How to survive unemployment and under-employment without wallowing in self-pity (too much)

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by MelRuth
By: Phil CampbellCC BY 2.0
Since I finished University I have been under-employed for at least 18 months — depending on how you define underemployed. Although, luckily for me, being underemployed doesn't mean that I am out on the streets.

I graduated from my masters in 2009 and succeeded in getting a paid traineeship which lasted a year. Since it was temporary I stayed with the zero-hour contract I had when completing my studies, just in case I couldn't get anything when my traineeship finished. Since my traineeship finished I have been lucky enough to get further temporary positions in my field lasting 18 months in total.

Despite this I have had months on end relying on my zero-hour contract, a job that doesn't provide me with any challenge and I didn't need to get my degree to get. Some of the time I get a few hours and manage to make ends meet and other times I can have weeks on end with no shifts.

I have coped with these periods of underemployment and unemployment by doing a few key things…

Take advantage of the time I have available

When my last temporary contract was coming to an end, I started to list all the things I never had time for and wanted to tackle. Some are big things like cycle Lands End to John o' Groats in a week, which requires time to plan and train. Others are smaller things like make proper use of the walk-in cupboard full of junk, knit more, and train my cat, sort out this shelf in the cupboard, or put something I found onto freecycle. The small things are a great way to focus my time and energy. This is because they are actionable things I can do without many resources and do at that very moment to give me a feeling of productivity and satisfaction. The bigger things give me a sense of purpose and a goal to work toward. I wouldn't have had the time for these things if I was employed so am using the time I am not working to improve things.

Don't think of myself as "unemployed" when I did not work

I read once that the worst thing about unemployment is you are on the job from the moment you wake up. Instead, I am developing my skill set and training for the big adventures on my list. It is a much better mindset to be in. Thinking about being in training for some big adventure challenges gives me a more positive mindset and gives my day a purpose beyond job hunting. If you are in the same position as me I would definitely stop thinking "unemployed" and start thinking you are doing something that excites you like be in training for a challenge, setting up your own business or traveling.

Keep job hunting

Yes, I am currently training for the next ski season with the plan to tackle some big tours, but I am in need of a better, more appropriate job. I designate time to each day to look for work in my field and apply for any jobs I feel fit my goals. When I can't find anything to apply for I work to develop my CV, promote myself to potential employers, and any other positive actions I can take. I stick to the designated time to keep routine, and to not let the feelings around job-hunting become prominent.

For those of you that are under-employed try not to feel like your current job is only a means to make rent. My job shows employers that I am flexible, can work with the public and able to teamwork. Your job might show these and other skills and qualities that a potential employer is interested in so try and remember this when you are wondering why you spent years training for something else.

Let myself be a grumpy grizzly guts, sometimes

I am completely allowed days when the only reason I leave my bed is for more wine and chocolate. I am allowed to wallow in a job rejection or not being able to afford a holiday when people are showing off their holiday pictures. It is okay, because not being in work that challenges me sucks, as does struggling to make ends meet. The important thing is to not let every day be "wallow in self pity days." Most days should be spent enjoying time that is my own.

Spend my time doing what I can to improve my life

I embrace having time to spend doing all the things I wouldn't normally have time to do. Which, so far, has resulted in weekends away hiking with my mum, a former junk room that is now a reading nook, two knitted scarves trying out different patterns, reading books and many many many other things.

Don't give up

Of course, the morning after writing this post I got a call, offering me a great job that I have been working towards for five years! Don't give up hunting, and don't let unemployment or underemployment get you down. Something awesome came for me right when I was about to give up the hunt for a job that excites me.

Signing up for LinkedIn? Investing more money in advertising? Binge-watching TV shows? What are your tips for dealing with being under-or-unemployed?

  1. Thank you for this. I'm a recent law school grad out of work since May. I've picked up and lost a few side gigs, mostly because I let my depression get the best of me. Right now, I still have no prospects, but I have a few stellar bootstrap side gig ideas in the works.

    My very important tip for those of you in the same boat: If you are really REALLY saddened by the state of things, take some time to recover from that mental state. Give yourself time to grieve and cry it out, then let go of those feelings with purpose.

    When I say to do it with purpose, make sure those feelings are out of your system. Otherwise, they will fall out of your face when you're not paying attention, and your future employers will see that. So have a Viking funeral, write it all down and burn it, yell it out in nature and give it back to the world, make sad needlepoints, write it in sidewalk chalk and let the rain wash it away… whatever you can to acknowledge and mourn then let it all go.

    Good luck Homies!

    • You're not the only law grad in this situation. I started job hunting about a month before I graduated, passed the bar, and continued through 6 months of living abroad, and then finally got something 6 months after coming back home. I was unemployed or under-employed for over a year as a law grad with 3 years law firm experience.
      Many of my friends who graduated law school with me are facing worse prospects, and are still unemployed.

      • Thank you for reaching out!! I've been having such a hard time coming to terms with the state of the legal world. We all have entered at the wrong time and it seems like we have hit maximum capacity for lawyers.

        I'm leaving it all together and helping my folks open an antiques store. Hopefully some good will come from that.

  2. I've been underemployed for years. Last year I took a cut in hours and it became financially necessary for me to take a second, minimum wage job. I deal with this in two ways:

    1) Find personal satisfaction/happiness elsewhere. This is roughly congruent with the 'take advantage of the time you have'. I started taking more time to play the ukulele, and writing songs, and developing myself in a way that wasn't caught up with work (or lack thereof).

    2) Look for opportunities in a different field. That second minimum wage job I took that in no way relates to my education and special skills? They value me hugely and promoted me to manager after just a few months. It made me realise that maybe my job situation isn't completely dead in the water like I though – there might be a career for me outside of my chosen field instead.

  3. Thank you for this! It's very timely for me as I have been out of work since the end of December. I have found that the Ask A Manager blog is very helpful with resume and cover letter tips and some of the questions the readers submit make me very glad I don't work at their office! The key thing I try to remember is that this economy still sucks pretty bad and I am not the only one without work.

  4. All great tips! I guess I'm not really underemployed because I have a job in my chosen profession, but it's only half-time, so I feel like I have lots of extra time on my hands. So, I started doing some tutoring, just to make a bit more money and have something else to do. Then I got a little contract through a contact on LinkedIn.
    I also made a list of the things I could do because I had more time. I'm knitting more, reading more, trying out new recipes, and probably watching too much Netflix. Because I'm home more during the week, I can go to matinee movies (cheaper!) and grocery shop when the stores aren't busy. I'm trying to see the positive parts of working less and trying to enjoy this time off because I know I'll have a full-time job eventually and will probably look back on these days and miss sleeping in on Monday mornings!

    • I found my list really useful when I was unemployed. It could make me glad that I didnt have a job because I had time to do all these things and get all the chores done when things where quiet, I could help friends and family out with theirs as well. Now I am facing a 4 day a week job I am wondering when I will get my banking done, and how will I ever find the time to cycle Lands End to John O' Groats since I will have to take days off to complete the challenge.

  5. I love how each of these tips (okay with the possible exception of Grumpy Grizzly Guts) is positive and focuses on being productive. I'm staring down the business end of being unemployed in a few weeks, and weirdly enough, I'm excited about regenerating my creativity and my general desire to be productive. It may take awhile (this job is a vampire–I done been sucked dry), but these tips are all things I'm looking forward to implementing.
    Good luck to you and thanks for the story!

    • Thanks. When I was unemployed I found that all advice on how to cope focused on getting a job and not dealing with the situation I was living in. I did find some great tips or hear things that made me change the way I did things. It is important to stay positive and try to enjoy and use the time that is now available.

  6. THANK YOU for writing this. It is very timely for me, as I was just laid off from my job two weeks ago and have been feeling rather low. I'm applying to as many jobs as I can (I filed for unemployment benefits, and it requires that you have at least three job search efforts per week–overachiever that I am, I'm going for many more than that!) and trying to stay positive and not lose hope. I am enjoying certain aspects of unemployment, like having more time for the gym and getting to sleep in more, but I can't wait until I'm back in the saddle (frankly, I need the money more than I need the downtime right now–less than eighteen months until I get married and I need to save up!). Thank you for encouraging a positive outlook and reminding me that I'm not alone!

  7. Thank you for this! I have dealt with unemployment and underemployment a lot throughout my years since graduating and it can be difficult to deal with mentally. My mom has always taught me that even if you're not working outside the home (she was a stay-at-home mom for a few years), you should still work on accomplishing things every day. It can be cleaning your home, working on a side business, or doing some kind of personal edification, but not being at work is no excuse for doing nothing. Although this has always been my philosophy, I've often been looked down on by people outside of my family for it… I think people often have a hard time acknowledging that even though work is super important, it's not everything. Nice to see someone else say that time away from work can still be well spent.

  8. As a newly unemployed person, I was happy to stumble upon this article. I was lucky enough to decide that I was going to leave my job, so I planned on taking a week or two of 'vacation' before embarking on my job search….which lasted about 3 days before I was going stir crazy!
    I agree whole heartedly with Lydia's suggestion of finding opportunity in a different field – I thought outside the box when applying, and have gotten great responses so far (turns out my skills apply to several different careers – who knew!).
    I also made a concerted effort to volunteer my time – there are a crazy amount of opportunities for one or two time events in my area, I've made some great connections and it certainly doesn't hurt the ol' resume!
    I think the article and responses have a great underlying theme…don't get too down. The internal dialogue is a curse of the human condition, and sometimes it gets too loud, and you must stuff a sock in it. Remember that you were once employed, you are not a dummy, and you will be employed again.
    Keep fighting the good fight, and remember you are not alone!

  9. Where was this article 6 months ago when I was really struggling with underemployment?
    I would like to add that what I found helpful in this sort of situation is to find someone who is irrevocably in your corner who knows what you're dealing with in your job hunt. For me I had a couple people to commiserate with, or help cheer me on when something looked promising. A little moral support during this time is critical to mental well-being during a really stressful time.

  10. Thanks for putting this out there. It's nice just reading all the comments of other people in a similar situation.

    I graduated in 2010 and have struggled with either underemployment or unemployment since. I've undergone unemployment while living at my parent's house and my fiance's, month-long temp jobs, and working as a waitress at multiple locations (not always a money maker, as many will tell you). Most recently, after moving to a new city, I was fired from a job of three days. I'd never been fired before so it was quite the shocker for me and I spiraled into a depression. I stopped applying for jobs for a while (after four years of sending out applications, one can get very tired). That was about 4 months ago and I'm slowly working my way out of the hole: I sold $200 worth of product at a Christmas Market back in December, started taking classes to become a Nurse Assistant (also taking a Massage Therapy course in the Fall), and actually just got a call today for an interview at a restaurant! My fiance has been a big help pushing me and challenging me to continue the fight (especially when I don't want to) and I'm grateful for that.

    It's a struggle. Luckily my fiance has a (very low-paying) job as a elementary school teacher, so we can afford to have a place of our own now. Unfortunately, we are still struggling and only just keep our head above water, and we sometimes (or, more than sometimes) have fights about money. But I know that someday I'll have a job, despite what that feeling deep in my gut wants to say otherwise.

  11. i have been unemployed for four years at this point. i've all BUT given up. it was a nasty situation…i finished grad school with a masters in environmental engineering in may of 2008 and landed right into a private sector consulting job. i did everything right…worked hard, kept my nose clean, waited the requisite year to make any big/permanent changes. in summer 2009 my husband and i bought a house and got pregnant with our first. enter 2010, the year from hell. january: i got laid off (26w pregnant and very clearly showing…not a good formula for finding a job, especially in a male-dominated culture in rural middle-of-nowhere). february: husband passed away. march: son was born. i kind of took the rest of the year "off" to recouperate, since i was collecting unemployment anyway. i DID look for work, but not hardcore. and i've been regretting it ever since. i should have hit the ground running as soon as my son was born, but hindsight is always 20/20 and i'm not sure i could have handled it at the time.

    since then, i've been doing my best to optimize and streamline the home life HERE (new city, new partner), and embrace stay-at-home-motherhoood, even though i'm still casually looking for work and stay-at-home-motherhood was never part of my life plan. it's not looking good, lol. turns out i'm a terrible housekeeper. but my son and i have fun, and dinner is on the table when my fiance gets home from work probably 4 days a week (with leftovers and scavenging the 5th day). the house is relatively clean (if not completely clutter-free), laundry is usually done, and the fridge is stocked probably 85% of the time. (i hate grocery shopping, especially with a 4yo. lol) i think what's been best for me is not lulling myself into potential false hope convincing myself that a job could be just around the corner (been there, done that for waaaaaaaaay too long…recipe for depression for me), i've been focusing on letting go of control, because in this job market we really DON'T have a lot of control, especially with more than a bachelor's degree. let's face it, more education is a liability these days because with so many applicants for each position, employers can afford to be choosy and will likely pick whoever is qualified for LESS justifiable pay (and whoever is less likely to drop them like a hot rock the minute a better job comes around), unless you can convince them that you're worth the "liability". being female is a liability too, and having a large (>6 months) employment gap is also a liability. i'm definitely trying, but for me, it's been easier on my mental state to accept that this may be my life now. i'm a much happier person for it.

    not everyone is as lucky as i am either, that staying at home is actually an option financially (albeit not even close to ideal), so i recognize that my situation isn't applicable to most people. just a different perspective.

    unemployment SUCKS.

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