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Not working but still thriving: how to make the most of unemployment

By Madeleine Ballard


Things will get better: they always do.

If you’d told me in December 2019 that I’d be spending 2020 at home, tackling my tottering to-read pile, mastering the art of bagel-making, rediscovering chess, and enjoying the midday sun over lunch, I’d have been pretty pleased. But, bagels aside, life has its challenges right now. Like many young people, I’m about to be jobless.


One in ten young people have lost their jobs during the pandemic, as the hospitality industry and other sectors lay off staff and companies cull their lowest-paid and most recently hired workers in an effort to survive. Like millions of others, I’m nervous about facing unemployment. I don’t know what I’ll be doing in six months’ time or how far my skinny first-job savings will stretch. I certainly hadn’t planned to leave my grad job less than a year in. 


With young people facing the toughest job market in over a decade, how can we collectively cope gracefully with so much uncertainty? 


I’ve thought about it a lot - especially as I prepare to fly home (the pandemic has made clear to me just how far away I am from my loved ones). What I’ve realised is that, while sometimes you need a tub of Ben & Jerry’s and an hour in the bath, it often takes more than a quick wallow to adapt to life-altering changes like unemployment,. So, here are some of the practices I have been using to embrace my temporarily work-free life; I hope these will always help you when Cookie Dough fails.


1.    Enjoy time to think


When I was in my second year of uni, during one of those long summer days on which I’d done nothing much except sip iced coffee and solve The New York Times’ crossword, it dawned on me that when I became an adult with a real job, I wouldn’t have any summer holidays. Instead, I’d work five days a week, even through the warm months. My days would be bracketed by rush-hour commutes and snatched gym sessions, like most of the adults I knew.


For many young people, it’s an enormous financial hardship to be out of a job, something I don’t wish to undermine. But being out of work, however unexpectedly, is also an opportunity to stop the grind.


This is something rare in adult life. It can even be an opportunity to rethink what you’re doing in your career. If you’ve just finished in a role, take the time to ask yourself, how was it? Were you happy there? How did it meet the expectations you had going in, and what did you learn? What are you not willing to compromise on in your next job? What are the priorities, and how will you make them happen? Before you look for a new job, or even know where to look, you need to know what you want. It deserves the thought you currently have to give it.

2.    Embrace time to experiment


Most people dream of doing something a little bit wild during their career. Maybe you want to sell your own jam, or give skiing lessons, or go back to school to learn French after years as an Accountant. In my case, I’ve always wanted to try freelance journalism, something that feels dangerous for someone so inexperienced. But suddenly, with the next few weeks looking woefully clear, I have a golden opportunity.


There are decades of your career ahead of you. You’re allowed to dabble.


What you do in the next six months does not have to determine the rest of your life - and it could be a chance to have a little fun. Alternatively, you could try searching for remote opportunities; something LinkedIn is crowded with at the moment. The post-pandemic world is much more tech-savvy, with employers realising that more jobs than anyone ever imagined can be done from a computer anywhere in the world. Fancy writing for an online magazine? It’s as possible from Dublin as from Sydney. Building a website for a South American company? You could do it from your bed in Sheffield. Picking up remote opportunities could give you a lot more freedom, and even promise some exciting travel for you, once travel is safe again. 


If you can afford it, now might even be a time to establish, join, or invest in a new company. Plenty of research suggests that unicorns are born in the dark; a raft of hugely successful start-ups were begun in the wake of the last recession. Maybe you could be part of the next Airbnb or Uber.


3.    Use the time to love


When I’m having a bad day, I go for a big run somewhere green. Then I call my friend Soph. Recently, there have been more bad days than usual - but at least I’m feeling loved (and getting uncharacteristically fit).


We need our loved ones. We need their hugs and high-fives and nudges, their joking elbows in our ribs and their shoulders under our heads. In the absence of touch, we need their voices and faces, their presence crackling down the phone or brightening the screen, their news and their mundanity, their generosity and their bickering. We need them especially when we’re not sure what’s next.


I’ve been trying to use this time to connect (and reconnect) with loved ones, something I would not have done otherwise. 


I have a weekly video call with my mum, who shows me what she’s baked and savours a post-dinner slice while I’m tucking into breakfast. I spoke to a school friend for the first time in years, marvelling at her familiarity despite life’s changes. This weekend, my flatmates and I are planning a Scrabble contest and a pizza lunch to make a celebration of Sunday. 


The pandemic - and all its attendant uncertainty - has reminded me how much I love this sort of thing. I expect to lean on the calls with friends, the family quizzes, and the Zoom rituals even more once I finish working. A thousand small examples of love and interest make any day, however bad, worth living. Make these moments happen and take notice of them.


4.    Allow for time to smile


A year ago, a well-meaning friend sent me a copy of Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage. I took it politely, leafed through once, and put it straight on the shelf. Then, during lockdown, the libraries closed and I found myself cracking its spine. Between the cliches and incessant peppiness, I read with real interest about the science of optimism. Keeping positive is, it turns out, key to overcoming challenges. Even the best of us slip up (think of Charles Darwin feeling stupid and hating everyone, two years after publishing On the Origin of Species) - but trying to feel good about the world generally helps you… feel good about the world. To echo a fleet of suspect self-care gurus, entrepreneurs, and inspirational mugs, do what makes you happy. Whether that’s learning to do yoga or eating way too much lasagna (and I recommend a bit of both), it’ll keep you afloat while you navigate a period of uncertainty.


It may seem an obvious point to make, but it can be easy to fill your life with stuff you don’t really enjoy, so you don’t have time to do those little ordinary things you really enjoy.


Instant recipes for happiness? A walk through the park usually helps me. Listening to your favourite upbeat music. Nibbling on a favourite snack. Lying in new sheets. A spot of window sunbathing. Singing to yourself. A snippet of hard exercise, followed by a lounge. Getting a good night’s sleep. A childhood movie. A packet of chocolate fingers. Things will get better: they always do.


Nobody enjoys uncertainty. Whether you were really enjoying your job, or it was just good to be earning, not knowing what lies ahead without it is hard. But like thousands of other young people, you will come through it. In the meantime, you know what to do.

Image by unknown Pinterest artist.


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