by O. C. Ugwu
A friend of mine recently graduated with a degree in public relations, minor in journalism. It was a pragmatic concentration balance on its face: one of these fields represented at least a modicum of investment toward gainful employment, the other did not. In a different time, my friend, we’ll call her Fiona, may have given herself over to the romantic notion of the well-traveled journalist, marrying her wanderlust and literary inclinations to a desire to do something in the interest of the public good. But she believed in realism and clear-eyed ambition. Cautious that the budgets to buoy any latent journalistic aspirations had gone the way of the dodo, she chose PR — a field that promised both a creative environment and corporate stability.
But despite her pragmatism, Fiona, like most graduates of ’09 and the surrounding years, found entering the workforce to be an uphill battle.
Even after mining her modest network and sending out numerous applications, job prospects remained anemic. She continued her old gig as a waitress for months after earning her degree, grinning at an endless churn of needy customers when not checking online career sites like a day-trader checks the Dow. Finally, she got a call about an internship. Though it paid modestly, and was only guaranteed to last a few months, Fiona began to think of the position as her dream job.
At first, the hiring process proceeded as normal; or at least in a way that any person hazarding first steps into the real world might have perceived to be normal: A resume here, a reference check there, followed by a first round of interviews. Fiona was nervous in the way that all post-collegiate twentysomethings are nervous — in seemingly a tick of the clock, she could suddenly feel the entire weight of her future balancing awkwardly on her shoulders. But she remained confident. An internship with a mid-level PR firm. Certainly it was nothing she couldn’t handle.
Then came the “Social Media Challenge.”
“Our industry is changing,” said the prospective employers explaining the twist. “Social media has become an essential front in stakeholder interaction. We need to see how skillful and creative you are with these tools.”
At first blush, the challenge sounded to Fiona, who quietly nursed a raging Facebook addiction like everyone else she knew, like fun: Log in to a special Facebook page and get as many people to “Like” you as possible. But it wasn’t merely a game.
Fiona was told that she was one of two remaining applicants being considered by the company. The “Social Media Challenge” would not be conducted in some isolated spare office space at her potential place of business, but as a public, week-long contest between her and her competitor for anyone, including and especially her friends and family, to see. If and when she won the challenge, it would increase her chances of getting hired.
It hasn’t always been this way. Somewhere in the history of recruiter/recruitee relations, between the advent of “The Apprentice” and the decline of the global financial industry, the rules of the game took a turn for the dramatic. Beyond simple supply-and-demand, securing a job today — even those of the less-than-glamorous variety — has become something akin to a tooth-and-nail fight to the death in the Roman Colosseum: a spectacle of personal desperation for audiences either real or imagined.
Fiona isn’t alone. You don’t have to look far for stories of some un-moneyed, highly-educated kid making an ass of himself to stand a chance. A friend who graduated in marketing went flying across the country for an interview, only to have it capriciously canceled before he even touched down. The stories’ subjects are unusual, but their dramas ring familiar — like the time Robin and Shannon faced elimination for not taking their clothes off; or when the band members had to walk to Brooklyn to get Diddy his favorite cheesecake.
It used to be that this kind of do-anything, fuck-anyone standard was reserved for society’s fringe dreamers who are by definition delusional, like musicians and models and actors. But with the level of unemployment teetering at the brim, and after a decade of television executives at Bravo, MTV and the networks milking every profession and aspirational desire for human drama, it’s no wonder that even white collar employers have begun to see their sudden wealth of applicants in a new light.
Anyone who’s ever been unintentionally unemployed knows that it doesn’t take long for the thorny spores of desperation to take root and self-propagate. Anything for an edge. Anything to stand out from the tired, poor, huddled masses willing to work for free. When others have no boundaries, one fears the need to take off their clothes or face elimination. It seems that many with jobs to offer have not only come to expect this behavior, but are comfortable enough to openly encourage it.
We’re told that the recession ended over a year ago. That unemployment is a lagging indicator. What we need now is a collective call for common decency: for job seekers to come up off their knees and unlearn the terrible demands of the downturn. Because a job is a privilege, but a post-graduate internship is not a dream. The longer HR departments and midlevel executives get to play Diddy and Trump, the longer we’re all screwed.
Fiona lost the Social Media Challenge. This was doubly offensive considering the social capital she had expended transforming herself into the kind of person who brazenly self-promotes on Facebook. But her talent had not gone unnoticed, and the firm decided to hire her for the internship anyway. Three blissfully employed months passed. Then, when the internship had run its course, Fiona was told that the company could not afford to offer her a job. In her exit interview, she complained about the hiring process, which she said reflected poorly on the firm. They bought her a chocolate good-bye cake.
O.C. Ugwu has held four cutthroat positions since graduating in journalism two years ago and is bracing for his fifth. He lives in Brooklyn.