gra-dult-hood n.

1. A stage in life between graduation and adulthood.
2. Gradulthood often involves jobs that don't fulfil a graduate's expectations.
3. A term coined during the recession.

Where do the gradults go?

Guest written by Neal Wallace (@nealjwallace):

Work hard in school, they said, and you can go to university. A good university, at that. Try your best in university, and you're guaranteed a job – you just need a degree. A simple, mechanical process. As more and more are finding out, this is not the case. At 16 you were top of the class, at 21 you're top of the scrapheap.

In the early 1960s only one out of every 20 school leavers went on to university, making graduates instantly stand out. In 2010, that figure was almost 1 in 2. Degrees are becoming increasingly devalued, with some universities offering the most bizarre of academic qualifications. This includes (these are all real) Zombie Studies, How to train in the Jedi Way, Philosophy and Star Trek, The Phallus and, of course, A History of Lace Knitting in Scotland.

A boom in employment in the earlier part of last decade saw many big corporations offering 'graduate schemes'; jobs tailored specifically for the graduate. This meant it didn't matter what the degree was in; all that mattered was that the candidate was a graduate.

What are these ubiquitous graduate schemes, though? There are quite literally hundreds, if not thousands of them, and they all profess to offer the same thing. Big salary, lots of perks, in return for selling your soul to a company you know little about. Call me cynical, but that's what I see when I read an advert from a conglomerate cosmetics company for Junior-Graduate-Regional-Analysis-and-Sales-Intelligence-Assistant-Manager. So, selling stuff to people in fancy business rhetoric.

One of the most oft-referred to of these pathways to adulthood is Aldi's, the budget supermarket. For graduates at Aldi: “Only the best will do. It’s a philosophy that has made us a driving force in retail. And now we’re looking for outstanding graduates, born leaders possessing the drive and ambition to succeed in a demanding and fast-paced environment.” For that they offer £40k a year, an Audi A4 and all sorts of other trinkets and doubloons. Seems good, except rumour has is they have their graduates working well over 70 hours, 7 day weeks in the back end of beyond. Which is fine, because, it would seem, thousands of graduates have dreamed of becoming an area manager for a budget supermarket all their life. That's why the competition is so fierce.

All this begs the question: is applying for a graduate scheme giving up, or growing up? That stark realisation that maybe becoming an astronaut or a fighter-jet-pilot is probably not going to work out, and that these aspirational careers are left only to the very gifted and very lucky.

David Laverty graduated last year, and managed to get himself a place on a large IT company's scheme for non-IT graduates. David wanted to be a footballer when he was growing up, or an architect. So why IT? “To be honest, after graduating I applied for most positions available and so I can't say that there was one particular factor that drew me to this position. I saw the scheme as a genuine opportunity to gain a full time job as I would only be competing with other graduates for the position as opposed to the wider competition in the general job market.”

Matt Cowburn's another recent graduate on a large supermarket's graduate management scheme. His reason for taking the job was simple: “The money”.

It seems that more and more graduates are taking this route to escape perpetual gradulthood. But is selling product for a multi-national really any more fulfilling and worthy of a career than working in a pub? Matt seems to think not: “Living the dream? Far, far from it. The job demands are ridiculous and it isn't what I want to be doing, but I needed to start some sort of career.”

For Matt, there's a disparity in they way graduates are treated on a day to day basis: “Grad schemes seem to me to be a promo-exercise, to say, “Look, we invest in youth” but really they don't know what to do with grads. When it suits, you've got to use your initiative and be a leader of the future, but then when it suits them you're a 'grad'.”

Dave McCourt graduated with a degree in journalism in 2008, and since then he's driven across America, inter-railed around Europe, travelled across The Gambia and skied in the French Alps, all funded by pulling pints in his local in Manchester: “Working in a bar is a great way to accumulate cash whilst keeping your freedom to travel. A grad-scheme may give you 28 days holiday, but you're not spending a month driving the east coast of America in July (as I did) and still having a job to come back to. So for what I wanted, it was a perfect compromise.”

“I wasn't ready to start the next phase. I was terrified of started a job that I was going to be doing for the next 20, 30, 40years. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be a gradult. I kept thinking, if I sit in an office doing 9-5 for however many years from now, I'll commit suicide. In hindsight it was a short-sighted view but I hated the idea of being a another suit who talks about mortgages and eats microwave dinners.”

Graduate schemes are seen by many, including David, as an interim: “I see this job as a short term solution until the job market allows for me to go after a job I really want. However, I am fairly settled in the position now and would see no problem working there longer than I originally intended.”

It's probably also true that, to an employer, four years on a graduate scheme will look better than four years of limbo. And it's not all bad. Schemes often give vindication for doing a degree that wouldn't necessarily lead to a specific career. Andy Hopkins loves his job on the Sainsbury's management scheme: “I have ended up in a role that I'm very happy to be in for a company I'm proud to work for. This route may not have appealed to me a while ago as I just assumed I'd end up in an office environment. At the end of it, if the company or the role isn't for you; you have had the training and experiences to be a worthy candidate for plenty of other roles and organisations.”

This all leaves graduates without a vocational or career-specific degree a difficult decision. Risk slipping into a post-studentdom malaise (and is that really so bad?), or carve out a career in something new, with the potential of being either greatly rewarding or insipid and monotonous. The role of a degree appears to be changing: from the pursuit of academic enlightenment to another tick on the CV, a job route. It seems like that's what getting a degree means now As Billy Bragg once sang: “Qualifications, once the golden rule, are now just pieces of paper.”

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