The Graduate: why it still speaks to overwhelmed gen Y

It’s a fifty year old film that’s parodied endlessly. Yet the re-release of The Graduate this year has never been more timely, as a whole generation grapples with post-university malaise and a sharp financial reality

Iona Bain

Graduates: bet you’re glad you paid all that money to go to university, right? You just seamlessly glide into jobs with decent pay, heady promotion prospects and a shiny company car. Oops – I just went back in a time machine to twenty years ago.

The truth is that graduates can no longer take anything for granted. Starter salaries for those leaving university today are actually lower than they were for the previous generation. Brilliant websites like Graduate Fog, meanwhile, highlight just how many employers try to exploit interns and those starting out in their careers. It shows that even the most sparkling graduates who unfurl from world-class universities as erudite sophisticates can be held back if they don’t have the right connections, a family who can financially support them or a place to stay rent-free (within commuting distance of Metropolis) while they spend their working days memorising coffee orders.

Indeed, my Young Money manifesto for the world of work shows more than a quarter of graduates today actually resent the dough they dropped on a uni degree and regret ever going in the first place. No wonder, when they start interacting with Workplace 2017.0 and realise just how poorly they were prepared for it.

But that’s a tragedy. We were (by and large) told to do a degree we loved for its own sake, and worry about how to “monetise” it later. I can’t say I always loved my degree (music) – in fact, I had some very hard times with it – but I’m glad I studied this subject in one form or another, and I’m grateful to have a degree from a good university. But I’m not so naïve as to think it was the start of a gilded life. I will always remember the speech at my graduation ceremony; we were told that “now was just the beginning of your education”.

But many of us DID labour under some cosy illusions about graduate life when we were at school. We were largely assured that the very act of going to university would render us employable for life. And not just employable in any old job, but a better job than our peers who opted for apprenticeships, vocational paths and the good old University Of Life.


Of course, it’s a *little* bit easier if you were one of those spooky children who always knew what they wanted to do. You go all Liam Neeson in Taken and acquire a very particular set of skills and/or you go hell for leather down a particular path, emboldened by your determination and single-mindedness.

But many young people are like me; never giving a second’s thought to adult life until it happens. Those who are still trying to figure it all out are doubly screwed. Ideally, you want a bit of time and space to make mistakes, pursue different opportunities, discover more about yourself and still enjoy a bit of your youth before it evaporates in the white heat of careers, council tax and (eventually) baby puke.

But the pressure to hit the ground running is immense. Today, many students can find themselves having to make some quick and hard decisions as soon as they’ve thrown their mortarboards in the air (although that only happens in ridiculous US films, I know).

Speaking of ridiculous US films, graduates today certainly don’t have the same luxury as the titular character in the classic 1967 movie The Graduate. Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) just pootles back to his parent’s swish gaff and basically spends a whole summer romping with Mrs Robinson, getting into a complex love triangle with her daughter and gate-crashing weddings.

It’s lots of fun and surprisingly easy to watch (for a fifty year old film that has curled a bit round the edges). But what the film captures best is Benjamin’s complete aimlessness rubbing up against parental and societal expectations. Benjamin doesn’t know what he wants, represented memorably at the very end of the film. He has just interrupted the wedding of Elaine, they run off together and get on a bus. But their initial look of joy and mischief quickly gives way to blank looks; what next?


Benjamin is expected to take the advice of his elders. One says his career direction can be reduced to a word – plastics. But Benjamin has obvious doubts about who he is and how he will fit into the real world.

And I think that strikes a big, loud chord with many graduates today. Most are struck by an overwhelming sense of needing “purpose”. It’s not good enough to do a job that’s well paid or even well-respected. You have to do one that helps the world in some way (easy to quantify, right?) AND that you love with all your heart. Take the 80,000 Hours Charity, founded by Oxford University students back in 2011. It’s named after the number of hours worked over the average career, and it implies that every one of those could be spent doing the world (rather than ourselves) good.

According to a recent article in the Telegraph, the ethical careers advisory service helps students explore alternative career paths to the City and the Magic Circle, such as start-ups and software engineering that might be of societal benefit, while also suggesting ways to “maximise a salary” from traditionally altruistic career paths like nursing and the non-profit sector (So not so selfless after all!)

While taking issue with the idea that the non-profit sector is as selfless as nursing and teaching (note those six figure executive salaries at charities), I’m not against the idea in principle. In practice, it poses some serious moral quandaries. Which careers does 80,000 Hours define as “ethical”? For instance, in a world where (some very short-sighted) people are quick to denounce journalists as irresponsible purveyors of hate, would the media be considered an industry where people can make a major impact? Sort of, according to the article; “journalists are well-placed to circulate important ideas”. But what kind of ideas? The “right” kind of ideas? Convenient ideas approved by the social media mob and supported by the establishment? Or controversial and complex ideas that some might say are wrong or even “evil”?


Also, the fact that this service is based within Oxford University cannot be separated from its heightened (and some might say unrealistic) ideals. These graduates may well be able to have their pick of more ethical career options. But could someone from another university afford to hold out for more angelic pursuits in the first instance?

It doesn’t really help that the article mentions the example of Viktor Zdhanov, a virologist who successfully lobbied the World Health Organisation to eliminate small pox and helped save the lives of millions of people in the process. Inspirational, maybe – but where does it leave unsure graduates simply looking for jobs that will actually pay the bills and not prove unbearable?

While noble, 80,000 Hours (or rather the coverage around it) plays into the anxiety that many gen-Yers feel about careers. Your first job is almost certainly going to be a stepping stone, a learning curve or a try-out. Indeed, your whole career might pan out that way. Certainly, if you’re not learning or making mistakes, you’re not developing as a human being (let alone as a socio-economic unit).

But while you undertake that “journey”, you can feel a bit like a failure if your work doesn’t rival the work of Malala Yousafzai in world-changing importance.

If I think about it, I suppose I am within one of the career routes mandated by 80,000 Hours: advocacy. In my little way, I advocate for better financial education, better outcomes for consumers, a free press that can discuss difficult ideas without censorship, less debt and materialism, more sympathy for young people and their economic disadvantages, more saving and personal responsibility. Hopefully I do it in a non-preachy, non-wanky fashion. But that doesn’t mean my career path is free of ethical dilemmas. Indeed, I face them almost everyday. Nor does it mean that people agree with all the things I say and do.

In other words, whatever you do, it won’t be easy. You will have good and bad days. If you are a recovering perfectionist (like me), you will never feel like you’re doing well enough. You will always feel like you’re don’t match up to the standards handed down by the gods of social media. You will have many doubts about why you do what you do. And you will never, ever find the perfect career (and please never believe anyone who says they have).

But you just have to make your decisions good. Whatever you choose (or have to do), you can make the best out of it with your attitude. And you can certainly give yourself a massive head-start by deciding from the get go that you will NOT let low pay packets or economic downers define your approach to money.

Making the best of what you have, and doing whatever you can to grow rather than squander it, runs counter to so much of what we’re led to believe about true “success” in the world. But you *will* see through the myths surrounding the notion of a life well-lived. It’s up to you to choose whether you learn the easy(ish) or hard way.

Are YOU a confused graduate? Check back tomorrow for my guide on how to seduce employers (in a totally above-board way)…

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