When I graduated from university in May 2019, you could say that my confidence was at its peak. I was doing well in school, having settled into a rhythm across eight semesters. Completing the arduous process of writing an honors thesis and solving the seemingly insurmountable problems that cropped up along the way added to my sense of accomplishment.
For my entire life, performing well in my duties as a full-time student was perceived as the most valuable contribution to my parents while they provided me with everything that I could possibly need. To a certain extent, I had conflated my worth as an individual with my academic prowess. So after I submitted my thesis and sat for the final examination paper I would ever take in university, I had never felt more sure of myself.
When my convocation rolled around in July, I was deciding between stable government jobs that were somewhat relevant to my degree in Sociology or lifestyle writing jobs which offered more room for creativity. 23 and dizzy with the power to follow my passions early on in my career, I went for the latter. I clinched one that allowed me to receive a monthly remuneration while I worked on a freelance basis. After three and a half months, I was back on the job market in the middle of November. Since I had a few interviews lined up for when I came back to Singapore after a holiday, I thought it would not take long before I landed my next job. Boy, was I dead wrong.
At the start, I did enjoy the luxury of sleeping in, playing PS4 games and binge-watching dramas on Netflix. But as the number of interviews I clinched started to dwindle, I began to feel racked with guilt each time I caught myself enjoying the perks of being unemployed. Before I knew it, it was 2020. When my cousins found out I was still unemployed during Chinese New Year, they remarked, “Shiok! You had better treasure these days because you’ll have the rest of your life to work. [We] wished [we] didn’t have to work too.” Doubtful that they would truly enjoy being jobless for a substantial period of time, I could only muster a weak smile. After all, the idea of bumming around at home must seem appealing after years of being in the labor force. I also recognize it is not without privilege that I am able to live comfortably without a job; I have no real responsibilities, such as having to financially support my family and pay bills or student loans.
A job search is a tedious process filled with highs and lows, not unlike that of writing a thesis. I left all the interviews I attended with a false sense of hope or extreme mortification (tears were shed). Either way, the eventual rejections chipped away at my self-confidence and left me feeling defeated. So I re-adjusted my expectations and buried my initial reluctance to apply for internships, since the fields of my interest (i.e. writing and marketing) are not directly related to my degree in Sociology. Occasionally, my resolve to only apply for jobs that I truly wanted would weaken. Submitting applications gave me a false sense of comfort, as if the mere number of applications I submitted corresponded to how productive my job search was. But ultimately, I recognize that there was no point in proceeding with applications if the furthest I was willing to go was to submit my resume.
As the months passed, my family members and friends in my life remained encouraging and supportive. I often received the same advice and words of assurance from them, “You’re still young! Take the time to find something that you truly like.” Meanwhile, I developed a bad habit of checking job portals right before bed time— last-ditch attempts to make sure I don’t miss out on any openings. I would brood and sleep in the wee hours of the night, with the job hunt weighing on my mind.
As someone who based my sense of worth on the external validation that I received from school and work, being unemployed forces me to confront how our careers are tied to our identities and self-understanding in the modern world. It begs the question: If we cannot or choose not to define ourselves through paid labour, what then defines us? This is also a question that will follow us throughout our lives and resurface during retirement. I realize that how we choose to define ourselves as individuals is ultimately a personal decision, be it through a career title and/or a combination of identities like a partner, parent or creative. For the entire length of my formal education, I didn’t need to make that choice as I was defined by my status as a “student” and frankly, I have absolutely no idea what I wish to be defined by at this juncture of my life.
But what I do know is that I have to take the conscious effort to stop defining myself by my unemployment because that’s not all that I am. To invest in the small parts that make up the sum of my identity, such as my hobbies, volunteer work and relationships. To recognize that individual growth can exist outside of work establishments, no matter how small it may seem in comparison. To make sure that I am truly prepared and ready to take on the next role that I pursue.
Feature image by Stella Heng