New to How to Be Jobless? Start here:

Welcome to How to Be Jobless. Sorry about the mess. If you’ve never been here before, take a look at the About page, or watch the video for a general idea of what you’ve wandered into: This video started as … Continue reading

David Mitchell and Robert Webb sum up work experience in the media

“I just wanted to say, thanks so much for giving me this opportunity.” “No problemo, we all got a leg up somewhere along the line…so you’ll basically be dividing your time between helping out the program development team, and digging … 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

Emails from the jobless trenches

Joblessness has somewhat fallen off the news agenda, have you noticed? That’s what happens when things don’t really improve. After a while, they can’t keep going with the same story. So, just as a reminder that there’s still plenty of talent going to waste, I thought I’d share with you an email I got from one Jake Brown, who emailed  me requesting to contribute to How to Be Jobless.

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Dear not quite so jobless anymore but hopefully still sympathetic Madam,

I’m a recent convert to the school of joblessness (read: newly graduated), hoping to tease out some of my unemployed anguish onto the pages of your scarily close to the mark website.

My experience includes an inbox entirely devoid of responses to my job applications, expert skill in day-dreaming of the sad old regulars in my local pub actually being big-wigs who’ll one day give me a media job, and a slowly fading but ever present optimism that all my education might actually, hopefully, just possibly have been worth it.

So what do I want to write about? Good question. I know I’m not the only one to have faced the bloody awful move from a lively big city back to the countryside and its all too familiar stench of boredom and parental disappointment. I think I’m pretty talented – but so does everyone else, right? Well, I’d like to write about my current struggle, to put it bluntly. The part-time job, the well practised “no everything’s going really well!” lie, the un-worn interview outfit and of course not forgetting the stomach churningly large overdraft.

Eagerly awaiting your response (refreshing Gmail a hundred times an hour),


Grad Scheming (14): Nine new rules for the job market

Last month marked an entire year since my first “My Week in Joblessness” post on GoThinkBig. That means since I started publicly complaining about the UK job market, the earth has had time to travel more than 585 million miles … Continue reading

Grad Scheming (13): Labour’s Big Idea for JSA – a translation

I have decided to try my hand at translation. The two languages are, grammatically, almost identical. I shall translate from Labour leader Ed Miliband’s English to my native tongue, plain English. I’m not qualified so there may be some debate … Continue reading

From zero to hero: five down-and-out jobseeker success stories – Guardian Professional

I wrote this for Guardian Professional with the #Pyjarmy in mind. Some of the most successful people started out worse off than you or I. If they made it, why shouldn’t we?Mr Walt Disney sits at his drawing board in his studio, drawing a sketch of Mickey Mouse

Disney’s pitch for the much-loved character of Mickey Mouse was rejected, some sources say, 300 times. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the million jobseekers out there, I’m imagining you’re on your sofa, lying on your face, lifting your head for the occasional perusal of a still-empty inbox – an understandable reaction to the crushing despair of unemployment.

It doesn’t help to see dismal employment figures, commentary on why the younger generation is doomed, and absolutely nothing to make you feel better about it.

So I’d like to attempt a short-term remedy, a mixture of inspiration and schadenfreude – five down-and-out jobseekers who clawed their way to the top.

5. Ricky Gervais

Gervais was a failed pop star and an unsuccessful manager long before he was a super successful writer, director and actor. At university he couldn’t afford two types of soap – he had to choose between washing his clothes or himself (in the end he did both; Daz, he informs us, is “quite a good exfoliate”).

In his 30s he landed a job at the radio station XFM, where he realised he didn’t understand radio and hired Stephen Merchant to “do all the boring stuff”. In 1998, they were both made redundant.

Luckily, Merchant cast Gervais in a short film about a “seedy boss” for a BBC production course, which we now know as The Office. It became the most successful British sitcom ever.

4. Jim Carrey 

The Canadian funnyman was a high school dropout, working as a janitor and security guard to help pay the family bills. They lost their home and were forced to live in a van. He then moved to LA to struggle on the stand-up comedy scene before going into the out-of-work-actor business.

While, yes, it sucks to get rejected with the robotic line, “Due to the high volume of applications…”, at least most of us don’t have to spend weeks watching the guy who got the job beam at you from the side of a hundred buses. Before Carrey got his big break on the TV sketch comedy show In Living Color, he was rejected from leading roles in Saturday Night Live, Sixteen Candles, Bachelor Party, Legend, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Back to School and Edward Scissorhands.

But it was worth the wait. Now, aged 52, he’s estimated to be worth$20mn.

3. Walt Disney

The man behind children’s stories had a rough time on his way to billionaire status. When he dropped out of high school at 16 to enlist in the army during the first world war, he was rejected for being too young. At 18, he started drawing political caricatures, but they didn’t catch on and he was fired by his editor because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas”.

Disney started a business with a cartoonist, and it failed, as did his second business. In fact, he went bankrupt five times before he found success with Disneyland, which was also rejected by the city of Anaheim, Orange County, because it would “only attract riffraff”. At one point Disney was so skint he survived on dog food.

He also faced a lot of ridicule. His project of turning Snow White into a feature-length animation, was called “Disney’s folly“. He even ran out of funding during production, and had to show loan officers a rough cut to secure enough cash to finish it.

His pitch for the much-loved character of Mickey Mouse was rejected too – he was told it would never work because a giant mouse on the screen would “terrify women”. Despite enduring rejection and ridicule, between 1932 and 1969 Disney won 22 Academy Awards and was nominated 59 times – more than anyone else in history.

2. JK Rowling

Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel at rock bottom: “I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.” She survived on benefits, sometimes going without dinner so she could feed her children.

The first manuscript was rejected by 12 publishers. The 13th publisher accepted it at the behest of the only person it seems had actually bothered to read it – the chief executive’s eight-year-old daughter.

The books did rather well, and Rowling was the first female novelist to become a billionaire – although now, after a spate of charitable giving,she’s back to being a humble millionaire.

1. Abraham Lincoln

In his book, Emotional Equations, Chip Conley notes how Abraham Lincoln had a rough time too, almost drowning, losing his mother when aged nine, his fiancée and sister when he was 26 – not to mention getting malaria, syphilis, smallpox, and kicked in the head by a horse.

Lincoln failed in business aged 21. Two years later he ran for state legislature, lost his job and was rejected from law school. He bounced back and started a business on borrowed money, but was bankrupt within a year.

At 28, he was defeated as a speaker of the state legislature. He ran for the US House of Representatives and lost at age 33. He tried again at age 39, and lost. Not to worry – at age 45 he ran for the US Senate and lost again. He also lost when he ran for his party’s vice presidential nomination at age 47. And again at the US Senate at age 49. But at the age of 51, he became the president of the US.

So, how’s your job hunt going?

It may seem like these superhumans, these titans in their field, these “absolute legends” are nothing like the young people of today, who seem to be educated to the eyeballs but lack opportunities. But if we can learn anything from their stories, it’s not that success comes from sending as many CVs and cover letters as you can in a day. It’s identify what you love, then bang away at it like a relentless idiot until something brilliant happens.

A reader comment:

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My Week in Joblessness (9): The psychology of tea-making

Published 2/8/2013 on GoThinkBig There are some certainties in the world of work experience. You won’t know how to adjust your chair, and you’ll be too nervous to ask. You’ll have to investigate the whereabouts of the toilets yourself, because when … Continue reading