In law we talk a lot about the duty to mitigate damages. In other words, the duty to minimize your own losses in certain circumstances. In 2008 I started my undergraduate degree in law, and it quickly became clear that losses would occur and mitigation would be necessary. At the time, the recession dominated the news, and most discussions. The job losses, statistics, and fear were unavoidable facts, so I started doomsday preparations accordingly. I networked, volunteered, and took on part-time work during school in hopes of being a competitive candidate for jobs in the legal field upon graduation. Or at the very least, a full-time permanent job in a relevant industry.
I moved from Ottawa to Toronto when I graduated in 2012; fresh-faced, and prepared to pay my dues. I was so eager that I forgot to ask myself how long ‘paying your dues’ is supposed to last.
Five years after graduation, I get home from a bartending shift and stare at my walls. It’s 4:30am, and I need to sleep. Instead, I worry about tomorrow. I need more work, so I plan to call the temp agency in the morning. I’ll ask, “Is there anything available this week?”, and they’ll say, “Not right now, but we’ll keep you posted.” I’ll try to keep my voice chipper to hide the lump in my throat.
The conversation has been the same for the last four months; no one in the financial district is taking their vacation days. I consider moving out and finding roommates. How to decide when I have no idea what my income will be next month? It could be $400, or it could be $3,500.
5:30 am. I force myself to sit up and look for full-time legal jobs. If I’m not going to sleep, I might as well keep going.
The first time I gave any thought to the five stages of grief, it was 2008—my last semester of high school, with my university acceptance secured.
We were reading 1984 in English class, and it occurred to me that the protagonist goes through the five stages of grief as the plot evolves: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It was the first time I grasped that grief isn’t solely owned by death; misunderstood realities and failed dreams also have skin in the game. For some of us who graduated with degrees post-recession, failure to find stability is just as pervasive as bad Tinder dates or TTC service interruptions.
We don’t have mortgages, RRSPs, or families of our own in a lot of cases. For some, the absence of these things isn’t exactly tragic. For me, the inability to choose these things has been a source of overwhelming grief since graduation.
Denial: When I get home from work, my roommate is washing his uniform in the sink. He asks to borrow extra tokens because he doesn’t have an hour and a half to walk to work. I hand them over knowing I’ll need to ask him for the same favour next week. Rent is due soon, but I also need work clothes for my short-term contract job. It pays just over minimum wage, but at 22, I don’t know anyone making much more. For the first time, I know what it feels like to be persistently hungry, but as a new grad, hunger feels like ambition.
Anger: My request for overtime pay has been denied because I didn’t get pre-approval. At 4:55 pm the day before, I was asked to complete a project by 10am the next morning; which I considered to be enough approval. HR felt differently. I’m 25 now, and contract at the insurance firm is up for renewal every three months. We all know that the projects I’ve been assigned will go on for much longer than that, but we do the dance anyways.
Bargaining: When my tooth starts aching, it’s a pain in both the ass and the mouth—the natural consequence of going years without dental benefits. When I ask HR if I can pay for my own benefits through their group plan, the answer is no. The universe must love me, because the toothache goes away on its own. Eventually so do the nightmares about my teeth falling out.
Conventional wisdom suggests that in the absence of employer benefits, you purchase your own, or put aside some money every month to cover emergency costs. I know a few people who manage to do just that, but the majority go without in the interest of paying for other things. For some of my friends, it’s rent or transportation. For me, it’s tuition and textbooks for a post-graduate paralegal program. Between a day job and night classes, I don’t have time to visit the dentist anyways.
Depression: Three days before my latest contract is up for renewal, I get annoyed and demand an answer in either direction about my employer’s intentions. After much back and forth, I’m told that my projects are being given to the underwriting department. In other words, I’m screwed. I use my legal education to squeeze out a small settlement, and walk away.
At 16, I would have predicted that my life would be different by 26. When I meet a guy I can see a future with, I can’t deny just how badly I want to settle down anymore, or pretend that my current prospects are enough. But how can I expect him to see me as a partner when the economy keeps choosing me for Team Struggle Bus?
Acceptance: A few months after leaving the insurance firm, I’m making drinks behind the bar, while rich people either try to talk down to me or hit on me. It’s almost a relief. At least this way I don’t have to pretend that a pile of straw is gold. I haven’t made peace with my circumstances, but I’ve given into them. It is what it is. After late shifts I drink $5 pints with my coworkers, and try to pretend that I’m not too old to be there.
I didn’t expect to hear back when I applied to the law firm. When I got the interview, I refused to get excited, because disappointment can’t exist without expectations or hope. When the job offer came, people asked, “Are you happy?” to which I’d respond, “I just feel relieved, and very lucky”.
Instead of staring at my walls at night, I reassess the middle-class options I assumed had evaded me—and then sleep.
The writer is featured in Part 1 of VICE Money’s video series on how young people in Canada navigate a hostile financial landscape. You can watch it here .