Comment Writer and Finalist Molly Elliott takes a closer look at the challenging climate that awaits the class of 2021, arguing that students will remain resilient if their mental health is well supported

Written by Molly Elliott
Images by Jebulon

As dissertations are underway and graduation looms, many final year students are trying to decide just what to do after university. The class of 2021 will be the second group to graduate during the COVID-19 pandemic. The well-worn word ‘unprecedented’ is seemingly beginning to lose its weight as we close in on a year of restrictions.

It is not surprising that two-thirds of graduates in 2020 were not feeling positive about their career paths. 78% of graduates surveyed in a Prospects study said they were worried about a lack of opportunities due to the pandemic. The statistics about unemployment and a lack of graduate job confidence create a bleak picture, but the conversation around student mental health and the graduate situation does not seem to be leading to effective solutions.

The conversation around student mental health and the graduate situation does not seem to be leading to effective solutions

The graduate market certainly feels less inspiring this year, despite many employers now offering remote working solutions. It is easy to feel trapped because lockdown has narrowed our social lives as well as our job opportunities. Student mental health is in decline for many reasons, with the struggle to find graduate opportunities just adding to the pressure. 57% of students in one survey reported that their mental health had declined in 2020. It is no wonder that final year students are not feeling optimistic about their job opportunities when 2020 has had such a profound impact on mental health.

But the class of 2020 suggests a mixed picture of the actual state of the graduate market. Some students have faced immense hardship, having to rely on unemployment benefit schemes that are not designed for recent graduates, whilst others have been lucky, securing positions as the market quickly adapts to remote working. One analyst feels optimistic about the graduate market for this year, citing vaccine rollout and economic recovery on the horizon

However, each student brings a unique set of circumstances to the job search, and this can explain why some are not experiencing as much adversity as others. The varying positive and negative views of the current graduate market show that the story is complex. On an individual level, however, the strain on student’s mental health is definitely not letting up for the class of 2021.

The strain on student’s mental health is definitely not letting up for the class of 2021

Whilst we struggle to come to terms with a final year at university that looks nothing like we imagined, there may be some comfort in knowing that we are not the first to graduate in a time of extreme crisis. Graduates have regularly faced challenges over the past five decades; there have been at least 5 global level financial crises since the 1970s, and hundreds of these at national levels, which have had an impact on graduate employment. The pressure this year is exacerbated by the restrictions which accompany the global pandemic, which was not needed in past economic crises. Facing economic difficulties when graduating is one thing, but mental health has also been severely impacted by a lack of socialising and leisure activities, as well as fear of the virus. The importance of friendship and support networks when facing uncertainty is undeniable. Previous crises show, however, that people are resilient. The graduate market has survived shocks before.

Other students are turning their attention away from the grad scheme search. A popular graduate option – especially in times of economic downturn – is to stay at university for postgraduate study. ‘Panic masters’ are by no means new. Students who graduated in 2008 also favoured the postgraduate route to avoid the horrors of the post-crash job market. The University of Birmingham recently ran a virtual talk with some 2008 graduates, who imparted wisdom about managing the stress of graduating in a crisis, several of the panelists had engaged in postgraduate study. 

Panic masters are by no means new

The consensus is mixed on the value of panic masters. On the one hand, it seems like a great way to avoid the stress of seeking a graduate role in a saturated market; on the other, the added debt and commitment to further study is a big consideration. Some previous masters students like journalist Kat Smith urge caution before diving into postgraduate study and for several good reasons. But in a year when even traveling is off the table, and students face their first year out of education, it is understandable why postgraduate study is increasing in popularity.

The class of 2021 are weighing up their limited options, and there is no doubt that the mood is mainly pessimistic. But as the 2008 graduates stressed, as bad as things are right now, the situation will improve. What’s most important is protecting your mental health during the immediate crisis. No zoom grad scheme interview or heartless rejection email is worthy of damaging your wellbeing. Talk to your course mates, friends, family and try to remember that this crisis will not go on forever. If you feel up to it, book an appointment with a Career’s Network advisor, who will reassure you of the options available. For many of us, 2021 is the first time we have no idea where we’ll be this time next year. This unknown can be stressful, but I also think it can be an exciting – if scary – opportunity.

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