I signed on. At the end of next month it will have been a year. A whole year. Admittedly there have been only two or three weeks in that year in which I’ve had no work whatsoever but still. A year?! Pam (my advisor) said to me with elongated vowels and infuriatingly soft tones;
So, you’re looking for charity work ( ‘charity work’. Don’t grimace just say yes).
Have you called any charities?
Charities, have you called any? Can you tell me which one’s you’ve been in touch with please.
What, all of them? It’s about a hundred. I’ve applied for eighty jobs, interviewed for thirteen (she knows this, she’s just trying to annoy me).
You want me to list them to you? Now?
Have you tried Bernados?
(What?!) Yes, I’ve looked at Bernados (lie) they don’t have anything I’m qualified for.
Have you thought about leaving the country?
And so it goes. Every two weeks I have this conversation with Pam. There are only slight variations. I leave wanting to pull my hair out. Actually, I leave wanting to pull her hair out. But it’s not Pam’s fault of course. One job for every six people looking. The highest youth unemployment since records began. Women are more unemployed than men, obviously. The public sector is being cut further than even a deterministic Tory despiser (which I am) could ever have predicted . Being a young woman who studied international development working in the not-for-profit sector in a variety of roles without a 'profession' as such doesn’t bode terribly well in the status quo.
I leave the job centre, passing a man on the floor outside. His hair is chaotic, he looks tired and although clearly young, his face is worn. He has his crumpled paper work spread across the floor, trying desperately to order them into a plastic folder which has clearly been bought especially for the occasion, it’s still in its wrapping. He checks his watch frantically, doubtless terrified that he’ll be late and get spoken to like a complete idiot. He’s going to get spoken to like a complete idiot regardless.
I set off to set up camp in the coffee shop I go to most days and spend hours searching and applying for positions. I begin work. Head down. Go.
Today the big news is that Poundland are to ‘step back from the work experience scheme’ after the Cat Reilly story broke at the end of last year. Last week Radio 4’s PM heard from unemployed people every day to tell their stories. Last night’s Question Time saw some of the usual suspects fight out the current unemployment crises. Owen Jones spent the night retweeting unemployed people trying to tell the world in 140 characters how upset they were at the assumption that they aren’t trying; the hundreds of jobs applied for; the interviews attended; the voluntary work undertaken; the graduates pulling pints for minimum wage; masters working in call centres; everybody volunteering.
Unemployment is getting worse as we knew it would and people are really starting to talk about it, as they should. The unemployed have been for decades now an underclass, assumed to be there because they choose to be. With Thatcher’s and New Labour’s success in the promotion of individualism and meritocracy, solidified with the ‘We’re all middle class now’ party line, the unemployed have become the scurge of society, rinsing the system for every penny so they can raise hoards children in council houses. This propaganda, led by the tabloids exists to shame unemployed people and ignore the truths of poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity for so many.
But what is being unemployed actually like?
When you stop working you lose a part of your identity. Like stopping smoking or drinking, a part of who you are and how you define yourself disappears. In addition, the new form of yourself minus what once was takes on an identity of its own, forcing you to adopt it without your permission. It becomes you. You become it. Non-smoker. T-Total. Unemployed. Unemployed takes over who you are. The truth that I am ‘unemployed’ brings with it attributable characteristics that simply aren’t true. Lazy. Not trying hard enough. Likes not working (who wouldn’t). Benefit scrounger. And so on. Whether people are thinking these things or not is irrelevant, you assume they might be because you know what we as a society think as a whole of ‘the unemployed’ as a whole. People ask when they see me; ‘Hey, how are you? How’s the job hunt’. I’m then forced to answer and as I try to convince them that I am not a lay about and that I am trying, I feel like I’m lying. I want to pull my laptop out and bring up my search history, emails and applications folder just to prove that I really, really am trying. But I don’t do that, obviously.
There has certainly been a move towards giving a voice to the middle class unemployed, the older generation of people who have been made redundant after 30 years in the same job, the graduates lacking in experience that makes them employable, the women trying to return to work after having a baby or raising a family. And this is brilliant. We keep hearing about the change in the average person in the job centres. You can see people in suits in there now (Gasp!). This is the new wave of unemployed and they (we) seem to be getting a voice which is fantastic. But what about the people who were unemployed before? At the moment there are not enough jobs. We know this, and it’s a hideous situation. But let’s be bold enough to assume that this country will sort its shit out, the nation will wake up and realise that a terrible, terrible mistake has been made and we’ll boot this government out of office if not before then certainly at the next general election, ( I need to hope). Let’s say that happens and gradually with greater investment back into the public sector and a greater management of the economy the job market opens up again. Then what? All the middle class, the graduates, the skilled professionals and trades-people will go back to work and we’ll all live happily ever after? The job centre will be the stomping ground of the benefit scroungers once more right?
One of the greatest guilts I carry around as the unemployed version of myself is that I haven’t yet taken just any job. I wonder if people think ‘she could get a job if she really wanted one’ and they’re probably right. Perhaps I could get a job cleaning toilets, pulling pints, answering telephones, indeed I have spent a significant portion of my working life doing just these things, why not now? And I know that many people I speak to have done these things too. And I know that those graduates and PHDs are in horrible situations but there is something for them. There is the hope if not the certain belief, that it’s temporary. As it was for so many at university or just after. Doing ‘shitty’ jobs while working towards the ‘real’ job. But I ask you. What if the ‘shitty’ job was all you were ever going to do. Would you take it then? I’d like David Cameron to go to the job centre and search one of the machines for a job, any job, that he would happily do. Not for a month or two while he waits for the economy to stabilise. Not for a few years while he studies. Not part-time while he interns to get the experience he needs. But for the rest of his life. He wouldn’t dream of it. The jobs available to the vast majority of unemployed people are hideous jobs that pay appallingly.
I have tried to explain to Pam on several occasions when she’s suggested a job, that I am ill-qualified or un-experienced for that particular line of work. She sometimes lets me by on that. I have tried once to explain that the job was one that I simply did not want to do and what was the point of applying for and getting a job that would make me miserable, surely that was only going to lead to more unemployment in the long run or just a miserable life. No. Not OK. There is a complete lack of acceptance for wanting to choose a job that you want to do, that you would like to do, that you would be proud of doing. On the Today programme last week I heard a young man interviewed about being unemployed. He was so enthusiastic about the work he wanted to do and clearly was making every effort, including volunteering in that particular field to try and build his experience. The interviewer asked if he was just being ‘too choosy’.
Cameron has said that the private sector will replace the lack of public sector jobs. It just shows once again how completely moronic this man is. On top of the issues we will face by loosing so much of our invaluable social services he has completely overlooked the fact that many if not most of the people in that sector, doing those jobs are doing them because it’s what they love to do. He wants our teachers to work in banks? Our nurses to serve the super rich? Does he have no notion that a cleaner who takes absolute pride in his work might choose to clean a hospital rather than a supermarket? There is a culture in this country for the belief that a job is a job and you’re lucky to have one, conveniently forgetting that the majority of workers are selling their labour hour by hour in mind-numbing, uninspiring jobs where they are treated badly and paid terribly in order to feed themselves and put a roof over their heads. Some of us get to do work we love and some, just some, are those for who the majority work to make richer.
Why at the job centre instead of forcing people to apply for any old job are they not trying to find out what people would like to do. Why aren’t they encouraging people to search for their passion, their element. If they did they could train people, inspire people and actually find the right job for the right person. It is not simply about having enough jobs, it is about matching the right person to the right job.
I want the job centre to stop trying to force me and everyone else to take just any job. I want to stress this isn’t about the type of job. There is nothing wrong with stacking shelves and cleaning toilets as long as it’s what you want to do, you’re being paid fairly to do it and treated well while you’re doing it. There is an unemployment crisis at this moment due to public sector cuts and capitalism out of control. But there has been a cultural and social crisis surrounding our national opinion and treatment of the unemployed for much longer and it will continue. When the middle classes finally get back into work a massive portion of society will still be signing on every week, forced to go on work programmes, forced to apply for jobs they can't bare the thought of doing.
Simon Sinek said ‘If you hire people just because they can do a job they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.’
We need to rethink the way we look at work. Why we work. Who we work for. What we work for. And most importantly how we expect others to work.
Of course if that happened we’d be looking at something resembling an educated, inspired, fair and equal society in which people worked with passion and love for the task in hand and maybe even for and with each other instead of to make another man richer. Wouldn’t that be nice.