Julia Paolercio and her mother, Maureen, at her baptism. (Courtesy Pat Paolercio)
My mom graduated into a recession in 1982, and never shied away from telling me about the hardships she faced.
“It was a bad time for everyone, but we really felt it being young and trying to start our lives,” she said.
As we sat discussing her past, I said the dreadful words most class of 2021-22 graduates have said: “post-grad life scares me.”
Earlier in October, I decided to take a trip to New York City to reconnect with some friends I had not seen since the beginning of the pandemic. The honest reason I went was because the pressure of being a second-year master’s student finally got to me. After a relatively productive summer interning in my field, promptly jumping back into school work brought me back to my reality: school is almost over, time to join the workforce.
Graduating into the tail end of a global pandemic and possible recession is a graduate’s worst nightmare. At the second our lives are supposed to begin, the brakes are being pumped and the check engine light is on. OK, maybe that’s just how it feels. But the ever-present feeling that there are going to be no jobs for us post-graduation is very real.
“We had those thoughts, too,” my mom said. “That’s all we talked about before my graduation.”
She graduated with her paralegal licence and — after two years of applying — she got her first job at a law firm, where she stayed for 16 years. As my mom’s two-year job hunt makes clear, mine is not the only generation to worry about not being hired post-graduation. My mom’s 1980s cohort, along with the graduates of 2008, know the extreme difficulty of getting a job during peak recessions. Ontario’s annual unemployment rate in 2020 rose to 9.6 per cent, “the highest since 1993,” says a report by the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario.
It feels like my generation is dealing with much more, though, than a repeating recession. Notably, the global health crisis that is COVID-19 and the impending doom of climate change. The housing market is so inflated we may never afford homes, sea levels are rising one-eighth of an inch per year and a global energy crisis is almost upon us. We are not just worried about unemployment, we’re overwhelmed by the idea that the world as we know it is changing before our eyes.
The only people we can turn to — who can relate to a fraction of our worries — are graduates of 2008 and the early 1980s. During my impromptu New York trip, I met up with some friends who already had jobs. (Mind you, they decided to take over the family business, to join a financial firm that had their last name already on the door.)
Throughout my undergraduate degree, it was nice to mull through university life with them as equals, but it became very evident that their family connections put them at an advantage.
I have never felt behind until now. Talking to them was like talking to a publicist that represented them: “Life is so great. Just got promoted and am taking a vacation to Croatia next month.”
It was agonizing. Not only because their nepotism was showing, but because I knew that my part-time waitressing job had paid for my vacation and that I had a mountain of work for my teaching assistant job and schoolwork to do as soon as I got home. (I’d pay for my vacation.)
Chloe Tse, a 2008 Ryerson journalism graduate, worked as a cocktail waitress for almost 10 years as a side job throughout university and after graduation. Being a woman of colour put her at a financial disadvantage, she is very clear: “I didn’t come from privilege.”
After attaining her first paying job as an editorial assistant for Canadian Gardening, she was laid off soon after due to the recession. “It really messes with you,” she said. “When it happens to you, it never doesn’t feel personal. You always feel like you could have done something different or could have done something more.”
This idea of doing more is ever present in my soon-to-be graduated mind. As I look at my friends, I keep thinking, maybe I could be doing something more to stand out in my field? But in reality, I am doing the best I can considering the circumstances.
Peers of mine are freelancing for wages that could never pay their rent in Toronto, while others — myself included — are still living at home in their 20s. The fear is not really about entering the workforce, so much as it’s about how we can enter the workforce in this unprecedented time.
Sebastian Whyte, a 2008 Ryerson urban and regional planning graduate, explained that socializing with the right people within the industry and attending events will help you join the work environment you aim to be in.
After heading back to my hotel room on the last day of my trip, I took a detour through SoHo. (OK, maybe I got lost on the subway heading downtown.) I landed on Canal Street and bumped into a dear friend I hadn’t seen since my senior year of university, Maddy. She quickly caught me up on her life, telling me how she pursued a completely different path after graduation and was now teaching at an elementary school. As much as I was impressed with her accomplishments, listening to her speak about the children she teaches lit a spark in me that I hadn’t felt in a while.
Maybe it was seeing a young person actually working and not complaining about the world as we know it. Maybe it was taking a step back from my own reality during this entire trip. Or maybe it was hearing someone succeed doing something they did not originally see themselves pursuing. Whatever it was, the motivation I was lacking to keep pushing through school and into the world snapped back into place. The fear faded.
“If you want it bad enough, you will find a way,” says Tse, “Absolutely, you will find a way.”
“[Our generation of graduates] have experienced a fundamental lack of human interaction during this time,” said Debapriya Sen, director of Ryerson’s international economics and finance program, and it’s “made life more difficult.”
“A student graduating now had an incomplete university experience,” he said.
The graduates of 2008 and the early 1980s didn’t have the lack of interaction roadblock like we pandemic graduates do. But finding ways around that and utilizing one of the things I think our generation is best at — the internet — might be our best bet at launching ourselves into the workforce after graduation.
My mom said she had the same frustrations while speaking with her cousins in the 1980s as I had when speaking with my friends in 2021. “I wanted to be happy for them,” she said, but “I couldn’t help but think about everything I had to go through to get my job.”
I am happy for the success of my talented friends, but I can’t help but feel down about the countless job applications, Facebook career pages, cold calls and rejection emails I will have to go through in the near future.
My mom reassured me, just as talking to Whyte and Tse reassured me, that we are not the only ones who are graduating into economically difficult times. “You’ll find your way,” my mom says.
As I sat in the LaGuardia Airport about to board my evening flight back to Toronto, I realized how much this trip changed my mindset. Seeing my friends and listening to the turbulence in their lives put my own concerns into perspective. Sure, it sucked to see other people my age doing more than me, but it helped me focus on the bigger picture aside from school — life will start, like it or not. Hopefully, if I put enough effort into it, my reality might be something desirable.