'I'm just too good for this place'

Reality bites for twentysomethings armed with a trendy degree but unable to land the job they have trained for. 'Failure' is a Nineties taboo, but is it really the worst thing that can happen to you? asks Glenda Cooper
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Suki Hutchinson would really like to act but she's working in a bookshop. Paul Tyrrell wants to be a journalist but he's supervising student publications. Giles Bicknell earns pounds 7 an hour typing when he originally wanted to be a film director. They are all graduates from good universities, unable to get a job and all in danger of falling victim to the twentysomething wunderkind obsession - the feeling that unless you've conquered the world by the time you're 30 you can't hold your head up public.

After all, twentysomethings feel that if you can get to be leader of the Tory party by the age of 36 (William Hague), editor of a national newspaper by the age of 28 (Piers Morgan, who edited the News Of The World and now the Mirror) or have a novel published by the age of 18 (Bidisha), the very least they should be able to achieve is a "posh" job.

But real life is working against this age group. Reed Graduate Service estimates that less than four out of ten 1996 graduates have found jobs in their chosen career and feel that "a degree doesn't guarantee you a job, experience is more important". The average starting salary for a graduate is pounds 12,680, but more than a quarter say that lots of their friends do not have a job a year on from graduating. For, while there are double the graduates there were ten years ago, there are not double the amount of jobs. Many graduates find themselves having to dismiss their dreams and take low-paid jobs to pay their rent. Those who take this route often end up feeling depressed and bewildered that they have somehow missed the boat, while all their friends are doing well.

Cliff Arnall, who runs a self-help consultancy called No Pills, believes there is a real pecking order in what is a "good" or "posh" job - and not just in the self-consciously trendy worlds of arts, media and design. "There is pressure on solicitors to become barristers, pressure on medics - should they go for country GP jobs or climb the ladder in big hospitals. It's not particularly healthy and it's fuelled by the rat race which has an lot more people in it now."

"I want the kudos," agrees Tyrrell. "What's important to me is that I don't get stuck in regional newspapers. It does make a difference if you work on the nationals as soon as possible." He has been involved in journalism since he was 15 - he's now 21 - but he is having to work at the University of North London supervising student publications because he feels that doors are shut to him."It's always the same story: Oxford on the news desk, Cambridge on the arts desk and Durham doing the administration," he says gloomily. "I need patronage but I haven't got a patron."

Hutchinson tells a similar tale: "At the moment I'm working on and off in my family's bookshop and hoping to get a job with some theatrical experience. It's difficult - difficult economically and difficult to know what to do. It's not like going into banking. I'm just not sure where I go from here." Her degree in English, Anthropology and Philosophy is of little immediate use. "There's a great deal of pressure. I'm sitting here thinking about what I'm going to do. You see some people rush into things on leaving university without any clear idea of where they want to go, just because it sounds good."

Arnall says he has been astonished at the large numbers of 30 year olds who have started coming to see him recently. "They are intelligent graduates but they feel that there is this big pressure on them once they reach 30 about where they should be in their career. It's like a second adolescence. In your teens you're trying to find out who you are; when you hit 30, you begin to feel that you're too old to make the sort of mistakes and changes that are allowed during your twenties. You may look totally together from the outside, but inside you feel you've reached a point where there's no going back."

According to Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, the result is that stress levels are rising in this age group as they come to terms with the fact they are not necessarily destined for a brilliant career. "There has been a massive explosion in higher education. There are more and more graduates," he says. "The economy seems to be doing very well. All the indications are that there are great opportunities for young people. We're also doing very well in comparison with Europe - but we've become so competitive because of the growth of short-term contracts and part-time working. That means there are less people doing twice as much work in high-status jobs like acting, working in the media, or marketing. Management jobs - particularly middle management - have been dramatically cut."

But Arnall says that younger people are learning to adjust their sights so that they are more focused on reality. "I take a couple of A-level classes a week and I find these young people are really clued up. They are learning to think more creatively about what they are going to do in the future. Some of them are already working - it is not unknown for a 17 year old to have a thousand pounds in savings for when they start college."

Bicknell, who did a drama, film and television course at Brunel University, agrees. After leaving college with debts of pounds 9,000 he "needed money security. As soon as I came out of college I needed to get a job." None of the skills from his course helped him; it was his typing ability ("Thank goodness my mother bought me a typewriter when I was seven") which landed him his first job at a computer company as a typist. He now earns pounds 7 an hour.

"If I'd not bothered with university and gone straight in at the bottom I'd probably be in a quite good job now," he says. "My friend got four As at A level and a first in graphic design, and he can't get a job because he hasn't got enough experience. He's 24 and earning pounds 8,500."

But Bicknell has found that his less-pressurised job suits him. "I love my way of living. I have never been the sort of person who sees my career as the be-all and end-all. I have a good quality of life. I wouldn't mind going to film school one day but I'm fine as I am. Looking back, my course didn't teach me the skills I need. I'd advise anyone to do an RSA typing course instead."

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