I’ve never been very good with change. On all my birthdays my mum likes to drag up the story about how I cried when I turned five because I wanted to stay four forever and, honestly, I still relate. So when year 13 exams wrapped up and my time at school came to an end, I felt disorientated, as though I’d fallen off the edge into nothingness.
I had a university place confirmed but, confused about what I was committing to for three years, and struggling with my dyslexia, I was beginning to backtrack on my plans to study English. So this ended up being the summer I spent trying to decide whether to go or to apply again the following year. I was grateful that taking a year out was an option at all, but I also had absolutely no idea what I was going to do and felt as though I had failed. In the meantime, I got a job for the summer at a catering company, working for £5.35 an hour. We had to buy our own uniforms, so the first couple of shifts were about breaking even.
Unfortunately for me, the job was all about change. We were outsourced staff, with slicked buns, ironed shirts and straight-creased slacks, and we rotated around whatever party, wedding, concert or work event needed us. “No two shifts are the same!” was part of the sell, but after a handful of jobs the phrase became what I’d groan as I came through the door: “No two shifts are the same.” Variety might be the spice of life, but this was a period in which things didn’t need spicing up any more. I was feeling pretty insecure.
At that age, everyone knew the sickest burn in any film to date came at the climax of Clueless, when Tai sneers at Cher through gritted teeth: “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” But that was a little close to home for me. I wasn’t entirely happy about the way my personality had shaped up at 18. I’d always been shy, and never felt I had the masterful handle on social interactions most of my friends seemed to understand instinctively.
I bobbed through school, like most teenagers, keeping my head down and just trying to fit in, but under the surface I struggled socially. I filled multiple angsty diaries with how I’d never had a boyfriend and never been kissed. For some reason, I also didn’t gel well with those big crescendo Friday-night events: the WKD-in-the-park meetups, the house parties and, later, the clubbing. I wasn’t self-assured like other people were, and that social clunkiness felt even heavier at work.
How do other people conduct themselves so smoothly? One shift I’d be bumbling over to a group of people at a work event, talking about “canopies” instead of “canapés”, and the next, I’d be saying “thank you” instead of “you’re welcome” as I handed over the wrong change for a poorly poured pint of Guinness. I felt incompetent, unconfident and generally useless. The varied nature of the job also meant things never felt like they were getting easier, because the rules, the customers, the teams, the bosses, the hours and the venues were constantly changing.
It was flexible – which was why I’d jumped ship from my retail job – but also sometimes lonely. There were moments where we bonded, though. “You’re supposed to pour out every last drop, to show you’ve given him the full bottle,” I remember being told with a whisper after a customer looked at me like I’d just murdered someone. I’d only poured about 90% of a mini bottle of wine into his glass – but I’d only legally been able to drink for a few months and didn’t fully understood that when it came to alcohol people were precious about portions. On another shift at a concert, a colleague helped scare off a drunk man who tried to hop over the bar and kiss me.
But, in general, building up camaraderie was difficult over an eight-hour shift with someone you wouldn’t meet again, and sometimes you’d leave a shift (occasionally just following a shout of: “Who wants to leave then?”) without really saying goodbye to anyone. On my final shift, I left just as quietly.
That September, I decided to stay at home, and started drafting personal statements again while looking for temp work. Having been through university and several jobs since, I’ve found that being able to build a team and having a sense of routine can be central to feeling valued and liked, but also to feeling good at what you do. It’s not something I’ve taken for granted – this is increasingly rare in a gig economy characterised by unpredictable hours and a growing need for side-hustles. Stability is a precious commodity afforded to far too few. I know the drive for sameness also isn’t there for everyone, and have friends who jump at the chance of jobs that promise every day will be different. But I’ve come to realise how much more competent, and more myself I feel when things stay the same. The first day is the hardest, but then it gets easier, a little more routine.
• Micha Frazer-Carroll is opinions editor at gal-dem.com