Pamela Chan, BCFamily.ca/Editorial
Lean 30 : 30 days of keeping it lean and old school online. More
As a mid stream Gen-Xer, I graduated from university during a recession. It wasn’t quite as deeply entrenched as the recent/current economic downturn but it was significant enough. In those days 20 somethings didn’t attract much interest in media stories. The large bubble of baby boomers were firmly focussed on themselves and their offspring. We’ve only recently started to hear more about “young adults” since the boomers’ children have started to enter their adult years. Few people care to remember those days back in the 90s or admit that many GenXers have never truly hit their stride. Hats off to those who have risen to the top of their professions. For others the career path has included many sharp twists in the road.
“Back in the day” ( 😉 ) there were very few articles or discussions about the effect of the recession on young adults’ job prospects; the cost of living in BC; difficulties meeting people in Vancouver; the lack of promising jobs or corporate headquarters in BC; and, youth disengagement in politics and other areas, for example.
My own professional plans tanked when I realized that I didn’t like the people who worked in the field I had chosen. My professor came to talk to me about grad school but I told him I was thinking about becoming a teacher. Besides – how could I afford grad school? Since not much seemed to be happening in Ottawa, where I was based, I listened to a Vancouver-based friend and moved out west. Surely my options would be better in this larger metropolis. My friend disappeared into a relationship with a live-in boyfriend and three was definitely not company. I didn’t know anyone and was left with a feeling of urgency that I had to jump start some kind of job or my $2,000 in savings would run out fast. I couldn’t even jump on E-mail to pour out my stress and worries to my friends and parents.
Based on the salaries that you could access then, Vancouver was not a cheap city. The cost of the same square footage back then has doubled in the last twenty years but the salaries haven’t kept up. In the field of primary years education, salaries either haven’t changed or have even gotten worse! If you were creative back then you could still live on your own. After a false start sharing a flat, I found a U-shaped bachelor suite for $500 a month on Haro street – the same street where my mother lived in the 1960s. A few months later my brother moved out and we shared a flat on the north shore. At first we shared a $900 rent. Then we moved to another building in the same complex, with a fabulous view of the water, where we we paid $650 each. Nowadays credit card companies are begging people to take their cards. Back then Mastercard told me that my rent to wage ratio wasn’t acceptable and they couldn’t cut me a card.
This might seem unappealing and unacceptable to many teens and young adults nowadays but I took any job I could find two weeks after I moved to Vancouver. There was nothing glamorous about the work that I was doing. I didn’t “settle because it was easy“. I had to pay the rent! Fortunately my first full-time job was working in a business centre owned by a family originally from Northern Europe. The setting was elegant and the clientele were interesting. After a year there I found a job ad in a paper on the top of my building’s recycling bin and moved to an office that is connected to the Commonwealth Secretariat. I worked there for two years while I saved up money to go back to school to become a teacher.
Due to the cost of living, a two year programme at UBC (for example) was out of the question. I was also interested to work with children at the beginning of their school career. For three years I lived in North Vancouver and took the bus to Kerrisdale so that I could volunteer as a girl guide leader. I wanted to be certain that I was well suited to a career in teaching. The opportunity to study to become a Montessori directress (teacher) was exciting. I thoroughly enjoyed my training and loved the work. What I hadn’t thought through is that the job pays a very modest wage. I knew that if I wanted to stay in this field, I’d have to leave Vancouver. Two job opportunities came up – one in Paris and one in Yokohama, just outside of Tokyo. The latter came with a better job package. Plus my parents’ double posting to the Canadian Embassy had two more years to go. I’d already been spending time in Japan for the previous two years and decided that this decision made sense. I’d lived in Japan as a teen/young adult with my parents and didn’t think twice about abandoning Vancouver.
For five years I taught in an international school in Japan and used my stronger employment package to support a lot of traveling, socializing, purchases of art work and saving for grad school. When my niece was born at the end of 2000, I realized that I didn’t want to watch her grow up over the Internet. My childhood was spent barely knowing my relatives as I moved to different countries. I didn’t want to be an aunty in name only. On my way home from a Christmas visit to Barbados – where my parents were working – I visited grad school departments in Vancouver and settled on a programme at UBC, rather than returning to my alma mater Queen’s University.
I was fortunate enough to secure a number of academic and teaching positions while I was at UBC – including educational policy research work. When I started working in a local university after finishing my programme, this is when the depression about the “it’s not what you know but who you know” scene started to sink in. My PhD application had tanked after I made the final round of 25 out of 350 applications. I was told there was no research community in my field of ECE&D so why do a PhD? While attending meetings in Montréal with senior professors in my department, I told them that I hoped to work in a local university. One of the professors put up one hand and said “apply for this job if you look like this picture”. Up went the other hand. The writing was on the wall.
After I had worked in a local university for a few years, I arranged a meeting with two senior university officials by way of an introduction from a major university benefactor. When I sat down for our informational meeting the first topic that was brought up focussed on the answer to the following question:
Which wealthy, “old money” families do you know?
I KID you NOT. When I explained that I wasn’t from Vancouver and only knew wealthy/connected people overseas, I could feel the interest drop. After the meeting I tried to follow up on a commitment to receive a warm introduction to a director in another department. The work that was being done in that division had a direct connection to my professional and personal academic experiences. I received a one line E-mail saying “Yes you should contact them.” This story sums up the frustrations I experienced trying to connect with people in my organization and make it through the deliberately formidable “we pretty much know who we want already” interviews. If it weren’t for the support and mentoring of a handful of senior executives in my department at the university, including my Director, I would have lost all hope of ever finding a job that I coveted.
In more recent years, for the first time I can say that I’ve started to build a network in Vancouver of like minded people doing the same thing I’m doing in the field of online publishing and social media. The main catalyst has been the efforts that Christine Pilkington and her colleagues at VancouverMom.ca have made to bring women in social media in Vancouver and BC together. Since then other networks have appeared featuring men and women. It’s an exciting and buzzy opportunity. (If you’d like to tap into these scenes, connect with Christine at WeCapella, @TokyoRicky on Twitter and the @Digitallyyours group on Facebook.) These connections have led to rewarding and memorable opportunities. Who knows – maybe they’ll even help me to find paid contracts or a job.
…because I’m looking for opportunities now. Just putting that information out there.
As the new year rolled in, the horizon for kindergarten has been looming large. At the same time the questions have started.
What will you do with your time?
When will you get a job?
Why don’t you get a clerical job?
It’s not that there is anything wrong with the latter as a job but I’d sure like to go in a new direction built on the foundations I’ve established, as indicated in my resume.
“Funny”, I thought, “When has anyone ever cared about how I use my time previously? When I worked in jobs where I watched the clock tick on the wall so I could get a pay cheque (as many people do), did anyone care about how I used my time?”
In recent years I remember a conversation I had with a family member who is a senior financial executive in Vancouver. “If you want to launch your career you won’t do it in Vancouver. You have to go away and come back when you’re fully launched.” He spent a number of years in Toronto before returning to the west coast.
As a mum who has been looking after twins since birth, I’m not in a position to catapult myself in, flying high in my career. My career has been on hold and, in some ways, has gotten a touch stale. I’ve established a presence in social media, exploring the themes of building community in BC and building on experience publishing content online since the late 90s. I’ve written and curated content related to my professional field on two Twitter accounts and a well-fleshed out Facebook account. I’ve got many plans that I’d like to develop around these themes. Extra time to do that might be just the ticket.
I’ve known for a long time – ever since I moved to Vancouver back in the 90s – that you can’t expect someone else or some company to create a job for you. As I look at the bleak landscape of jobs for which I could hope to get my resume short listed, I can’t help thinking that this is a town where you have to make your own fortune. The frustrations I’ve experienced in the past linger but the inspiration I pull from connecting with women and men in the dynamic social media scene in Vancouver gives me hope.