The Utter Helplessness Of Looking For A Job In The Middle Of A Pandemic
I have gone through the five stages of grief, in varying degrees, with every rejection - denial, anger, indifference, acceptance, and moving on. And still I have persisted, despite a heaviness consistently weighing on me.
“Dear candidate, thank you so much for your interest in working with us. We have reviewed your application and we are sorry to inform you that you have not been selected on this occasion. Best wishes for a successful job search”, popped an email in my mailbox.
It felt frustratingly familiar. It was yet another addition to a barrage of other such emails lying comfortably in my inbox. I have lost count now. That’s not true. I know the exact number - it runs in three digits - but I am not ready to come out with it. Not yet!
Strange are the machinations of the mind. I dream of making the big revelation someday, perhaps as a keynote address, during the commencement ceremony for a class of graduates, ready to take on the world. After all, I was one not long ago. But all I was told was that a beautiful future lay ahead of me and with a degree from one of the best schools on the planet, I was already set for soaring to new heights.
But here’s what they don’t tell you. The transition from graduate school to landing your dream job is a bumpy ride full of speed breakers that sometimes come without any warning. For a vast majority, the so-called 'dream job' is a mythical construct, transgressing the realms of space and time. As for me, I inhabit the liminal space that lies between the two.
I am sure I am not the sole in-betweener, for the first thing that unemployment and incessant rejections teach you, is that you are ordinary.
In what seems like a cruel irony of fate, I am only discovering my ordinariness now - few years too late! When you grow up in India, it is hard to believe that you are anything but extraordinary. A part of this delusion emanates from living under the aegis of Indian parents, ever so often longer than it ought to be. Indian parents are a rare breed. They are meticulous planners, often to the point of obsession, and even before their child is born, they have an entire career chalked out for him/her (other pronouns don’t exist in their imagination).
For the uninitiated, the veracity of my claim can be confirmed by spending an evening watching a mainstream Hindi film. Alternatively, try talking to a fellow classmate from this part of the world and you’ll know why half of us end up doing what we do. But it’s not as grim as it sounds. There are unusual perks of being born in an Indian family. In exchange for carrying the weight of parental expectations on your shoulders, you have an unending supply of mouth-watering delicacies and frequent bouts of pampering. Even your laundry is done and hefty tuition fees paid for. Mine are no different.
I, in return, turned out to be the epitome of a 'perfect' kid or as perfect as it could get as per the prescribed notions of Indian-ness. I would routinely stand first in my class, win accolades in ‘acceptable’ extra-curricular activities and remained very much rooted in my culture, maintaining strict social distancing from ‘those immoral kids’. As was expected of me, I went on to study at some of the best universities in India and abroad, consistently ranking amidst the toppers in my cohort. I was a certified success. How could I not be? I was the custodian of a million dreams, some of which I cannot recall exactly as to when they became mine!
After a rather eventful time abroad, I decided to move back home. My visa had run out and I decided it was time for a change. I packed up sixteen months of my life in two suitcases and moved back to the nondescript town I was born in. I had big dreams of moving to another country after a few days of rest at home. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. I had set out to create my utopia but instead stepped into a dystopia. The anticipated itinerary fell flat on its face, having met an unannounced pandemic on the way, leaving a lot of crushed hopes and dashed dreams in its wake.
At a time when thousands of people across the world have lost their jobs, many furloughed and yet others facing looming redundancies with unemployment rates seeing a meteoric surge, I find myself in an awkwardly cushy situation. I have a roof over my head, food on my plate, and immediate needs taken care of.
Somewhere, there is relief – of not having to plan every meal or not sharing a cramped apartment with detached flatmates. Sometimes, I feel blessed that gone are the days of last-minute rushed trips to the supermarket and the launderette. On most days, I count my blessings to have comfort food at my disposal, as opposed to whipping up something that looked like a meal from whatever leftovers I could salvage from the refrigerator.
However, the reality that I am an adult who is heavily dependent on my parents - living in their house and living off their money - crushes me apart on some days.
And though they have been overindulgent and immensely understanding, I can see that they are running out of patience. The thought that all their hard-earned money could lead to no dividends is difficult to come to terms with, and understandably so. Furthermore, pandemic notwithstanding, Sharma ji ka beta never falls short of setting high expectations and raking in the moolahs. How dare you fall short then?
Where I come from, social boundaries are blurred, neighbours are pesky, and success is relative. While everyone is going through a bit of a rough patch, it is hard to not take all of this personally. The worst part of not having a conventional job, despite having a good-enough education, especially as a woman, is that you are written off too soon with unsolicited advice such as “naukri nahi karni to shaadi ki taiyyari karo” (if you're not getting work, get married) pouring in from all corners.
On some days, I nonchalantly shirk off this advice but there are days when I lock myself up in the room and howl my lungs out. Yet there are days when I find myself staring at the ceiling endlessly as though that will help me chance upon a divine reason for my misery. To top it all, the pandemic has stripped me off the choice of running to my friend’s home and crying on her shoulder. It helps to have someone just listen and nothing can ever be a substitute for human touch.
I have long shied away from sharing my trials and tribulations with my parents – the only human presence I have at my disposal currently – because the fear of their breakdown is even more anxiety-inducing and something I can take no more of at this point in time.
Besides, spending a lot of time with my parents has only alerted me to their humanness. As they say, when you get too close to something, the cracks begin to show. In my case, the endless conversations about their past, their struggles, and their compromises have impressed upon me the banality of life. How, the fact that I was told I could be anything and achieve anything, was little more than a sweet lie. For when you live with parents beyond a certain age, their own thwarted dreams and aspirations get foisted on you and inadvertently, you see from close quarters what it means to change the course of life midway, and make adjustments and compromises.
The point of this apparent venting is not to divulge personal details of my life on a public platform so as to invite pity and sympathy. It is merely to give an inkling of the hundred other things one has to fight while looking for a job in these exceptional circumstances. The anxiety is nerve-wrecking, so much so, that sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating profusely and overcome with the fear of an uncertain future.
My days, by contrast, are filled with too much activity - searching and scouting for jobs, writing job applications while also networking, brushing up my resume, and simultaneously making time to upgrade my skills. They say this is all necessary to ‘position’ yourself as the ‘best candidate’ amid a sea of resumes that recruiters have to encounter on a daily basis. I have spent unsavoury hours browsing through job vacancies on multiple portals, even applying for roles I felt overqualified for.
I have over twenty versions of my resume in different formats and different styles. I can write a cover letter with the thoughtless dexterity of a seasoned professional, having gained the expertise in the last few months. I have been ghosted by recruiters even after clearing multiple rounds of assignments and holding my own in excruciating Zoom interviews. For good or for bad, Zoom interviews now leave me feeling morose.
When the lockdown began, I didn’t have the remotest idea that it would be so bad. Am I not armed with a swanky degree, experience in my kitty, and rousing passion to learn and unlearn? I thought I could march on, coming out fairly unharmed. I couldn’t have been further from reality. As dramatic as it may sound, I can tell you that I have gone through the five stages of grief, in varying degrees, with every rejection - denial, anger, indifference, acceptance, and moving on. And still I have persisted despite a heaviness consistently weighing on me.
LinkedIn has replaced all other social media sites for me. Even though the platform is plastered with well-meaning advice from sympathetic hiring managers, I have found hard to turn around my fortunes. And no matter how well-meaning it is, nothing can prepare you for the chaos and misfortune that accompanies a pandemic. If there is a rulebook on how to deal with a pandemic, no one knows where it is. For those asking to wait, it is easier said than done. For those asking to upgrade your skills, there is no end to that. For all those advising to take stock of finances, let me tell you, there are none.
We are a generation of hedonists with dreams and aspirations vastly different from those of our predecessors. For those suggesting that this could be the eureka moment we have all been waiting for to finally find the perfect job, let me tell you that the perfect job doesn’t exist. This time, above all, has exposed me to the deep-seated faults in our system - one which we are all complacent in creating.
Criticisms levelled against employers and systemic inequalities can seem a bit misplaced and unfair, especially when the world is reeling under a pandemic. But it would do everyone well to use this time to look inwards and introspect on how we can all emerge stronger and come together in creating a kinder, fairer world.
Ever since the onset of the pandemic, I have been hearing horror stories of friends being asked to resign without explanation from jobs they love and have worked very hard to get and sustain. Financial uncertainty and business obligations aside, these things could have been handled better.
Desperate times demand desperate measures but my grouse is with the callousness of the system which is broken on multiple levels. For instance, if you are sufficiently skilled and passionately curious, there is no reason why someone should not take a chance on you, especially when you are expected to take a pay cut and lower your expectations in light of the situation. I wonder if all those TED talks I sat through all my adult life actually account to anything in the real world.
While it isn’t uncommon for people to dole out sermons on how passion and perseverance are the only things necessary for a successful career, the fact is, most of the time you get judged on a piece of paper which is woefully inadequate in giving a full picture of who you are and what you are capable of doing.
We live in a world where certain tags can open doorways and connections work above everything else. We live in a world where some subjects are favourably looked upon while others are frowned at; where the quantity of experience trumps quality. We live in a world where following your passion means surviving on a pittance; where markers of your identity can act as gatekeepers to a beautiful future. We live in a world where scales are heavily tilted in the favour of the employer; where a privileged few earn more than half of the world's population combined. We live in a world where real issues get buried under the clutter.
Unfortunately, this pandemic has brought me frighteningly close to some of the ordeals I only thought happened to other people. I have sat through painful salary negotiations where I was offered one-fourth of the money I was making previously. I have had recruiters, and sometimes friends, point out that I have studied too much and for too long. Moreover, I have been admonished for asking for too much when I know that it is not the case.
Sometimes when you are pushed to a corner you don’t rise from the ashes but instead go on a downward spiral, especially when your self-image takes a beating. That’s something no one prepares you for.
While there is comfort in knowing that these are exceptional circumstances that are affecting several others, your fights and coping mechanisms remain fiercely individualistic. Everyone has their own threshold and saturation point which, no matter how hard you try, cannot be generalised. But there is another fact of life which I miraculously discovered during the pandemic – one is braver than one thinks one is. If nothing else, I am immensely proud of my resilience.
The fact that I put myself out there, every single day, is a marker of growth for me. I have also learnt the hard way that I simply cannot afford to be embarrassed about my needs and settling for something significantly lesser than my worth. It is not what I would be comfortable doing. If I did that, what right do I have to judge women in the public sphere for not doing enough to address the pay gap or gender disparity at workplaces? The burden of change cannot fall disproportionately on a select few.
Most importantly, I feel that the pandemic has made me wiser. I no longer seek to answer larger than life questions - questions no one can perhaps answer in entirety. Instead, I am learning how to embrace uncertainty one day at a time, no matter how unsettling it feels. I am doing all I can and the only thing perhaps left to do is to put faith into the effort and trust the universe to spin magic. With this thought and reassurance, I turn to another job application that is due tomorrow.
Disclaimer: Some elements are fictionalised based on the author's observations and conversations with people.
The author's name has been changed to protect their identity.