The post gap-year diary: trying to get back onto the ladder

ladder

We all know it’s hard to get on the career ladder, but surely it’s easier to get back on? Erin Cardiff explains the tribulations of getting back into journalism after voluntary redundancy and a career break. I’m going to come right … Continue reading

Aicha Marhfour: “Don’t call me ‘aspiring'”

This week in The Vent Corner, Australian journalist Aicha Marhfour talks about the words people use to make her lack of employment seem “noble”.

Don’t call me aspiring.

I’m not emerging, either. The only thing that threatens to emerge is my fist, on its way to your face.

These words are my bugbears, and are a completely transparent way to make my unemployed state seem politically correct. An “aspiring” journalist sounds kind of noble, like a Boy Scout with a notebook and good observational skills. An “emerging” journalist is verbing his or her way out of the cocoon. They’re going somewhere.

But I’m not. I’m a jobless journalist. I exist in that caste where you can insult me by using words like “emerging” and “aspiring” to signpost that I’ve yet to be legitimised by a full-time job.

You may as well label me an amateur and get on with it. Call me unemployable. At this point, I’d prefer to be laughed at openly. I want to wear a large scarlet A (A for Aspiring, naturally) to reclaim the word for myself.

To be fair, I am a freelancer. Oh, that word. I used to dream about calling myself a freelancer and meaning it.

Early on, I did the rounds of unpaid internships. They were constructive but sometimes humiliating. There was no coffee making but most were marked by debriefs with some salaried superior, who would sit back on their subsidized beanbag and try to explain post-GFC economics to me.

I would be told how things were so dire that staples were being reused, office plants now worked reception and how truly sorry they were (not usually meeting my eyes at this point) that they couldn’t offer me a job. It was like crunch time on a TV singing contest, except that I didn’t cry and redo takes to make it more heart-wrenching. Any devastated feelings had to remain inside.

I’ve stuffed my CVs with internships, yet I still imagined the day when I could really be a freelancer. That moment came (with a lovely pay cheque to prove it), but the novelty wore off as I realised that nobody took me any more seriously.

I remember interviewing for a job the week before I finished university and being grilled by one editor who was flummoxed by my dubious online clips. “So are you freelancing?” he asked. I didn’t want to call the occasional free movie review and dry news write-up “freelancing,” so I sidestepped the question and felt ashamed.

Needless to say, I didn’t get the job and it was filled by a crashing bore with an obsessive love of the subject matter that particular outlet wrote about. Onwards!

Young journalists (and older parties trying to get on the game) are made to feel ashamed of themselves for wanting things. Anything, be it a free notebook or that unimaginable pipe-dream, job security. Jobs seem to be replacing Chanel bags, Hermès scarves and spa weekends as the new luxuries for the rich.

I can count on fingers and toes the number of  advice-dispensing elders who have chided me in a roundabout way for having ambition. At my age! With two university degrees! You must be joking, they say to me, in coded words. They’re clever and evasive about it, as old codgers so hard-boiled that they scatter shell everywhere when they sit down tend to be.

They look careworn, because after years of boozy lunches and beach trips “sponsored” by companies, they have over-tanned skin and now have to work even harder to keep their senior positions. They know we’re coming, the younger people, ready to hound them into their graves, once we demolish capitalism and end the working week. Well, I hope so.

At least they realise, as they huff and puff onto Twitter and fumble with smartphones, that there is a smart and literate generation approaching, hungry after years of surviving on occasional praise and mie goreng.

So they try, in their devious ways, picked up as they were being dandled on Sir Keith Murdoch’s knee, to pull us down. They pump out stories about the selfish selfie generation, or rather the #shamelesselfiesexcrazedgeneration, as they’ve put on their specs and now know what hashtags are (no longer just a number on the phone keypad! Oho).

They have collective amnesia about baby boomer greed, or the Swinging Sixties and what it all stood for. They’ve forgotten about the feckless 80s, when they were in their working prime and wore shoulder pads and had perms. They talk a lot about advertising and the old “rivers of gold,” faithfully glossing over how it was they who adapted to the Internet too late. I hope we eat them alive.

Back to my point, which is that these dusty old crocodiles rarely tell young people off in an obvious way. I’ve been told things like: “Well, you can’t expect to get (basic entry level position) straight out of university!” There’s an upward inflection that tells me that it’s a joke, and I should laugh. But I don’t laugh. I seethe, and sometimes when I’m at my desk alone, and even occasionally during a phone call, I cry. I’ve been crying quite a lot, actually. Unemployment does a number on your general wellbeing.

I always want to yell: “No? I can’t expect a minimum wage and some kind of validation of the hours of toil, email refreshing and rejection? Just like you did, all those years ago? Sorry for being so obtuse.”

And then I play a fun game using LinkedIn. I don’t have LinkedIn, as without a proper job I’d feel like an idiot filling in my internships and advertising just how long I was gormless enough to work for free. I also don’t really care about the LinkedIns of my friends and acquaintances. It’s a bit of a dry social media platform, with no incriminating photos or banter to be found.

But I do look at the profiles of some of the journalists and editors around, and see the exact opposite of what I’m being told. They worked as copyboys (and copygirls), entry level positions they started right after high school. They shimmied up the corporate ladder, flitting between companies like bees with their pick of the flowers. Younger writers leveraged blogs into paying jobs, or wrote about music for major publications while they were in their teens. Before the global financial crisis (or what baby boomers should be required by law to refer to as: ‘Our Bloody Fault’), they were herded into trainee programs.

It is a big serving of sour grapes, and helps me feel even more ashamed and bitter about myself. I can’t begrudge everyone their success. But it tests my patience when another person snaps: “Well, it was hard for me (20/30/40/100) years ago.”

It may have been difficult for that particular person, but it sure as hell couldn’t have been for journalists at large. The LinkedIn game proves this.

I remember reading a post-war novel where one character walked past the offices of the New Statesman, and resolved to get a job there because he was having a rough time working as a lawyer:

“I am not going near the Law now. I’m going to be a journalist. A left-wing journalist. The New Statesman offices are up at the end here, up the alley. I’ll walk in now. I’ll demand a job. And I’ll be given one. I feel it in the wind.”

I take this to be a proper historical document. A qualified lawyer who is a little frustrated by his profession could, in those heady days, walk in off the street and get a newspaper job. Or as Jonny Sweet’s character in his radio comedy Hard to Tell explains to his parents, who are confused by his desire to become “Paxman-meets-Fry”:

“It’s a generational curse. There was a time when it would’ve been easily doable. In the seventies, it was basically: graduate, become Paxman. Now it’s graduate; guess what? Paxman already exists. It’s Hell.”

It is Hell, where we are completely self-aware and marinate in our frustrations. Yet I stick with it, because churning out pronoun-heavy thinkpieces is what I want to do for a living. Right now, this desire feels like pissing in the wind, without the surprise splashes. My dreams are humble, my jokes are relentless and I have yet to find a way off the no-experience treadmill.

Please don’t call me aspiring, but I am very much perspiring (see: joke + rhyme = I’m basically Buzzfeed). Add a funny gif and I’m either a click-bait content farm or a sleep-deprived jobless journalist. Get at me.

Aicha Marhfour is a freelance journalist in Melbourne. A real one, who writes for money. Please send commissions to her on Twitter: @aichamarhfour