Graduating into a bleak landscape
Mind Moves: We need to listen to, not pity, our young people
The allocation of third level places to Leaving Cert graduates has been generating a lot of anticipation recently, but many young people emerging at the other end of these courses are looking at life with a sense of helplessness and frustration.
“I was told I was bright, that I could do anything, be anything;” “I did what I was expected to do and got a good qualification;” “Now I am just someone who no one wants around, with no idea what to do with myself.”
These quotes are from young people in their mid-20s. I imagine many others echo their feelings across Ireland. What do we to say to these emerging adults? They are our best-educated cohort of people their age who we’ve ever had. They worked hard and kept their part of the bargain. But far too many of them are feeling that their futures have been robbed before they have had a chance to live.
As I say this, I hear myself beginning to see them as victims and yet that doesn’t help them face their challenge. We need to show that we care about our young people and we need to hear their anger. But they don’t need pity.
As a parent of a young person who is frantically looking for work, I feel the pain of parents everywhere who are searching to find the right words. He grew up hearing from the media and great writers such as Joseph Campbell that he should follow his heart, and now he wonders what that’s supposed to mean.
My difficulty in speaking to any young person without work is that in my entire life, I have never known this experience.
The late Con Houlihan gave me my first job when I was 13. I cycled around 10 soccer pitches in Clontarf picking up match results on a Saturday afternoon; I also assisted reporters at rugby matches by taking their fresh copy and racing to the nearest coin box where I would spell it out to listening typists, hoping they would hear me with all the ambient noise.
I could earn close to a pound for an afternoon’s work, buy an LP and still have change. A series of part-time jobs bankrolled my adolescence and when I graduated there was a modest job which kick-started my career.
So I don’t know exactly what to say to a young person today. No one knows how hard it is not even to get the courtesy of a rejection letter. Sometimes they double-check their internet connection because there is no reply to the hundreds of application letters they have sent out. As a parent I want to say something: I know this situation is awful. I see how bleak the landscape looks. And there are any number of reasons why you find yourself in this mess. But the most important thing you need to know is: it is not your fault.
More than ever before in your life, hold on to a belief in your own ability and worth.
You’ve got tough decisions to make. You may have to choose to take a job that seems menial given your talent and qualifications. Maybe you have to emigrate. Maybe you have to consider further education or working for nothing as an intern. Keep your mind loose. Don’t think of work as a particular kind of job. Work is something that allows us to engage in a structured way with other people. It is wherever you can learn basic skills about suiting up, showing up and taking direction. It is wherever you can experience making some contribution no matter how humble that may seem.
The skills you learn in the process are never wasted. They form the basis of whatever career you make for yourself. Being with other people always teaches you something about yourself. And being with people may create an opportunity to feel you belong, which is what you and every other human being yearns for.
Whatever you do, don’t give up on life. Don’t stop living. There is always something on offer that doesn’t cost money, and that allows you to express yourself, to learn and to grow. Believe in yourself. Use whatever limited resources you have to nurture whatever helps you to feel alive, be that sports, or music or helping others.
Most importantly, stay connected. You don’t need to go it alone.
Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health ( headstrong.ie)
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times. Headstrong would like to thank the Irish Times for their ongoing support.