuse to give up. I refuse to let life get the better of me. I am stronger than that! And so are you. “Things can always be worse” is my motto. Stay confident, and know that you will eventually find something. In the meantime, use your downtime to mature emotionally and make the best of what you have.

As it turns out, I’m glad I experienced the multiple signs that I’m a Twenty–Something. Unemployment helped me become a better person, and taught me things a university could never teach me. Whether it was résumé development, rediscovering my confidence, rekindling old friendships, mastering rejection (and lots of it), becoming OK with being alone (even when my life is seemingly on pause), or refusing to give up or stop working hard. Moreover, I think there’s three defining elements of the Twenty–Something’s experience that weren’t mentioned: find your niche and foster your passion, decide whether to settle or not settle, and find a life companion or partner. However, no matter how you chose to order these or how tough the economy is, this process, this journey all begins with you, but is sustained by our collective solidarity.

So, I challenge you, my fellow Twenty–Something’s. Even if life is giving you lemons, make lemonade. Remember that the search is difficult in today’s world, but not impossible. Take this time to focus on yourself. Grow, develop, and mature. Keep your head up, surround yourself with positive and supportive people, persevere, stay confident in yourself and your decision–making and take a page from Gandhi’s misquoted, paraphrased words:

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”


Michael Oghia is an unemployed Twenty–Something born in Kentucky to Syrian–Lebanese parents, completed a Bachelors of Science in sociology from the University of Louisville in 2009, then graduated from the American University of Beirut in 2012 with a Masters of Arts in sociology after writing a thesis about romantic relationship formation and love among a sample of Lebanese youth. He maintains his blog, LOVEanon, as well as the LOVEanon Facebook page where he connects readers to relationship research and resources. He is active on Twitter (@MikeOghia), is a hopeless romantic, and a lover of flip–flops, traveling, cultural exchange, hummus, poetry, drumming, cooking, and love.

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