Job (In)Security: “Millennials’ Problem”

Before I even begin, I need to preface this with my concept of what is a Millennial. For me, the word is not derogatory. It means to be the offspring of a baby boomer. To have inherited their forebears’ work ethic. To add to it heavy doses of creativity and a willingness to collaborate. To be planted in a hostile job market and pitted against heavy competition. We are enthusiastic and resilient, but we also deal with increased occurrences of mental illness. We also have antiquated perspectives placed upon us (especially women). For example, the need to “get a good job, get married, buy a home, settle down, and have a family” in an economy where this is increasingly difficult. Besides, many of us do not feel the urge to do so until later in our lives anyway.

A post-baby boomer job environment

The basic understanding of the world of work for the parents who raised us Millennials is “work hard, and you’ll succeed.” Unfortunately, that perspective did not prepare us for the 21st century. So, when I hear yet another baby boomer from my parents’ generation tell me that success rewards hard work and that I shouldn’t worry too much, I can’t help but roll my eyes, justifiably. How can it not be the problem of millennials to be worried about their futures? What even is success anymore anyway?

I realize that my anxiety is different from regular worry; that it’s an uncontrollable physiological fear response to fear that has little basis. However, the life circumstances that Millennials face should make any normal human being quake in their boots. We are naturally worried about truly worrying circumstances.

It’s just even more fun to handle it when you have an anxiety disorder.

So you want to be a teacher? Good luck.

Which brings my to my particular situation. As a beginning teacher in a province with a terrible job market for teachers (see Christy Clark’s 2002 decimation of our bargaining rights, only recently (February 2017) won back in the Supreme Court of Canada), job security is, needless to say, poor; that is, if you can even get a job to begin with.

In September 2013, when I began my Bachelor of Education program, the Secondary Education practicum coordinator had all ~300 of us in a lecture hall and began with, “You will not get a job.”

I graduated with my BEd in August of 2014, and I applied to be a TTOC (Teacher Teaching on Call – for all my New Brunswicker friends, this is a glorified term for ‘sub’) in every district, even those that weren’t recruiting at the time. It was a summer of many applications and zero calls. It didn’t help that BC teachers were on strike — what perfect timing.

A common theme: Sacrifice to get your start

I got lucky, as I made a follow-up call to a district where I had applied to be a TTOC. It turned out that they were looking for a French, English, and Social Studies teacher, which matched my qualifications almost exactly, and they asked me to apply. Sounds perfect, right? The only problem? This district was 6 hours north of Vancouver and I would have to leave home and fiancé behind and live alone for at least a year. I applied, and the interview was essentially an advertisement for how much I would enjoy life up in their neck of the woods.

I accepted the offer (how could I not, it was the only one I got!) and sat on my hands for most of September. As soon as the job action ended, I hauled ass up to the BC interior desert land. I worked there for the year, and peaced the heck out when I was finished. I loved the job, but the place was not for me for an extended period. Frequent trips on a tiny-ass plane that made me feel like I was in the middle of the Donnie Darko crash scene were my mental saving grace.

Another new start

I returned to Vancouver and once again entered the TTOC application race. Fortunately, this year, the district where I completed my practicum was accepting applications for French Immersion TTOCs. I applied, and eventually got the job. Thus began my career in the Lower Mainland.

Great, right? Pretty great, except that some months as a TTOC (namely September and June), you only work an average of 6 days. So I also had to stay at my other part-time job shift managing at McDonald’s. I spent my days religiously poring over our finances. Every morning, I counted the number of days I had worked so far that month. I created a formula to figure out how much I earned per day after taxes and deductions. I would figure out exactly how much I needed to work to “get by.” And of course, I’m one of the lucky ones, with a husband who has a steady job with benefits, which cover most of my prescription and extended health needs. However, as a TTOC, I don’t get access to teacher benefits so I’m still out-of-pocket for a number of things.

I spent the year last year as a TTOC, but I also picked up 2 months of a 1-block contract. 1 block. Out of 8. That’s what they had on offer! I loved it, but it also reduced my ability to TTOC, as I was unavailable in the afternoons every other day, and ended up reducing the amount of money I made overall. But contracts are currency in my district. TTOCs don’t get seniority, and seniority is what gets you a continuing contract (permanent – for my NB friends, a B contract).

Pair this with anxiety…

This transitional period in my life has me thinking. Particularly about what it’s like, for a person with anxiety specifically, to deal with a lack of job security. This is something so many millennials like me face for years once we graduate. The common perspective of older generations about millennials seems to be that we’re lazy, when in fact there are just not enough jobs to go around. Workers are taking later retirements. Companies and governments are squeezing wherever they can to save money in a tough economy. Cost of living is now exponentially higher compared to average salaries versus 30 years ago.

I’m  a new teacher. I have anxiety. It’s hard to convince myself that I am worthy of the districts I’m applying to. It’s hard to convince myself that the reason my 100s of applications are returning no calls is that everyone else that applied had more seniority than me (highly likely, at this point). The amount of dead air I’ve encountered in response to my job searches, I’m sure, is enough to cripple a normal person, but a person who doubts every single word they say? Crushing.

I often tell myself I got lucky again when I pick up another small contract. I need to remind myself that I’m likely getting them now because I am becoming more skilled and more recognized and valued by the schools I am working for. My anxiety leads me to constantly think the worst about myself – to constantly assume that I am not worthy.

Lack of structure…

One of the things I find toughest to deal with as a person with anxiety is a lack of structure. This comes with unemployment. It’s also provided by the long breaks that I have in my profession as a teacher.

Now, I’m definitely not complaining about the (remember, unpaid) time we get off at holidays and in the summer. However, I often find that during those periods of my life, my anxiety is at its peak. I grow listless and depressed, and become increasingly anxious about not accomplishing anything, which then paralyzes me even more. I definitely feel the need to take on big artistic projects in the summer especially. These could be redesigning the layout and decor of my apartment, creating a scrapbook, or undertaking a photography project. I then create a day schedule in which I work toward project completion for at least a certain number of hours each day. I also dedicate day parts to relaxation, reflection, cleaning, and exercise.

Unclear schedules…

Sometimes more difficult are the days I don’t get a callout in the evening or early morning. This doesn’t mean that I am off for the day – callout is open until 1:30 pm. I could spend my morning assuming I’ve got the day off, only to have the phone ring at 1pm for the afternoon. Sometimes, I’m settling into the couch with a book at 8:30, and I get a call demanding I brave the worst of the morning’s traffic to be at a school for 9. On these days, it’s impossible to have a schedule. First, they are unexpected days off. I generally don’t have an anxiety-calming schedule created for a day when I expect to be working. However, they are also not necessarily days off, so I have to structure my time such that I can grab food and run out the door at a moment’s notice.

The dog’s breakfast…

There is also a lack of structure in the career development process for young teachers. We often get what is known as the “dog’s breakfast,” if we can even snatch that. Anything is better than being on call! In that first contract I took, I had 5 preps – French 7, French 8, French 9, English 8, and Social Studies 8. The normal maximum for any sane person is 4, preferably 3. This past year, I covered a paternity leave and had 5 again – French 8, French 9, French 10, French 11, and FRAL 8.

And negative amounts of security.

All of this with no clear “end” in sight. The “end” for me means having a full-time continuing contract. This equals working every day for the same district, receiving health benefits, and having the right to take leave (maternity or otherwise). My current school district requires 2 consecutive years of full-time contract work plus an extra contract before they award you continuing. To make matters worse, if a teacher goes 6 months plus 1 day between any contracts, all previously accumulated seniority disappears. For example, my current contract extends until June 30. That means that I have until December 30 to get another contract, or I lose the 1.5 years of seniority I now have. That’ would have been 75% of the way to a continuing contract. It’s a terrifying, paralyzing space to live in every day of my existence.

We’re losing such great people

I speak what I know. This is what I know about an increasingly difficult teaching market: it continually loses bright stars due to the difficulty of finding a secure job. A very small percentage of the wonderful people I met throughout the Education program are working in schools. Many did end up in educational positions that are unrelated to the private or public K-12 systems. However, many others work retail or administrative jobs or went back to school to do something else.

This is not just my problem, not just teachers’ problem

I am confident that my situation is not unique. Nor is it to unique to the teaching profession. My peers across the country, and the world, face very similar struggles. Small wonder that even more people do not deal with anxiety or other mental health disorders than already do.

But what can I do?!

I wish I could propose a solution, but I don’t really see one. The only thing that really helps to settle my anxiety is to work toward the fulfillment of my values, regardless of how I earn money. I think that to feel fulfilled in our lives, we need to do a few simple things:

  • do something for work that we enjoy
  • live life according to our values, in the greatest capacity of which we are capable
  • work hard
  • be creative
  • collaborate
  • ask for help
  • reflect
  • love ourselves
  • breathe

The rest is positivity and hoping for the best! This list is gets me through the worst of times and the best of times. Add a bit of luck, which often comes from that  positive perspective, and hopefully, you’ll find your days are more fulfilling than not.

Peace and love,