Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: My son is really struggling with work

The situation isn’t helped by your telling him what a genius he is all the time

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Dear Virginia,

My son is a very bright 21-year-old. He’s living at home, having got a good degree at university – but he can’t get a job. And he’s becoming lethargic, lacking in hope and very depressed. I’ve suggested he contact some people I know who are working in the area he wants to work in, but he says “things aren’t like that any more, Dad”, and refuses offers of help. At the moment, he’s stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s. I’ve said I’ll drive him anywhere, fund him if he wants to be an unpaid intern, do anything to help, but he simply refuses. How can I get him to see sense?

Yours sincerely,

Gerald

Virginia says...

In my experience, by the time children get to the age when they realise that to say “things aren’t like that any more” is total rubbish, they’re almost too old to take advantage of the career opportunities one is able to offer them. And by then, anyway, the parents’ contacts have long since moved on to other things.

But what you must emphasise to your son is that parents helping their children into jobs is a practice that has gone on since time immemorial. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. No doubt you, Gerald, were helped to get a job by your parents, and when your son has children he’ll be all for pulling strings to help them find work they enjoy.

I bet he thinks that this is some kind of class thing, that only upper- and middle-class people give their children helping hands. But he’s totally wrong. No outsider could ever get into the printers’ union when there were such things. Every job was earmarked for a printer’s son. Costermongers, miners – string-pulling went on in all walks of life. No doubt the Romans and the Greeks were pulling old Roman and Greek strings, and if we’re ever taken over by Martians, you’ll probably find the Martians pulling their own Martian strings to get their children ahead in whatever space race or new dimension is the latest thing.

I suspect your son’s “pride”, however apparently admirable, has nothing to do with real pride or strength of character but is actually connected with a deep insecurity. And that isn’t helped by your telling him what a genius he is all the time. He doesn’t need you to say it because he knows (and he’s right) that every parent thinks their child is the bee’s knees – the nicest, cleverest, most talented young person in the world. So in a way, your word counts for nothing. One “very good” from a stranger is worth a thousand “you’re a genius” comments from a parent.

What you must contrive to do is to get someone outside your immediate family to have a word with him and tell him what a talented bloke he is. A godfather; an old family friend – someone who can be relied on to be objective. Now, if someone like that could pull a string, I don’t think your son would mind so much taking up the offer. It’s not the string itself he doesn’t want pulled, it’s a string offered him by his old dad. How could he possibly accept a leg-up from the very person from whom he’s trying to become independent? I’m sure you could devise a way of quietly handing your strings to someone with less involvement in the family than you have. 

In the meantime, at least he’s stacking shelves. You should thank your lucky stars that your son doesn’t think this is “beneath” him in any way. And if he’s as pleasant and talented as you claim, someone at Sainsbury’s will soon be spotting him and encouraging him and offering him something better. And armed with that encouragement, encouragement from an disinterested party, he might feel much better equipped to accept help in future.

The sad truth is that it’s far easier to accept help when you’re on the way up than it is when you’re at the bottom, when help, since it comes from above, can often seem like charity and pity.

 

Readers say...

He needs your emotional support

I’m a “very bright” 21-year old and unemployed. You say your son can’t get a job, but he’s stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s, which at £6.81 per hour is better than most of the job listings I’ve seen on offer. He’s right – things aren’t the way they used to be, and he’s in the best place to see the way things are, so start by listening to him.

Your son has no experience, no confidence, not a lot of prospects and his sense of self-worth will be diminished. Being “very bright” doesn’t mean anything in this brave new world. If he’s refusing help, it’s because he wants to make it on his own merits. Don’t humiliate him by offering him a meeting with your friends in high places. I’m guessing he’ll be worried about the face he presents to them, and the way it will reflect on you.

The boy needs a direction in which to move, and a sense of confidence. Here is what you must do: offer emotional support. Ask him how he’s feeling. Remind him it’s OK not to know what he wants to do with his life. Talk it through, form a plan, and break everything down into little steps.

If he’s depressed, it might be worth looking up mental-health services in your area, but above all, let him know you have confidence in him, and that you won’t disapprove if he feels the need to hide under his duvet and despair for a while. If you seem to be on his back all the time, he’ll feel stressed and his confidence will be undermined. Let him decide what he needs to do, then give him only the guidance he needs to achieve it. I wish him all the best, but not too much of the best, because damn it, I’m a competitor in the job market, too!

Emily Marston, by email

 

Pull strings – everybody’s doing it

I experienced exactly the same situation after graduating in 1992. It is very demoralising, and galling to have to stack shelves when one has done what society asks, only to be cheated of one’s rightful reward. At least, that’s what it felt like at the time. My advice to him is to stay active by stacking shelves or flipping burgers or whatever else, and keep sending out those job applications. You should speak to anyone and everyone you know – everyone else is doing it. Get him an internship and send him to work – don’t give him the option of sitting at home.

Name and address supplied

Next week's dilemma

My mother has just died. She was only 60, and my children adored her. They’re very upset, too – they’re eight and 10 – but it’s so difficult because I try so hard to keep strong in front of them. But when they’re crying, it’s almost impossible not to show my grief, too. My sister insists it’s very important I don’t show them how upset I am, and my husband agrees, but another friend says I must show my grief because it’s only natural. I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I don’t cry, I just lose my temper with the kids and that’s even worse, I think. What do you think is best? I’m so confused.

Yours sincerely,

Bette 

What would you advise Bette to do? Write to dilemmas@independent.co.uk. Anyone whose advice is quoted or whose dilemmas is published will receive will receive a box of Belgian Chocolates from funkyhampers.com

(twitter.com/funkyhampers)

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