Stuck: A Guide to Being Unemployed and Living With Your Parents In Your 20s
In 2012, I graduated with a degree in Celtic studies & English literature from one of the top universities in the country. I followed that up with a Summer of grunt work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then an unpaid internship at an acclaimed book festival, before unpacking my stuff back home with my parents and settling in for what I imagined would be a temporary pause in my life’s plans. The objective was simple: Get a job, save up some money and use it to go back to university for postgraduate study in 2013.
That didn’t happen. Apart from a month of unpaid writing work in July, I spent that entire year unemployed. That period was wildly disheartening but hardly unexpected given the economic situation at the time, and so plans were cancelled. The masters study place was declined, and I recalibrated my plans. In 2014, I got an internship, which evolved into a full time job I truly loved. I was still living at home but I had an income and my new plans to return to study felt tangible, and just within reach.
Of course, ‘just within reach’ isn’t the same as having it in my hands, and so the plans fell apart again. This time, the disappointment was manageable, an irritating sting rather than an overwhelming numbness. Back to the drawing board I went, but now with something more ambitious in mind. With my savings and my secure position in a job I felt at home with, I decided to aim for proper adulthood, and aim to buy my own house. Why not, I argued with myself. I didn’t have bills to pay beyond a monthly stipend to my mum, and it would be the kind of worthwhile investment many in my generation were denied. I craved not only my independence, but the mundane responsibilities of my age group, after two years of childlike freedom. Having something to work towards would also be the driving force I needed to get out of the hole I’d dug myself into. It was all going so well.
Then I got made redundant at the beginning of 2016. And so I went back on the job market. The advice leaflets from the bank went into the drawer, then the bin, and hundreds of cover letters, each gently tweaked to suit a new audience, went out to prospective employers. I landed a couple of interviews, then faced the excruciating oddness of being the oldest woman in a room full of bright eyed graduates all far more qualified than myself. My savings began to dwindle, my spirits flatten, and soon a whole new year had passed.
Things improved somewhat: I landed a great writing gig and finally started getting paid to do something I did constantly for my own amusement. I sent in my application to another Master’s degree course for this coming Autumn — third time’s the charm? — and continued the job hunt with renewed fervor.
I also faced the smothering realization that I had passed the midway point of my 20s, now closer to 30 than ever before, and had officially spent longer living back with my parents post-university than I ever did solo as a student.
There are things they never tell you about the banal claustrophobia of being a literal adult who still sleeps in their childhood bedroom, adolescent fantasy posters and all (Gerard Butler in 300 and Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, thank you very much). There’s an inimitable state of delirium that accompanies this situation that can be difficult to explain to your contemporaries who never had to move back home after graduation: It’s part cheesy sitcom, part existential crisis; It’s to be infantilized while simultaneously feeling yourself grow weary with age; It’s to feel spoiled yet worthless.
I come to good decisions belatedly in life. I never signed up for a counsellor in university until well in the throes of panic and anxiety, and I never let anyone know just how trapped I felt in my current predicament until recently. While I wouldn’t call myself a reliable authority on anything, much less this, I do feel that hindsight is 20/20 and there is advice I can give that will make this millennial stereotype come true a little more bearable should you find yourself stuck like me.
Get used to bad TV.
My parents would rather watch the worst show in the world than watch nothing. If it’s about army training or the history of 80s rock, my dad will watch it. Do you produce programming on Brits who go abroad and end up in hospital, or invasive docu-trash on dead celebrities, or over-dramatically narrated exposes in bad weather, neighbours or wedding dresses? Then my mum is already signed up. It’s not all bad — they both loved Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy, and like any self-respecting Scots they stopped everything to watch Still Game — but more often than not, should you wish to enjoy quiet time on the couch in front of the box, be prepared to sit through some real tat.
Get used to pity.
Self-pity can be great: It provides catharsis and a little confirmation bias that helps with getting over yourself. Pity from others? Not so much. It usually manifests in small ways: The old friend who asks how long it’s been since you graduated, whose eyes widen a little too much when you tell them the number of years; the age-old question of what you’re up to now and the instinctive reply that it’s perfectly normal in this economy to be in your position; the earnest affirmation that don’t worry, there’s something out there for you. Most of these are manageable, but now and then a misplaced comment penetrates your thickened skin with enviable precision. For me, it was the accumulation of various family members just quietly pointing out job adverts in local papers for positions that didn’t pay well or offer much in training but hey, it’s better than sitting at home, right? This doesn’t go away, and it can be unbearable to be bombarded with micro-aggressions daily, but practicing your pained smile and line of semi-sincere thanks can work wonders.
Find time and places to be alone.
I have a lovely bedroom. I have lots of books and a decent sized window that lets in lots of light and a fluffy white blanket gifted to me one Secret Santa many years ago. There’s a foldaway garden chair I like to curl up in with a chunky hardback read while draped in my dressing gown, and I’ve plenty of nail polish and face masks to pamper myself with when self-care is necessary. This is my space. Of course…
Expect said places to be invaded.
It’s still my parents’ house, so when mum comes in with nary a knock to drop off a few things, close the blinds and open the window (“needs airing out in here, it’s awfy dusty”), you still have a right to complain, but not as much as you’d like. Whenever my dad comes in, he’ll always peer through my bookshelves (“What are these blocks with pages, Kayleigh? Weird looking things”, he’ll ask sarcastically), then press the mini Angry Bird toy my sister left perched on my CD player to listen to the muffled cries of game victory. The dad jokes never end, but terrifyingly, you begin to warm to them after 3 or 4 years.
It’s not enough to love your parents.
I love my parents deeply, but more important than that, I genuinely like them. They’re hard working, funny, caring people who I enjoy spending time with. Mum, like any great retail worker, can strike up a conversation with almost anyone, and has a giddily infectious laugh. She’s obsessed with Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air and the film adaptation Everest, and will pepper chats with facts she’s absorbed through multiple re-watches. Dad’s adolescent obsession with Guns ’n’ Roses never really went away, and he’s prone to spontaneous sing-alongs of Paradise City, usually accompanied by the oft-repeated claim that he’s in the crowd of the music video (in fairness, he was at that concert). The most watched recording on our TV is a live concert Slash gave, which dad likes to watch when nobody else is in the house. He loved Lost but will complain about the ending to this day, and he and mum have 8 or 9 movies they’ll watch repeatedly given the chance, including Goodfellas, Bernie, the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes duology, and Starship Troopers. They’re not big for parties or large gatherings, but they love long drives and picking up fish and chips along the way. They’re happy and relaxed and that makes it very easy to get along with them. Yet…
Don’t isolate yourself.
It also makes it pathetically easy to feel like the third wheel. After all, you’re pushing thirty and you were supposed to be the big achiever, so why are you still the millstone around their neck who needs to be checked up on regularly while they try to get on with their lives? So you pull back, you skip after-dinner chats and spend more time in your room, avoiding coming downstairs and dismissing their concerns. Self-pity is one thing: Self-loathing is another level of hurt. It’s okay to talk to them and admit everything’s okay. Do it before the pressure builds up and everything spills out of you at an uncontrollable rate. Talk regularly, whether you feel like it or not. Be in control of the moment.
Don’t get drunk in front of your parents.
I’m a bad drunk. I’m a vomiting, sobbing, too-much-information, hangover-for-days drunk. It doesn’t happen very often, for good reason, but it’s a tidal wave of cringe when it does. I got drunk a couple of weeks ago. My sister, three years my junior, is getting married this month and the women in my family threw her a mini hen-do to celebrate. There were nude playing cards, penis shaped pizzas and enough exotic looking cheap liqueurs to make any Ibiza barman gleeful. Every glass of prosecco or champagne (or, when we got really desperate, cava) was topped off with elderflower gin or passoa or boozy blackcurrant, and everything was going fine until I got home and immediately disposed of that evening’s dinner. Mum checked up on me and for some reason, with a churning brain too foggy for sanity, I blurted out a sobbing apology that I was sorry I still lived at home at 26. I think mum laughed and said I didn’t need to apologise. I can’t remember for sure. The next day, it wasn’t discussed. They’re playing ignorant to spare me the embarrassment, which I appreciate on some level, but I can’t help but crave the need for that turning point, as if that drunken confession was meant to be some form of catharsis. Instead it was a wasted moment and a day of vomiting and self-pity. Stick to beer.
Remember that you’re not the only one in this position.
Solitude takes many forms, and one of its most insidious forms is the way it assures you that yes, you really are the only person to ever go through this and yes, you’re a total failure for it. It’s never that easy, of course. 2016 figures from the Pew Research Centre in America showed that “For the first time in more than 130 years, Americans ages 18–34 are more likely to live with their parents than in any other living situation”. A 2015 British survey showed a fifth of adults live with their parents until they’re at least 26. This isn’t something to find further guilt in, nor is it a damning sign of a generation gone wrong. Sometimes it just happens (and sometimes it’s because baby boomers are the worst — extra note: It’s always helpful to insult baby boomers). Not everyone in this demographic is fortunate enough to have parents they can go home to, and remembering that fact can be grounding, but it’s also okay to still feel kind of pissed off about that.
Stop comparing yourself to successful contemporaries.
Instagram will be the death of me. It’s the embodiment of rose-tinted living, yet even when fully aware of that, it’s so alluringly easy to fall into the trap. I follow a few friends and acquaintances from university who have gone onto become well-rounded, ambitious and successful individuals: One is a theatre producer, another does special effects on Broadway, and another is a bona fide TV newsreader. I do not begrudge them their achievements in any way, nor do I feel jealousy. Envy requires malice directed at the source, and I can never muster that, but even the most logical mind can be suspect to well filtered social media propaganda. Remember that you have no idea what their lives are truly like and that the façade they present may very well be just that.
Keep busy and maintain a schedule.
The first few weeks of sleeping in to whatever time you want are honestly amazing. It’s student living without the crushing guilt. Like everything else, it loses its joy. Unemployment’s most damaging partner remains the accompanying boredom — you have nothing to do and whenever you find something you do, you feel bad that it’s not something proper or useful. When there’s nothing on the horizon, all activity is good activity, so keep a to-do list or a diary of your day and log everything, be it changing the bedsheets or writing a story or going on a walk. It may seem inconsequential but it does help to surround yourself with tasks.
Aim for something and remember, life doesn’t end after your 20s.
Have an ambition, however minute it may be, and keep in in mind when clouds gather overhead or the tears fill up. Pick something you want to achieve in a week, a year or ten year’s time, and find a route to it. It may take longer than anticipated but that’s fine. Youth is fetishized so much by our culture that it seems like they’re ready to throw you to the trash if you haven’t accomplished everything on your list by 25. I find so much comfort if that SNL clip of Leslie Jones saying pretty much the same thing, then citing famous examples. I see Ava DuVernay breaking barriers on Twitter and remember she didn’t direct her first film until her 30s. You have time. That won’t ease you of all your worries or the smothering sense of stuck-ness but it’s the truth and it will help.
I have no idea if I’ll be able to go back to university this year — I’m still struggling with the funds and work is thin on the ground — and I can’t say even I’ll listen to my own advice when I truly need to, but I know one thing — Now is temporary.
I’d better go. My dad’s calling for me.