The Year.

The reality of a twenty-something with a specialized degree, or, how I found wisdom on a sandwich shop wall Vitals: Name: Jessica Edens Age: 25 Education: BA in History, Master’s in Heritage Preservation Occupation: Marketing Administrator for a tech start-up selling business intelligence tools to software vendors

I’m approaching a significant anniversary. Last year, I woke up on August 1 unemployed and with no imminent plans for anything in my life, for the first time ever.  It was not by choice. It was terrifying.

The position I’d been in up to then was contingent upon being a student and, as I’d graduated a few months earlier, I was no longer qualified. Since it was also a federal institution, it was under a strict hiring freeze, and still is today.

experienceI would tell myself, and others would reiterate the thought, that this would be a rare moment of peace in my life. Here I was given this unclear amount of time, days or perhaps weeks, stretching into months, to just do less. I was not bound by a job or a degree program to show up anywhere, and any time.  My response to myself and others when presented with this lovely idea of endless freedom was that it would be a lot easier to enjoy a two-month sabbatical if I, in fact, knew that there was an end-point already comfortably situated out there in The Future. That there would eventually be some kind of plan, and equally important, a source of income.

I had already spent the first half of 2012 submitting my resume and applications to about sixty jobs, scattered in cities and towns across the country, each selected because I fell into the category of “qualified” or “almost qualified, a.k.a. I’ll-give-it-a-shot.” From these six months of work, I got only rejections, or no response at all. Then in July, I finally got one phone interview with a non-profit oral history initiative that would still be my top choice today—dream job kind of territory. (Oral history is one of the best things about my entire field of study.) And I didn’t get that.

Of course, the market is bad, it’s a bad era for non-profits, and the museum and archival field is facing significant budget cuts. They even threatened to shut down the Georgia State Archives entirely, but enough people reminded the legislature that history, um, kind of matters. So one might easily write all this off to bad timing. This was the reason I decided to go straight to graduate school in 2010, as I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history facing the worst job market in a generation. I often question this decision. I do not regret it, but I question whether I really made the best call on that one.

But more than a failure of the job market, it felt like my failure. Here I was, always finishing projects and papers early, leading group presentations, working two jobs, and getting excellent feedback from professors and colleagues in the real world about my work, skills, and potential. I never imagined myself unemployable.

And the fact was, I didn’t have the option anyway. My parents ensured, by selling their home and making plans to work abroad in their retirement, that we would be truly independent young adults. We would not be leaping back into our parents’ home after college, waiting for dream jobs or even kinda-good jobs—the far more realistic ones, as every generation learns—to lay themselves at the doorstep, all the while eating free food and paying no rent.

Life would not stop just because I hadn’t gotten a job, and now it was August 1, and no one had expressed any interest in hiring me.

Oh, except for the slew of insurance sales companies lurking all over Monster.com, waiting for job-hunters with liberal arts degrees. There’s no shortage of openings with them.

But in such a moment of quiet panic, I took a look at my skills. I have always sewed for pleasure, though most bags and garments and home decor projects only seem like a lot of work and at the end, it’s obvious I’m wearing a home-made skirt. Quilting is what I truly love, a flat canvas where you make art with fabric rather than paint. My friend at the neighborhood quilt shop was doing some freelance work for another local quilter and blogger, and I inquired in case she needed some extra help. I completed the binding on at least six of her quilts, all of which are featured in her second book, out this September. I spent some time at my home, with my cats, hand-sewing the binding onto these lovely, inspiring quilts, thankful that my circumstances led me to the pleasant work. It was a crucial bit of income, and I would never have even thought of asking, or of using that part of me, had I not been faced with this blank time. (Plus, now quilts I helped finish are being published in a book, in which I'm listed as a resource - pretty cool.)

In the same time, the months of August and September, I also conducted research for a National Register nomination being completed through Kennesaw State University, and archived and digitized an Atlanta society woman’s collection of personal mementos and photographs from her high school and college careers.

Even with these odd jobs, though, the epoch of NO PLAN was extending far longer than I had even imagined when I woke up August 1. People were telling me to check out job fairs in September and October, and in my head I was saying, “Yeah right, if I don’t have a job by October, I’ll be on the street anyway…”

I went to a job fair in mid-September, which lead to a staffing company, which lead to two contract-based, temporary positions that got me through the next series of months.

Finally, by word of mouth, by the strength of an old Kennesaw connection, I got the job I have now. Not in history or museums or nonprofits or anything remotely related, but as a marketer for a business intelligence software company.

An aside here: It is significant to me that in all my job applications, all the cover letters I’ve written, the jobs I have gotten were the ones I was not required to write anything for. [Read: word of mouth is stronger than any cover letter anyway.] This was true of my current position. It makes me rather sad to know that all the hard work I’ve done in two degrees and all former jobs, everything I list on my resume and say in a cover letter, really has no bearing on anyone; if someone will vouch for me, I’m hired.

Anyway, my work now is not anything I envisioned in any kind of “plan” or idea I may have had in mind. But I am tired. I am tired of the time-consuming act of proving myself again and again to no avail. I’m okay with rejection, believe me. And as a person who’s spent decades writing, I am unabashedly confortable with constructive criticism. It’s not these things that have worn on me. It’s the much larger, sadder thing that wears on me. It’s the adult reality of a regular, non-glamorous job that pays the bills but does not relate to what you studied. I am tired of that searching, so for now, I've mostly stopped doing it.

And I also remember that I’m still using relevant skills everyday. Not to mention, I’m now highly versed in all things ASP.NET and Microsoft, write about programming languages and business tips for software companies, and use Subversion and Notepad++ to edit multiple websites. My technical abilities prove essential every day, and I've learned an enormous number of extra computery skills I never dreamed I would know or care about. (I know all software people are so happy to hear me use the word "computery" to describe skills in their field.)

There’s a sign at the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop near my office that says, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Jimmy John’s, a place for more than just a sandwich; now also serving wisdom.

That’s what this year has been. Experience, stacked on uncertainly, smothered with a year’s worth of temporary jobs. Honestly, my favorite thing about my job now is that it doesn’t have an expiration date. I do good work, they keep me around. I’ve heard the line too many times before, at part-time jobs and internships and college positions: “Oh, we’d love to keep you, if we could!” This time, they can.

Last week I interviewed for a wonderful, meaningful position at a suburban, university-affiliated history museum in the area. While doing the intense preparation work for the interview, I couldn’t help but ponder the auspicious time of year, that I could potentially begin this position—if I were to get it—on the very day that I so badly needed a job one year before.

August 1.

It was almost as perfect timing as the oral history job from last year. It would make a tidy end for this story.

But I didn’t get it, and the story isn’t ending here. This wasn’t an anomaly in my life, a year of unexpected trials and many random jobs. It’s life. That is every day. And that is, really, every job, too. But this year, while interviewing for that job, I already had a job, one where my time isn’t up July 31, and so I was not walking into an abyss of uncertainty and disappointment.

And so the first year of this real life stretches into the second, and I march forward, picking up a little more experience with each step.

Dispatch from the edge of recession: the in-between.

The in-between: in which I have an emotional breakdown and lament on the trials of the day

I hope that years from now this phase of my life seems really carefree, days upon days of taking time at my own pace, and that my worry and fear will appear silly in the face of the career I am in. I will be able to look back and laugh confidently, wondering why I ever doubted myself, my goals, and my hard work and perseverance, because, of course, it would all work out. It will seem funny, youthful, and I will wonder how I didn't enjoy all that freedom a little bit more.

It is hard to enjoy freedom when you haven't figured out the end game. Bills need to be paid. I love the life I have and the people and pastimes and little bits in it, and I want it to be able to continue; that means, employment.

That's a lot of pressure. Days tick away, one after the other, and I have no resolution, no out to save me at the end of this little game, of this not-working thing. I have been blessed with a connection that lead to the current project I am doing, archiving the 1960s-era falling-to-pieces scrapbooks of a woman who lives in Buckhead, which has gotten me through August.

On top of that, I've been working on the bindings of some quilts that a local woman (Ellen Baker) is featuring in her forthcoming quilt/sewing book, and I'm even getting credit in the resources section. Had I not been in this in-between situation, I never would have approached others for outside-the-box ways to use my skills to earn money, and I wouldn't have been involved in this project at all. Instead, I have done two quilts and am working on a third.

When I think about opportunities and the proverbial doors and windows opening and closing, I know (well, I really hope) that this period of pause is really because the right thing hasn't arisen. Maybe I still have to work a few more shitty jobs in order to really appreciate the life that is ahead of me. But that doesn't make it any easier for my pride or confidence when I ponder walking into restaurants and the mall to inquire about minimum-wage work. I have two degrees. As I said, maybe someday this will all be funny. I can write about it in my memoir, laughing lazily on the other side of all this, a la Stephen King and Tina Fey. It was immensely pleasing to listen to both their memoirs on audiobook, as each of them reads his and her own to you--it's like having a conversation with them--and hearing them recount the jobs they had on the way to their lifetime jobs. Stephen King did the laundry for hospitals and restaurants--all blood and maggots and old food--and it truly calmed me down. At the time, last summer, I was working at the worst job I've ever had, in miserable conditions, and I was probably truly depressed (a first in my life). I just hated my job so much, I was viscerally angry at work. It helped having Stephen and Tina to remind me that, yes, when life sucks, you do appreciate the good so much more when it comes along.

Likewise, as I am facing now, when life is a giant, enormous question mark with a blurry and mysterious future beyond that, I will appreciate the security and steadfastness of the next chapter when it comes along. It is a luxury like no other to receive steady paychecks; what a peace of mind that is. I miss it. But, there is also liberation and sweetness in this edge of the comfort zone; nothing is stopping me from exploring other possibilities, in terms of what I want to do, what kind of work I like or want to try, and considering routes I might never have imagined if I had been able to hop cozily from school to professional life.

The in-between.

(Because did I mention, there are no jobs to hop into? I fit in no easy categories like "Healthcare" or "Engineering." Try finding the Public History category on a jobs site.)

It is easy to wax about how everything will work out, this too shall pass, take it one day at a time, relax, it will all work out. That doesn't make reality any easier though, really. Not right now, with no end game. Having a month of not working would be seriously excellent if I knew I was starting a job September 1 or something like that.

The stress of it all reached a head yesterday, quite unexpectedly and quite publicly. It began with something entirely unrelated to the terrible economy and the miserable job hunt.

I had to mail two packages, for Ben, because yes, he is employed (ugh). I do not to go the U.S. Post Office enough to ever remember that they do not share free tape and use of scissors with you. So if you don't have boxes in your homes to prepare before you leave, you must bring your own tape and scissors. The man at the counter was so rude to me, unwarranted, that it kind of spiraled out of control from there. I was pulling and ripping and finally tearing the tape with my car key, making a huge scene because I was so annoyed with this rude man. I used a pair of my own pants as packing material for this expensive package, because darned it anyone was going to provide any old newspaper for me there. By the time he was chastising me for having used the wrong type of tape on the wrong type of package (the tape he gave me!), I actually yelled back at him. If you know me, you know how surprising this is--it was surprising to me. I am very non-confrontational and I really try hard to give people in crappy jobs the benefit of the doubt. I am never rude to people even when I am really angry in a store; I just feel it leads all of us nowhere fast. I've been yelled at before working retail, and there's nothing to be done by it, no resolution. I am kind and helpful, but some people are just awful people who are angry. Not my problem. But I defended myself about this ridiculous issues with the tape. And immediately after speaking my mind, I broke down. Slow at first, but then I could not speak, and then, as the woman, the other postal worker, tried to fix the wrong-tape issue for me, the tears ran down my face and I was just outwardly crying. At the post office. Over tape and a mean man.

I should have known then there was a lot of emotion right at the surface, and it would have been best to just head home and call this day shot. But the tape thing didn't seem at all related to the job hunt, and it probably isn't, so I drove to do my next errand: return some public library books and then walk to the Georgia State University campus to utilize some of the resources of their Career Services Center.

Three minutes into a conversation with one of the career services counselors, I'm literally sobbing. Heaving. We're sitting at a long conference table in their open offices, and a couple of undergrads are waiting in their hoodies and sandals for their own resume help after me. Oh, but I am a mess, and they nervously sit there as the counselor ushers me off to a private little table where I can recollect. She had simply asked me why I was there. My own explanation was so depressing, so disheartening, so hopeless, I couldn't even explain myself without breaking down in tears, voice cracking, nose sniffling. Oh, how professional, Jessie; just put on your cute clothes and bring your cotton-paper resume down to the Career Services center and cry like a friggin' baby. I felt utterly ridiculous. I was also acutely aware of frightening the undergrads, who are still in that nice little coccoon of school, not a worry or care about how impossible it will be for them to find a job after graduation. Yes, guys, I've been applying to jobs and networking and tailoring my resume to every single job for nice months now, and applying to jobs I really felt qualified for, and I've had one phone interview.

Maybe the economy is always something people complain about, but I would like to submit a formal complaint to it right now. This sucks. Generation Screwed, as we were recently called. Maybe in ten years this will all be hilarious, and we will all be stronger and better-adjusted for it. That would be the least it could do, for all the underemployment it breeds now. It was never unemployment that scared me--I have always held down multiple part-time jobs and gotten top grades in school, finding a job wouldn't be too hard. Finding a job that is neither food services nor insurance sales--now that is the real and true challenge.

The staff of the career services center were all wonderful and helpful, and the woman in particular who helped me was very kind and supportive during my meltdown. I'm meeting with a guy later this week who will help me nail down some sort of plan on applying for jobs. Because apparently the plan I've been mentored to take for the past nine months is absolutely worthless. I do not feel confident that this will make much difference, but I damn well need to try it anyway, because October rent is calling already, etched out there in the not-so-distant future. I salvaged the day after a chat with my mom, as I just wanted to hear about someone else's life, and not think about my own for awhile. We eventually got on the subject of my two very public breakdowns within an hour of each other, and she suggested I also set myself up with career services at the Georgia Department of Labor. So I went to waited in line and got myself into their system of job postings and referrals. There are a lot of insurance sales positions on their job lists, too. Ugh. But there are a few tiny hopefuls too.

Leaving the Department of Labor office, I stopped at a trifecta intersection that has a Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and Caribous all facing one another and got myself a chai tea, which was my greatly needed sweet heaven and relaxation. (I went to Caribou, the one I find least often.) And I got in my car to drive back home and NPR was there with my daily reminder, my essential perspective on this wide world. I kid you not this is what I heard:

A 14-year-old girl in Afghanistan was recounting her plight: sold to another family when she was eight to pay off a debt, and married to a boy from that family at around ten, while being sexually abused by uncles and others in the family. A few years later, she is drugged and wakes up married to a different man in that family, and the assault continues. She tries to kill herself in the street at age fourteen, but someone stops her and takes her to a shelter for young girls and women. This girl is living in a culture where even when you work up the courage to defend your rights as a woman, the men in your family will strike down harder and with more violence for your wanting to defend yourself. It is a real and dangerous conundrum. While my problems are real to me, they did seem so small comparatively. Yes, that is true, I still have my freedom, I can speak my mind, I can even blog about it online, with my high-speed internet access in my own home. I can drive my car down to the resource centers that have been created to help people find work. And in a few days, I will be fortunate enough to be able to pay my own rent, with money I earned. That is quite a lot to be thankful for. Leave it to NPR to shake me back into a larger perspective. This too shall pass. One day at a time. Someday you'll back back and laugh.