6 Ways You're About to Get Screwed by the Job Market
Hey, grads! The world is about to fucking crash in on you.
I'm not trying to scare you or discourage you; I like adult life way more than college, and hopeless cynicism is an automatic loser. But you're about to enter a system that is so rigged against you that you'll think it's all an elaborate prank. I don't care how cynical you are, or how radical a Marxist your last professor was -- it still takes years to fully understand all of the devious little ways the deck is stacked in favor of people who aren't you.
So buckle up, because here's what's coming:
There's a Good Chance Your Degree Is Useless
Let's just get this out of the way: As a whole, our society is horrible at getting human beings into the jobs they're most suited for. Look around you -- you'll find yourself under managers who shouldn't even be trusted to manage a stuffed animal tea party, and you'll meet brilliant creative minds who are stuck spinning signs while dressed as Little Caesar. I'm no expert, but this might be because we demand that teenagers decide what they want to do for the next 50 years and then lock them into it by imposing massive financial penalties if they decide to change course.
So, Mr. College Graduate, want to know your odds of landing in a career that actually uses the education you just paid six figures for?
About 1 in 4.
"Sweet -- my major is so obscure, there's actually only one other dude doing it."
Yep, only 27 percent of graduates wind up in a job that requires their specific degree. (That's not counting graduate degrees. The success rate is higher for people who went to law or med school ... as is their level of debt.)
"Then why the hell did I just pay $100,000 for a bachelor's degree?" asks Mr. College Graduate.
Well, you hardly had a choice, considering your name is College Graduate, but also, as bad as things look for someone with a degree, you are absolutely fucked without one. This is the first way in which the system is rigged against you, and it's something that wasn't really true of your parents' generation.
You've wound up in a world where a college degree is a base requirement that's priced like a luxury extra. So, for the first time in history, in order to get a job as a secretary making $30,000 a year, you need a bachelor's degree that costs three times that. Even worse, the vast majority of you had to borrow to pay for that degree, and all told there is an astonishing $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in the USA alone. And of course, much of that debt is owed by people who are using their expensive knowledge to roll burritos at Chipotle, a job that itself exists only because the robot they built to do it got too depressed.
"I came from MIT for this bullshit?"
"Well, why the hell doesn't somebody do something about this? That can't be good for the economy."
Because the show is being run by Cranky Old People From Another Time (or COPFAT, from here on out), and if you complain about college debt, they'll say it's your fault. They'll talk about how they "worked their way" through college, paying tuition with nothing but a summer spent on a whaling boat and a weekend job mucking horse stalls. And they're better for it, by gum! They don't realize that the cost of college has gone up over 1,000 percent since then, while salaries for whale impalers have not. It's now impossible to pay for a university degree without some kind of help, in the form of either borrowed government money or rich parents. So, in 2014, you're not allowed to be a computer programmer unless you first take out a mortgage-size loan in order to attend a university that will require you to also take classes in medieval literature.
"I came to MIT for this bullshit?"
Then, at some point down the road, you may find yourself in a cubicle reading a memo reminding you that you're required to dress up as Cupid for Valentine's Day (because this office is all about fun!), and you'll think, "If I don't change careers, I'm going to flip out and murder all these motherfuckers." And then you find ...
Trying to Change Careers Later Is a Nightmare
Hey, when you were in school, did you notice how ... you know, old some of your classmates were? Well, there's a good chance that'll be you a decade from now. About 4 million students are over age 35, many or most of them people who graduated, went out and got dick-slapped around by the world for a few years, and then came back to try again. The average person will change jobs more than 10 times by age 42, and will change careers entirely multiple times. In a world where every career requires a degree, well, you know what comes next.
And if you're expecting the world to offer any assistance whatsoever in trying to get you back on course, think again, punk. Once again, the COPFAT will declare it's purely your own fault for picking a "worthless" major in the first place.
"Have you considered a major in whining? You could double with entitlement."
As for how exactly a 17-year-old was supposed to go about figuring out the right one, well, it's not clear. If you follow the advice of the COPFAT above and simply pick whatever major pays the most, by the time you graduate, you may find that the hiring landscape has changed radically (thanks to the sudden glut of people doing the same thing) and that, oh yeah, you don't actually have a talent for it. But what else do you have to go on when picking a direction in life? Television? Because shows tend to portray every aspect of life except the actual work people do (how much time do those people on Grey's Anatomy spend doing doctor shit?). The obvious answer would be to pursue what you love doing, but you're making that call based on what you love doing at age 17, and if you try to go to college to be a professional masturbator, you find out that oh God this isn't a college, is it?
"No, we shoot those scenes next week."
So, five years out of college, you try to change course, and right off the bat you find you're automatically cut off from government aid for low-income students -- sorry, that's a one-shot deal. You can get a student loan, maybe, if you qualify and your credit rating is good enough.
"But doesn't the economy need more educated people and fewer unemployed people and/or meth dealers? Why would they make it harder to be a productive citizen?"
Well, the problem is that somebody has to pay for your education or adult job training -- specifically, the COPFAT -- and you'll find their favorite hobby is kicking away the ladder they themselves just climbed. That's why the government recently made cuts in student aid and slashed nearly a billion dollars off of its job training program. "I didn't need no handout, damn it! If you want to learn another trade, just apprentice with a haberdasher, like I did!"
Speaking of which ...
Your Success Depends on How Much Work You'll Do for Free
Occasionally you'll see a news story about "wage theft," the extremely common practice among retailers and restaurants of finding sneaky ways to shave money off your paycheck -- adjusting hours down after the fact, fudging reporting to avoid paying overtime, that sort of thing. Those practices are illegal, and you might get the impression that fixing it is just a matter of complaining to the right person. Oh, you poor, naive child. The system is 12 steps ahead of you, and you've already fallen into its devious trap.
The first thing you're going to find out is that much of the wage theft that goes on isn't considered theft. This entire economic system is, in fact, based on how much free labor can be squeezed out of talented people before they rise high enough to demand payment. And if they never rise, they just keep getting squeezed. So write this down and stick it to your wall:
Success in this system is all about how much work you're willing to do for free.
Actually, you probably won't be making enough to afford walls.
They won't say this outright -- the way it will be phrased to you is that the really good employees "give 110 percent" or "go above and beyond." That is, a good employee is literally one who does work beyond what he or she is paid to do. Hell, how many of you have already seen this scenario:
Your fast food restaurant, which we'll refer to as TurdBurger*, closes at 9 p.m. You then have one hour to do all of the post-closing stuff (mop the floors, clean the grill, throw away all of the salads that are only on the menu for show). When the clock strikes 10, you clock out -- no matter what. You stop getting paid. Your boss, however, will give you more than one hour's worth of work to do in that span.
*New York Times best-selling author, ladies and gentlemen.
So when 10 arrives and you clock out, there are still tasks to be done. You now have two choices:
A) Be a good employee and keep working, unpaid, until everything is done.
B) Leave the tasks undone so that the morning crew will have to do them.
Now here's the trick: When your fellow TurdBurger workers come in the next morning and see that you didn't finish turning the partially eaten burgers into the next day's chili, they won't be angry at the company for failing to pay you overtime. They'll be angry at you for not getting your work done. You'll get a reputation as a bad employee. And if you don't eventually get fired, you will certainly never get that promotion.
Because you're so young when you get those jobs, you tend to take all that stuff for granted, like the fact that if the shift starts at 8 a.m., you're expected to be there, in uniform, ready to work when the clock strikes 8 ... which means you're required to arrive in advance so you can do all of the prep work off the clock. You'll also have situations where you have to supply your own work clothes, or use your personal vehicle, or outright pay for your own supplies. (Fun fact: The average public school teacher spends $500 a year out of pocket to do their job.)
"Then we had to sell our pockets to keep the history department alive."
Each time you'll feel like a good employee, like you're "giving 110 percent" or "going above and beyond," giving free labor to a company that would see heaven and Earth laid to waste before it ever gave you a free paycheck. If you do that enough, at some point you'll be tasked with doing work that's above your pay grade -- say, a supervisor is out, and as the most senior employee, you're asked to watch the floor. And you'll happily do supervisor work for cashier money, because you'll hope that will give you a leg up the next time a supervisor spot opens up. You won't be thinking in terms of the steep discount they're getting on your labor -- you'll be too thrilled that you've gotten the opportunity.
Of course, then you have the unpaid interns, people literally working for nothing, legally. There are about 2 million of those out there, people working purely for the experience, as if it's an act of charity for a corporation to allow you to do menial labor in their midst. And then there's this whole other tier of "sort of" paid interns that exist under the threat of unpaid ones. My first job was as a news producer for an ABC affiliate ... which sounds like a fancy job until you hear that it paid $5 an hour. They could get away with that, because they knew there were 50 more behind me willing to do it for nothing, knowing we were all using it as a stepping stone to a job in a larger market. Or to a career in writing about poop monsters, whatever.
"Well, that almost makes it sound like there's a huge advantage for people who can afford to work for nothing, due to rich parents or whatever." Bingo! Now you're getting it.
"Hey, I'm starting from the bottom having to fetch people coffee. Sure, I just pay another guy to do it for me,
but our struggles are pretty much the same."
I bet those same people also have way more diverse job choices when they know they don't have six figures of education debt hanging over their heads and can afford to take a position with no pay but super valuable experience/networking opportunities. How about that.
Hey, speaking of which ...
Someone Less Deserving WILL Get Hired/Promoted Ahead of You
Look, we're all counting down the days until technology allows us to live inside a video game. And by far the biggest improvement games make over real life (aside from the fact that you can get rich by smashing clay pots) is that in a game, advancement is based purely on merit. You get a certain number of experience points, and you level up. Real life is not like that.
"Hey, it's date number three, so I've unlocked 'sex,' right?"
Let's say you've shown up for a job interview, and you're sitting in a waiting room along with a half-dozen other people who've also made it to that stage. You're asking yourself, will your interview be the most eloquent? Is your resume the most impressive? Will they notice that your dress shoes are just sneakers you've spray painted black? But what you should be asking yourself is, "Do any of the other candidates know the interviewer personally?"
"There's got to be plenty of Carter Joseph IIIs and Carter Joseph IVs who haven't met."
Because that, friends, is the single biggest factor. More than 40 percent of workers got their job because they knew the right person (that is, by "networking"). For example, how did you do your job search? Did you look through public listings? Search a job portal website? Well, guess what -- 70 to 80 percent of jobs aren't even listed. The people who got them were either already in the company (see the aforementioned interns, who got in the door by being willing to work for nothing) or happened to hear about them on the golf course. What's that? You don't like golf? Oh well.
And once you've got the job, you'll find the same process repeating itself -- supervisors and managers are very big on promoting people they like. So in this world, attractive and tall people get promoted ahead of their shorter, uglier colleagues, regardless of qualifications. Managers and supervisors are going to promote people they're more comfortable around -- and if they're uncomfortable around weird people, or minorities, or gays, or anyone who's never gone out drinking with them, well, there are infinite ways to justify passing them over.
"She has fingernails exactly like my mother-in-law's."
"But some of that is discrimination! I'm sure of it!"
Maybe; it depends on where you are. But even then, good luck proving it. And once you get a reputation as a loud, complaining type, good luck keeping your job.
"Well then how in the hell am I supposed to get promoted when, say, the other candidates are a beautiful woman and the supervisor's golf buddy?"
It can be done. You just have to give 110 percent. Heh.
But also keep in mind ...
There's a Good Chance You'll Get Fired and Never Know Why
While we're on the subject of what is and what is not considered discrimination, every teenager or 20-something will, at some point, have the "They can't get away with that!" conversation. For me, it happened in high school, when a friend (you might know him) got fired from a warehouse job because he got a weird haircut. We were stunned. "They can't get away with that! You should call a lawyer, man! If that hairdo is good enough for Kid 'n Play, it should be good enough for Circuit City!"
That is the day when every young American learns about at-will employment. In short, it means that legally an employer doesn't have to give a reason for firing you. They can fire you because the boss doesn't like your face, or because he didn't think you were sexy enough or thought you were too sexy, or because he's a Celtics fan and you were heard saying you think sports are for stupid people (or replace basketball with religion in that sentence).
"All I told him was that Jesus probably had a weak-ass low post game."
Of course, in reality it probably won't be anything silly or nefarious. It'll be some budget reason, or the company needed a quick boost to its stock price. Either way, there's a good chance you'll get no notice and no severance -- I have friends who found out they'd lost their jobs when they showed up at the office and couldn't figure out why their security key card didn't work.
And, again, as you climb the ladder, you'll probably eventually wind up with a job that has some kind of guaranteed contract or the protection of a union, or (more likely) you'll just start doing a task so specialized that it will be very expensive and difficult to replace you. But at the bottom? All it takes is your boss being in a bad mood. And nobody cares that you quit a job to take this one, or moved across the country, or just put down a deposit on a new apartment.
"You can always make a new apartment out of those moving boxes you brought."
The economic theory behind it is that you will work harder if you're kept in a constant state of uncertainty and fear -- they don't want you to get complacent, after all. Otherwise, you might not take that work home with you and do it on your own time. You might not give 110 percent.
But if you stick with it, if you go ahead and help that customer after you've clocked out and answer work emails during vacations and holidays, you'll move up in the world. And then ...
At Some Point, You Will Find Yourself on the Dark Side
"Well, shit, if the system is rigged, let's change it!"
Hey, that's what your parents' generation thought, too! Lord knows it's what I thought 20 years ago. Better put on your Guy Fawkes mask and storm the streets! That will certainly be good news for the low-paid foreign workers who make those masks ...
... and Warner Bros., which owns the design and gets paid every time you buy one.
"But if enough of us complain, then they'll have to change things!"
Not if all of the people doing the complaining are poor. If you're not in high demand as a worker or consumer, the system doesn't care if you're disgruntled. Why would it? You aren't affecting their bottom line either way.
"Then we'll riot in the streets!"
Sure. Then you'll go to prison and do work for a corporation anyway, only now at 50 cents an hour.
But at least you'll have free walls.
"Well ... then we need to work hard and become middle- and upper-class people. When we demand change then, they'll have to listen!"
Yep, that's where the rest of us eventually land. But a funny thing happens once you climb the ladder.
Look, the system is very, very good at sustaining itself. It does it primarily by rewarding those who conform. So if you put in your unpaid time, stay quiet when someone is unfairly fired or passed over, and quietly eat the cost of your own education, you will be rewarded. And once you are rewarded, you will suddenly see things in a whole new light. And it really is night and day. The first time you have employers get into a bidding war over your services, or see a loan officer or real estate agent beg you for your business ... you won't remember why you were ever unhappy with the system in the first place. After all, doesn't it all work out in the end?
And you'll browse the day's news on your iPad and see a headline about the brutal work conditions at Amazon distribution centers or how the Supreme Court shot down a sex discrimination lawsuit against Walmart, and you'll think, "Hey, I used to work at a place like that. Good thing I paid my dues and got out of there!"
"Why don't they try pulling themselves up by their bootstraps like I did?"
Then you'll hear about some protest march on Washington or listen to some rabble-rousing populist and think about how much easier it is to take to the streets and burn a police car when you're unemployed. After all, what do those people have to lose? But once you've got a career, and a mortgage, and kids who need food and health insurance ... at that point, those protesters are just a bunch of dicks who blocked traffic and made you late for work.
And if you get a job in management, you'll start to see the other side of it -- how hard it is to find workers who know what they're doing, how many of them are addicts or can't even show up half the time (fun fact: I once supervised someone who managed to oversleep four times in one week). You'll find yourself judging how they spend their time and money ("Couldn't she have taken that Saturday overtime instead of going to that concert?"). Your grocery store will run out of Twinkies because of a strike at the Twinkie factory, and you'll get mad at the workers for striking. You'll see a homeless dude and tell your kids not to look at him. You'll hear about a neighbor going to jail for selling drugs and wonder why people like that don't get "real jobs."
You don't feel yourself becoming a COPFAT; you only feel the world becoming softer and more comfortable around you, and you'll be more and more confused as to why other people don't seem to feel the same way.
"BOOTSTRAPS! HUSTLE! GUMPTION!"
"Not me! I don't need this consumerism crap. I'm going to live a simple lifestyle and go off the grid!"
Sure, we all go through that phase, and that's good, because the system actually needs a certain number of people doing that. There's a whole market catering to them. Just remember that most of the methods of making money "off the grid" are illegal, so then you wind up in prison, giving them even cheaper labor. And you take yourself out of the competition for the really sweet jobs, which will then go to the rich kids instead. Again, your every possible reaction is anticipated by and accounted for in the system. This shit is chess, not checkers.
But you're probably not going to drop out and become a hobo, because if you're reading this, you probably like Internet access and air conditioning and cellphones and Chipotle burritos. So you'll play by the system's rules, like I did, and pay your bills and try not to make the parts of the world you touch worse than they were before. And, if you make it to the top, maybe you'll remember how hard and unfair it was and agree that the system needs to change.
Just not too much.
For things you wish schools should've prepared you for, check out 16 Lessons You Wish They'd Taught In School.
Related Reading: If you're not done going to dark places with David Wong, read these harsh truths that will make you a better person. If you'd rather have a little bit of optimism, let him tell you why the news makes the world look worse than it really is. And if you're still reading, why not check out the ugly lessons hiding in every superhero movie.