The final semester of my master’s degree is upon us – or I should say “upon me”, because however weird that sounds I have no illusions about the fact that I am navigating this road to “nowhere in particular” all by my lonesome – and I have returned to Amsterdam. When I left, most of the master students ahead of me were wrapping up their theses. Some of my friends were applying to or finishing their own degrees and starting new jobs. Life seemed somewhat simpler for everyone around me.
Six months ago, I was scared but hopeful about treading new waters and experiencing a new kind of life. Six short months ago, I was day-dreaming about how much living in New York City was going to be a total game-changer for me, academically. Six exciting, amazing, inspiring months went by and being back feels a lot like being met with a cold rain shower. I seem to have returned to Amsterdam to find my age and/or life-phase counterparts in somewhat of a collective rut. Instead of that fuzzy and warm feeling of familiarity you get when you return home, I feel a little distraught by all the negativity in my surroundings. To be fair, I may just be noticing it more now. Maybe I lived in the land of positive-thinking for a little too long. Still, there’s something to be said for the harsh negativity I have encountered upon my return. And here’s why I worry.
The year I finished my bachelor’s degree I experienced somewhat of a panic. It was the year I turned twenty-five and apparently a “quarter life crisis” is a real thing now, one that is particularly salient since the economic down-turn that my generation inherited from the last. I realized, at the end of my bachelor’s, that I’d built up a little student loan debt – nothing of American proportions, mind you, but still sort of overwhelming when you have no idea where your post-university employment will come from – and that I had just bought myself two more years at university. I started questioning whether having chosen to loan money instead of working part-time so I could focus on my studies was the smartest of moves. I started worrying about job prospects post my two degrees and whether grad school was such a logical choice after all. But also whether working in academia, something I had started to be so sure I wanted by that point, was just a pipe dream. Not to mention my insecurities about my social life. I had recently –two to three years prior – reinvented myself as a dedicated student and generally mellow person who wasn’t in that whole “I’m twenty-one/two/three, let’s do shots” mode anymore. Was this new person really me or was I just a phony? It was a turbulent and contemplative few weeks.
Following the start of my “quarter-life crisis”, I finished my bachelor’s program with a thesis graded in the 90th percentile. I was beyond proud because that grade meant that everything was going to be just as planned and I had, once again, hope for the future. I had it all under control. But soon enough everything that seemed so positive about my life choices started suffocating me. I began to drown. And as I started my master’s things didn’t get any better. They actually got much worse. The pressure of wanting to succeed, but realizing that the program wasn’t exactly like I had expected, really brought me down. I couldn’t bring myself to breathe normally anymore. Heart palpitations were a daily occurrence. I was angry, aggravated and frustrated all the time. I had one or two incredibly embarrassing rage outbursts in public, followed by frantic crying.
I was convinced I had made the wrong choice of program, but I wasn’t about to back down. I was doing very well and I figured my program still sounded good on paper. I did choose to stick with it, but it took a lot out of me to come out of that rut. To carve out my own little space at university and to fly off to New York feeling hopeful and optimistic again. And in spite of many doubts and hiccups it has been an invigorating, absolutely priceless year and a half. But my point is that thanks to these experiences of despair – that I wish upon no one – I know a thing or two about freaking out and feeling hopeless. Even flirting with mild depression. I never thought I would fall victim to the kind of deep-rooted pessimism some people are forced to live their lives with, but alas. I was lucky enough to get over it with some minor steps that made a big impact on my well-being. Nonetheless, I have a hell of a lot more understanding and compassion for those faced with this kind of heavy negativity brought on by contemporary living. It’s also made me very wary of the structural conditions that drive young people into these downward spirals in the first place.
The number one structural factor behind the collective rut that I see in the Amsterdam youth today is the economic depression caused by the market crash of 2008. The Euro zone’s rapid decline has resulted in unemployment figures that disproportionately affect the young and provide us with much bleaker futures than the one we had hoped for. Coming back from the so-called land of opportunity, characterized especially by its culturally positive outlook on setting high goals for oneself as to achieve that good ol’ American Dream, the overall negativity of my peers back home has been the biggest culture shock that I have experienced so far.
I came back energized, excited, and ambitious, open to opportunities that I may not have thought of before but also with much more capacity to cope with drawbacks – god knows New York’s rough around the edges ways made me humble. I guess I just never expected to find my Amsterdam folk so down and out. In absolute, material terms we’re probably in exactly the same position. And yet I refuse to buy into this pessimism. This acceptance that things are shit and therefore giving up before even trying. Speaking of my wants and wishes to any and everyone has been a real downer. Multiple people warned me not to get my hopes up about any job/PhD/traineeship applications, telling me story upon story of young people they know to have failed at whatever I am interested in doing.
It’s a little annoying but, in all honesty, it is also kind of worrisome that it seems to be so widespread. Not for me and my future – I seem to have tamed that little monster, for now at least – but for young people’s collective well-being and coping capacity through these undeniably though times. I do understand the panic because it used to be that if one’s dream job wasn’t at arm’s reach, all one had to do was wave their resume outside and jobs would come flying in through the window – this might be a slight exaggeration, but even as an inexperienced high-school educated 18 year old in 2005, I had jobs that I shared with 30-somethings without really having to try all that hard to get them. And now thousands of educated young people apply for entry-level jobs and get rejected every single day. So I get it, I do. It’s simply not the world that we grew up in and it’s also not the world we were in many ways promised at the beginning of our long list of life-choices which, had we been able to predict the future, may have been a little more pragmatic. I say “we” – and please add a little nervous laugh to the sentiment expressed in these sentences – because that, too, has been my reality. So what makes my perspective on these dark times more positive than most, you ask?
Maybe the difference is that I look at this situation from the perspective of someone who has seen far worse. But also witnessed progress and change in terms of the labor market of other countries where the situation was, frankly, much direr. I believe that the current fatalism of my fellow Amsterdam youth is perhaps most likely the fruit of unquestioned privilege. Life has been so incredibly prosperous for this country and continent for all of our young lives that it’s hard to imagine anything else. For most of my generation’s life, the livin’ was easy, the fish were jumping and the cotton was high. But those days are, at least for the foreseeable future, pretty much over. And what now?
The way I see it, this may be a scary and, perhaps most of all, very different time for young Amsterdammers. But it’s not terrible. The job market may currently not be great, but it’s only really terrible in relative terms. And it’s also very good in relative terms – for instance in comparison to other Euro zone countries. It’s all a matter of perspective at this point. This doesn’t mean that the hardship that young people are going through should be down-played at all. It’s just that it helps to stay positive and ambitious and to remember that hardship makes for better success stories once it’s been overcome. (Cue to cheesy, positive speech, American movie music) Think of the stories your own parents or grandparents told you. Which stand out? The ones where everything worked out, or the ones where they worked their asses off and made it out alive? Hardship has been known to breed creativity too. Privilege is a hard thing to give up and I really should know. But pessimism, fear and constant re-telling of sad tales of overwhelming failure just cannot be the solution to our problems.
Young people of the world: I urge you to put your lives and hardships into perspective. Don’t let the pressure get to you and come to terms with the new reality that we’ve been presented with. Many more of us are capable and educated than ever before. Competition for scarce jobs is awful and rejection is humiliating, but right now it’s kind of inevitable. And most of all, remember this is not your fault. You didn’t design the system that failed you, but it is up to you to be part of the generation that rebuilds it.
If we are, in fact, an entire generation of over-qualified brats, then I have no doubt in my mind that can certainly do it.