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Career Planning & Employability

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be – graduating in the 1980s…and lessons for today

As we live our lives in self-isolating, socially distanced bubbles, I started thinking about the parallels between my experience graduating in the early 80s (1982 if you really must know) and the likely experience facing the class of 2020.  

There’s no getting away from it, the times we are living through are like nothing experienced in living memory for the most of us but, pandemic aside, there are some interesting corollaries with my time graduating during an economic downturn. Brace yourself, it won’t be pretty but better days do lie ahead. 

So, what was happening back then in the early 1980s? Well, let me see, there was the Falklands War, we had the worst recession since the 1930s with 3 million people unemployed – and that was probably an underestimate and the mortgage rate reached an eye-watering 17%. There was the miner’s strike, riots, Maggie was waging war on the unions and jobs were difficult to find and I mean really difficult to find. There was one ray of hope at least – breakfast telly began broadcasting for the first time. 

Were things so different back then? Well yes and no. There was no internet and information was more difficult to come by (there were things called libraries – remember those?) and as a consequence, job seeking was a little more difficult. Jobs, and therefore money was scarce. 

Accessing careers advice wasn’t so easy, if not impossible and graduate jobs seemed to be concentrated in London and the South East (or so it seemed). Generally, it was a hard time for many although the experience was softened a little by the ritual 2 weekly trip to ‘sign-on’. Little did I know that I would experience 4 years of unemployment, peppered with short periods participating in government-run community programmes (good) and working in a variety of dead-end jobs that I just didn’t enjoy (bad).  

Personally, I can empathise with today’s graduates but I don’t see the situation today as very different from my own experience, although granted graduates are probably graduating with more debt these days – plus ca change.  

Although time has smoothed out the bad memories of the early/mid-1980s, I do still feel the benefit of living through those times. The skills I had to use as a graduate then are no different from the skills graduates will have to demonstrate now, i.e. self-reliance, resilience, creativity, entrepreneurship, communication and an unswerving self-confidence in their intelligence and ability to do something to change the situation. Probably the same list of skills that you can pick up and read in any report on the graduate labour market today. 

So, you might ask, how did I get to where I am now, working as a 50 something Careers consultant in a University careers service? 

 Guess what? I did the same things that they will do now. I gained experience (some of it voluntary and unpaid) and used some skills to earn money in a less conventional way (music), I lived frugally, I met interesting people, I searched out courses to develop in other ways and got them paid for (climbing and mountaineering), I dug around and found courses that would train me to work in a ‘proper’ job and managed to finance it through a bursary. Sound familiar? Above all else, I realised that if I was going to develop a career then it was going to be me who had to make it happen – same as now really. Funny that. 

Written by Andy Kay

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