Money

How to Look for a Job When Everything Feels Hopeless

The economy is in the toilet and there's a pandemic happening, but somehow we are still expected to look for work.
July 29, 2020, 3:20pm
Cropped shot of a young woman sitting alone in her home office and feeling stressed while using her laptop
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Whether you’re out of a job or desperately need to leave your current one (because, say, your boss is boundaryless or you feel like your physical safety isn’t valued), looking for work right now can feel incredibly bleak. If you’re trying to stay motivated while firing off job applications every day, it may be a challenge not to get frustrated and give up. Between rapidly-rising coronavirus cases, the nightmarish process of filing for unemployment, the scarcity of jobs, and an unprecedented unemployment rate, it’d be weird not to be anxious or pessimistic about the future. VICE talked to financial and career experts who dealt with the 2008's Great Recession to get their tips for job hunting in an extremely tough time.

Keep reminding yourself that you’re not alone.

Dealing with financial setbacks and a ton of other stressors since March would be isolating even without the physical separation induced by the pandemic. If no one else in your immediate circle has been laid off, it can feel like you’re one of the unlucky few who was cut. But it’s important to remember that you’re definitely not the only one going through these painful experiences, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. The process of researching companies, writing cover letters, and drafting cold emails can be ripe with rejection. Coping requires a lot of self-compassion, and treating your circumstances as a personal failing is the last thing you need right now. 

During the Great Recession, Tiffany Aliche, now a financial educator and founder of The Budgetnista, lost her job as a preschool teacher, was $85,000 in debt, and eventually moved back in with her parents. She told VICE that people who are newly facing unemployment should “acknowledge and to understand that you are not alone in what's happening,” because “this is one of the rare times where literally everyone is experiencing this pandemic in some way.” 

If you find yourself feeling reluctant to talk about your stress with friends and family, or are still blaming yourself for taking an ill-fated job or booking an expensive vacation before the pandemic began, know that tens of millions of people across a wide spectrum of professions have been furloughed, lost their apartments, and/or are freaking out about their unemployment money running out. It’s unfair, and dispiriting, but it’s not your fault.

Manage your expectations.

If you've been motivated to apply for jobs nonstop, you might expect to find one fairly quickly. But the interview process for one job can take months in normal circumstances; expect it to take even longer in a pandemic when recruiters are inundated with applications and managing remote interviews. 

“Assume from the get-go that a job hunt is going to take longer than you want it to, especially during a volatile economy,” said Michelle Tullier, founder of Tullier Consulting, a private career counseling and coaching firm. 

Expect to find something eventually, but plan for the worst if you don’t find a job ASAP. Could you get a roommate or make some money baby-sitting if necessary? Are there other financial resources and social services that you might not be aware of? Aliche suggested going on what she calls your “noodle budget,” aka the money you’d need if you only spent on absolute necessities (and ate Top Ramen for dinner instead of takeout or pricier groceries). So, with all extraneous purchases taken out, your noodle budget might be $800 less than what you normally spend in a month, and could buy you a little more time to find a new job. 

If the idea of budgeting stresses you out, know that it can be as simple as starting a spreadsheet of all your fixed expenses, plus estimates for things like food or gas based on your checking account history. Having a clear picture of the reality of your financial situation can actually be fairly empowering, and reduce stress in the long run.  

“A job search is likely to tax your emotional and financial reserves, so think ahead about how to mitigate your anxiety,” Tullier said. “If finances are a big concern, consider temporary or contract work to tide you over.” This also applies to any jobs you might turn normally down because they’d be lateral moves or a lower salary than you were making pre-COVID. “This is not a time to worry about any job being beneath your skill level, professional stature, or pay grade,” Tullier said. 

Experts say that employers interviewing you at this moment (and after the pandemic) will likely understand any gaps in your resume along with any non-linear career jumps that happen because of coronavirus. Extend that same level of understanding and patience towards yourself.

Don’t limit yourself to local options.

Is it scary and often draining to apply for work when everyone else is, too? Yes. But Aliche said there could be some surprising upsides to searching at this specific point in time. For one thing, some pre-pandemic articles predicted a more remote-friendly work future by 2050, and we’re already here. 

“You now have more flexibility to work for places where you don't physically live or don't plan on physically moving,” Aliche said. “More and more companies are starting to realize that their employees can be productive without having to watch them eight hours a day. So I would encourage people to throw a wider net.”

Remember the company you wrote off because you would never move to LA? Look them up. Is finding work in your field extremely limiting in your immediate area? Switch your filter to “anywhere.” With some public health experts warning that we might have to shelter in place well throughout 2021, there’s a likelihood that living on a different coast won’t be as big of a deal breaker as it might have been a year ago.

Switch up your scrolling-through-LinkedIn routine.

When jobs are scarce, it’s natural to think that you should apply to as many as possible. But doing so can actually result in wasting time applying to jobs you don’t know much about. (And employers can usually tell when you applied just for the hell of it versus out of genuine interest, or because it aligns with your experience.)

“Job searching is like working out—if you do the same exercises over and over, you're likely to get bored and lose motivation,” Tullier said. “If you're spending most days in your job hunt browsing job postings, firing off applications, and sending half-hearted messages to drum up networking appointments, it's hard to come across as enthusiastic. And you aren't likely to get results.”

Yes, it’s good to stay in a routine of applying for open roles, and not set your sights on one or two “perfect” jobs. But you also want to maintain some level of optimism and excitement for your future. Tullier said that spending a little less time applying for jobs can give you more time to spend on job-adjacent activities that leave you feeling empowered and motivated. This might look like setting limits on how long you’ll spend scanning job boards each day, and using those extra hours to redo your personal website or complete an online training program. 

Also, from recent personal experience, I can tell you that it can be really good to schedule out your day (and week) like you would at a full-time job. Looking for work is work, and setting a specific chunk of time to do it every day (e.g., start browsing job boards at 10 a.m., write cover letters from 11 to 1, etc.) can help keep you from falling into LinkedIn holes on Saturday afternoons. 

If you felt stuck pre-pandemic, use this time to consider a career change.

As Aliche said of her own 2008 experience: “There's power in the pivot.” If you felt stuck in your career before COVID-19, this can be a time to learn new skills and do something different with your life.

“I ask my clients to look at job search as being not about ‘Who will hire me?’ but about ‘Where can I make a difference?’” Tullier said. “Making a difference isn't limited to jobs as teachers or social workers or activists.” She also warned against using phrases like “dream career” or “safe career,” as neither of those get to the core of what’s important—actually enjoying most of what you do every day.

In The Atlantic column “How to Build a Life,” social scientist and Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks mentioned that the best jobs are neither pure fun (which can start to feel hollow) nor solely meaningful (which can get boring). The best blend is “interesting” work—something that keeps you consistently engaged. If you feel overwhelmed or have a strong urge to burn your whole life down, you might start with reading a book like What Color Is Your Parachute? or Designing Your Life that can help you hone in on the actual tasks you enjoy doing the most, and find a path that best aligns with them. 

If you already had a job that ticked all those boxes, but your industry is really struggling, Aliche advised finding a way to transfer those skills to a field with more growth. “In the last recession, my school closed and I was devastated, but I don't need to be in that classroom to teach,” she said. “I can take my skill sets, I can take the things that I love and apply [them] elsewhere.” Now, as a financial educator, she still gets to teach every day.

As tempting as going back to school is, consider it wisely.

While grad school can be a great investment and really helpful for a career change in some cases, Aliche suggested doing some research and thinking critically about whether traditional school is the best use of time and money. Depending on the industry, you might be able to complete university-level certification online through programs via edX and Coursera, which can be a lot more affordable than a few years’ tuition.

If it turns out that having an MA or PhD may benefit you considerably, research your industry and the expected growth for the next few years. (There are plenty of lists about this, but you can also search the job title and predicted growth rate by a specific year.) If you’ll have to take on student loan debt, is your new field likely to offer a steady income? Does the average salary for the job feel worth the time, money, and effort it’ll take to break in? Asking these questions (and being brutally honest with yourself about reality as you answer them) can help you avoid losing more money down the line.

Take care of yourself when you’re not job hunting.

Beyond the stress of finding work, you’re still living in a pandemic where the day-to-day responsibilities and endless chores can be overwhelming. On top of giving yourself breaks, you should also consider:

  • Seeing a remote therapist (services like Open Path offer more affordable options, or you can reach out to NAMI for a referral for local or free healthcare) 
  • Continuing to reach out to friends and dedicating time each day to talking to at least one person every day (ideally on the phone or via Zoom)
  • Eating well even if you’re saving money—there are plenty of great budget meals to make, or ways to spruce up a pack of ramen
  • Moving your body or doing light workouts—starting your day off with a quick walk or jog around your neighborhood can work wonders for your mood
  • Volunteering, which doesn’t have to be time-consuming or in-person, but can give you a sense of purpose if your days feel especially meaningless right now. (I’m a big fan of the Mon Ami app, which pairs you with a senior to call, and Volunteer Match also has a long list of virtual opportunities as well.) Volunteering can also give you the chance to grow your portfolio if you’re trying to switch fields.

Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help.

Spending your days sifting through job boards can quickly turn into a lonely endeavor, so be sure to tap into your existing network—and find a new one. “Don't go it alone,” Tullier said. “Seek out job search support groups in your community.” Aliche recommended using social media to your advantage by joining relevant Facebook groups, which she said you could find just by typing in keywords like your location and industry. In addition to helping you find work, she said, the act of posting in one can help normalize your experience, give you encouragement, and hold you accountable. 

On top of mass unemployment, this is a time defined by extreme isolation and loneliness. But it can also be a time where you can really lean in on your friends and family—or fellow job seekers in your industry—for support, whether you need them to proofread an email, listen to you vent about a recruiter who ghosted, or, if they’re offering, introduce you to a friend who is looking to hire someone with your experience. And doing the same for others isn’t just helpful to them—it can remind you that you’re not the only one dealing with this. The right connection at the right time can be the difference between landing a job or paying gig, and the right support system can help you get a hot meal or keep the lights on. Knowing that can bring so much hope, even now.

Follow Julia Pugachevsky on Twitter.