My cursor hovers back and forth over the email as I debate whether to open it now or at the end of the day—as though, if I pray enough before reading it, the contents of the email will change.
“Thank you for your interest in the TJX Companies, Inc.,” the subject line reads, in response to the application for a part-time associate position at Winners I’d made a few weeks earlier.
With a resigned sigh, I click open the email. The weight of disappointment builds with every line, pulling down both my shoulders and the corners of my lips. I move the email to a folder named Rejections—a folder that has grown fuller and fuller over the year that I have been foraging for a job.
I finished my degree at the University of Toronto in April 2020 and began job hunting in August. I have been searching for full-time employment for a year since, with nothing to show for it other than almost fifty cover letters, half as many rejection emails, three interviews, and zero offers. After sending countless job applications out into the void, just getting a reply—either acknowledging my application or rejecting it—feels like a victory.
I am not alone in my frustrating, fatiguing, fruitless job hunt: many recent graduates have been struggling to find stable employment in a precarious job market further devastated by the pandemic.
Even before COVID-19, new graduates needed to meet an ever-growing list of requirements in their search for full-time work—resumés and cover letters filled with specific keywords, proficiency with numerous programs, and several years of professional experience despite being a recent graduate. Stable jobs seemed further and further out of reach as industries increasingly opted to hire freelance or contract workers rather than full-time employees.
In the five years before the pandemic, the unemployment rate for Ontarians ages twenty to twenty-four oscillated between 8 and 12 percent. As the number of COVID-19 cases rose in Ontario, however, so did the unemployment rate, reaching a peak of 30 percent in May 2020.
While the rate has slowly decreased over the past few months as vaccinations increased and restrictions eased, it remained at 13.9 percent as of July 2021.
It is common for new graduates to wait a few years before finding a job in their industry; it is certainly common for many graduates in the humanities and social sciences fields to do so. However, it is not common for many new graduates to be job-hunting amid a global pandemic and the recession it has created. The pandemic has prolonged the waiting period many graduates go through. It has also—according to several research articles studying the economic impact of graduates entering the workforce during a recession—doomed them to reduced earnings for nearly ten years.
Recent graduates, in other words, are trying to set their roots down at a time when the ground isn’t just continually shifting beneath their feet but has become a sinkhole, threatening to pull them into an abyss of debt, depression, and despair.
In 2020, when Tristan Wheeler moved to Toronto with a degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia, he had a plan: find a job in communications or media while his partner pursued their master’s at the University of Toronto.
He started applying for jobs in mid-July. “I figured, Oh, this will be a two-month process,” he says. Almost a year later, he’s still looking.
“I’ve applied for, I don’t know, who knows, God knows how many positions in a variety of industries,” Wheeler says. He’s heard back from four or five and has gotten only two interviews.
Wheeler thinks his prolonged unemployment may be because many entry-level positions require a minimum of two years of professional experience, which he lacks since he just graduated. He finds this especially frustrating after having worked throughout his undergrad and having made an effort to work a wide variety of summer jobs specifically so he could circumvent this problem.
“In the back of my head I was like . . . ‘I might not have the best grades . . . but I’ll have all this work experience and that’s what matters,’” Wheeler says. “Now I’m here and it’s like that doesn’t even matter.”
Maryam Faisal also worked throughout university, hoping the experience would help her find a job after school. She graduated from the University of Toronto in June 2019 with a double major in sociology and in professional writing and communication and worked both on and off campus throughout her degree.
“I was under no false pretenses that I would find a job right out of school, because I graduated with a bachelor’s in arts,” says Faisal. “[But] everyone was like, ‘Oh, this experience is going to help you so much in finding work.’”
When Faisal began looking for a full-time job, in September 2019, she quickly realized that wouldn’t be the case. With her student loans weighing on her, Faisal decided to enter the retail industry so she could start paying them back. “Up until that point, I thought I was too good for the gig economy or even just for finding odd jobs because I felt like that would confirm to me my own suspicions of being a failure,” Faisal admits. “But then I quickly realized you do what you have to do to make ends meet.”
Faisal first worked at Solutions, a home-organization store, that December, while still applying to other jobs in her field. “I kept applying to jobs, kept applying, kept applying, kept applying. I want to say I’ve applied to over 100 jobs—I don’t even know.” After Solutions closed due to COVID-19, Faisal was hired at Value Village, which also closed after a few months.
Faisal continued to look for work throughout the pandemic but found only contract positions that paid minimum wage. She eventually found a stable well-paying job in December 2020—a year and a half after graduating.
Students and recent graduates like Faisal have long turned to the retail or service industries for stable income while searching for full-time jobs in their field. However, COVID-19’s disruption of the labour market has made it nearly impossible for recent graduates to find work in these industries: Canada’s accommodation and food service industry reported the highest number of jobs lost due to the pandemic, followed by the wholesale and retail industry, with nearly 260,000 and 124,000 jobs lost, respectively.
Angela Feng graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in history and aspirations of being a filmmaker and began her job hunt in the summer of 2020. Though she was prepared for working in retail or service, finding those jobs proved to be a challenge.
“I was pretty much desperate,” Feng says. She had a casual job on campus, but it paid only about $200 a week, which covered neither her rent nor her tuition for summer courses. When she applied to positions in the retail or service industries, she was unable to find work.
Feng eventually found work as a transcriptionist, toward the end of August 2020, but it paid minimum wage. She found a couple of other service industry jobs as well but was forced to quit them due to mistreatment by her employers. She is currently working as an administrative assistant, and though that position pays well, it is limited to a six-month contract.
What helped Feng and so many other recent graduates stay afloat between employment was the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), the student version of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Between May and August of 2020, CESB applicants received four payments of $1,250. However, CESB payments ended in September 2020, just as COVID-19 cases rose during the second wave.
That cut-off point coincided with the resumption of student loan repayments, which the federal government had paused between April and September 2020. While the federal government has suspended the accumulation of interest until March 2023, Ontario’s interest rate of 2.75 percent remains—even if debtors are enrolled in the Ontario Student Assistance Program’s repayment assistance plan.
This has left many graduates in precarious positions. Feng’s student loan repayments began right as she was laid off for a few weeks. Though she was able to defer her payments, Feng’s student loans still felt like ankle weights on her legs.
“I definitely feel like I’m going to lose out in life because I’m going to have to choose to work so that I can pay off loans,” says Feng.
Wheeler was also able to defer his student loan payments due to his financial situation, but he says he still feels anxious about them.
“It’s kind of like a black cloud that I know I’m going to have to deal with at one point,” he says. “You can only defer and defer and defer until you have to start dealing with it.”
For new graduates, the combination of large student loans and repeated rejection in the job hunt can take a drastic toll on mental health. Hope can bubble into desperation and eventually give way to desolation.
“I think I had five or six mental breakdowns,” Faisal says. She describes a particularly bad day she spent entirely in bed after receiving two rejections: one from a job she had been led to believe she was the perfect candidate for and one from a master’s program she had applied to.
“You’re desperate, you’re hopeless, and you just feel so small,” says Feng. Often, Feng explains, these feelings are also tinged with regret over the undergraduate degree that one’s university promised would open doors for them.
“There’s just a lot of anger that you did all these things that were supposed to result in something stable and they didn’t,” Feng says.
Faisal says that she and many of her peers were given a “roadmap” in university and reassured that they would be successful—i.e., employed—if they followed all its steps: volunteering, accumulating extracurriculars, and participating in work-study programs. So, when she struggled to find a job and be “successful,” she began to doubt herself.
Wheeler says that, for the sake of his mental health, he has to constantly remind himself to not tie his self-worth to his employment status. When that doesn’t work, he turns to his friends, family, and particularly his partner for support.
For Faisal and Feng, who both come from immigrant backgrounds, leaning on family comes with complications. Both say that, despite—or perhaps because of—their parents’ immense support, they wrestle with internal pressure to be financially stable so they can prove to their parents that their sacrifices were worth it and put their minds at ease.
“They moved here for me to study,” says Faisal. “And I couldn’t even tell them that I got a job.”
Sunshine seeps through my window on a warm afternoon this August. The birdsong is drowned out by the gentle hum of the air conditioning and the loud conversation my mom is having on the phone. Awake but unwilling to start my day, I lie in bed, scrolling through my phone.
A new email greets me when I open my inbox, from the Indigo manager who interviewed me a week earlier. Its subject reads, “Thank You For Sharing Your Story.” My thumb hesitates to tap it open, even though—or because—I already know what it contains.
When I first began my job search, I was optimistic. However, the constant pricks of rejection—first from jobs inside my field, then from jobs outside my field, then from retail jobs—have deflated my optimism.
The job search has strained my relationships with friends, family, and even my faith. I avoid conversations with my friends and family because they all inevitably end with them comforting me and I feel guilty for extracting this emotional labour from them for something that is no more in their control than it is in mine.
As both my Rejections folder and my student debt has grown, my self-confidence, mental health, and motivation have all deteriorated. Now, I need to push myself to apply to jobs, even ones I am overqualified for, because I am convinced that I won’t get them. I have a folder full of evidence to prove it.
Before opening the email, I pause, praying that, perhaps, out of all the other university graduates present at the interview, they chose me.
My prayers—as always—go unanswered.
I straighten my shoulders, take a deep breath, and try to hold back the tears. My pursed mouth falls open, unable to contain a half-angry, half-resigned growl.
“What happened?” my mom calls out from her room.
“I got an email from Indigo.”
“They rejected me.”
She pauses for a moment to formulate a reply that doesn’t sound like a platitude. “At least they replied.”
This story was reprinted with permission from The Local.