I remember my first day of year eight in secondary school. The teacher sat the class down and told us exactly why the year was important. The year would decide which SATs groups we would be in; which would decide what GCSE exams (mid, lower or higher) we would take; which would decide which colleges would accept us and our A-level grades; which would decide if we could go into university and if so which one. The point is that since I was 13, getting a degree was what the majority of education (and this was in a comprehensive) was geared towards. A degree was seen as the golden egg of achievement, after which the world and its innumerable opportunities would all be open to me.
Fast-forward to the present day and we are painted a very different picture. The Graduates in the Labour Market 2012 report, found that in the last quarter of 2011 approximately one in five new graduates (those who graduated within two years of the survey) were unemployed. Furthermore 36% were doing a low skill job (bar work or cleaning), an increase of 10% over the proportion of graduates doing such jobs in 2001.
Since this reality doesn't quite match up to what we were told during school, I decided to ask a few university students their expectations concerning life, specifically their professional life, after graduation. I also tracked down some friends who had recently graduated to see what they were doing, earning, and whether their career was shaping up just how they had imagined it would. I somehow doubted this would be the case.
The students, far from being starry-eyed optimists ready to take on the world, seemed to approach the future with a level of cynicism usually reserved for Richard Dawkins for when he is watching an episode of Ghost Hunting with Derek Acorah. Many predicted that even a year after graduation they would be living at home and in an unpaid internship or low skill job. Most hoped, rather than outright assumed, that they would be in a job they enjoyed. There was one exception, who expected to be a postgraduate earning £40k a year. Ironically she also claimed, "If there's one thing university has taught me, it's assume nothing."
The thing is, is that most students in university today started after the 2008 financial collapse hit the UK. They've been repeatedly bombarded by the media with images of the economy becoming an economic wasteland, where graduates with doctorates wait tables and fold clothes. So their cynicism is unsurprising.
What is surprising is the comparative level of relative optimism in the graduates; though all bar one said they were earning less than they thought they would. Some of the graduates hated their job, some loved their job and some compared their job to eating a bucket of coleslaw: great at first but over time it begins to take a toll. But in all cases most were looking to the future.
The jobs they currently had were seen as merely stepping stones towards a better job; or a temporary solution to the long-term problem of paying for one's existence or to having enough money to live the dream (one guy wanted to put together a militia of disaffected graduates and buy a bus to carry them around on holiday). The fact is that as a graduate, you realise that on leaving university you are confronted with a ladder infinitely longer, more complex and scarier than the one you had to climb in education. This means that even more optimism and drive is required to tackle it.
Also, though a degree may not be the magic key you thought it was while you were ploughing through GCSE geography (hands up anyone who has found a use for their intimate knowledge of how oxbow lakes are formed), it makes the climb towards getting a decently paid enjoyable job a lot easier. Graduates still have a higher earning potential and higher levels of employment than non-graduates.
So to all students I say this: relax and take some time on a little introspection about what you want to do. And don't be overly-cynical about the future. Also, spend a few days enjoying a really strong drink, at noon, in your pants, while watching cartoons. I guarantee you will not be able to do this after you graduate without feeling a horrific level of self-loathing.