This is quite a long read and it discusses issues such as mental health. After eight months, I’ve finally found a job (albeit a part time temporary role) and I decided to write about the whole experience of unemployment.
I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who has ever had a positive experience of being unemployed. That was certainly my feeling during the eight months I have spent being unemployed this year. It was always my intention to write about it when it finally came to an end this week. Not just about the failings of the Job Centre and society’s attitude towards unemployed people in general (though that generally appears to be changing, interestingly) but the psychological effect it has and the social effects it has on people too.
So what led to me becoming unemployed?
After graduating from university with a degree in Politics and Sociology, I got a job fairly quickly for my local authority. It was temporary, for six months. I enjoyed the work, I found it interesting and it was alright money. But, after Christmas, I began to realise I was quickly approaching unemployment. I began to job search. I had gained valuable skills from the six month internship such as researching and developing in – depth knowledge about the effects of welfare reform. Most graduate positions were geared towards people with some kind of business related degree, so I was beginning to feel a bit desperate. I applied for entry level positions at my local council, to no avail. When I finished up, I had a week where I did as I pleased. I went out, visited friends I hadn’t seen in a while and applied for jobs. But then as my last wage began to dwindle to pennies, I thought it was time to go and sign on.
And so began a rather laborious eight month period of being skint, uncertain and unhappy.
This will be quite a long read, so I’m going to put it into different sections.
Job Centre Plus
Going to the Job Centre as a socialist is an interesting, but harrowing, experience – especially under the Tories. You quickly come to the realisation that Job Centre Plus isn’t really a support mechanism, but rather an administrative function to make sure you did everything you were supposed to be doing. My first two “signing on” appointments were experiences I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I tried not to cry, but how could I not when I was being told by passive – aggressive jobsworths that I didn’t fill in my universal jobmatch correctly? After that, I made sure I followed every other instruction to the letter. I made sure I was ten minutes early for my appointment. I made sure I did everything correctly.
What I also noticed about the Job Centre was the different ways in which people could be treated. Because the Job Centre is open plan, you can hear most things that are going on, so, you could overhear anything that was being said to others. I overheard people being cross-examined by “work coaches” as to how many times they had filled in Universal Jobmatch. I overheard someone being sanctioned but most of the time, I saw young people being pushed into unskilled, insecure and low paid work. There were adverts basically suggesting that young people couldn’t aspire to anything else than working in precarious environments. There was no promotional materials for college or university where young people could gain better skills. There were advertisements on my final visit for the “Sunemployment Roadshow” (sponsored by The Sun) or “Female only cleaners” at Glasgow Airport, or working in warehouses or call centres. There were no promotional materials for schemes such as Community Jobs Scotland, that aim to provide unemployed young people with good jobs where they can gain valuable skills and experiences. They weren’t promoted by work coaches either. I was perplexed by this obsession with sending people into rubbish jobs. The purpose of the Job Centre should be to help people, not just to gain employment, but to gain meaningful employment and improve your skills and experiences.
For some reason, they weren’t quite as desperate to send me into a rubbish job, they weren’t desperate to send me into any job, really. I noticed that people with work experience, who were maybe a bit older and who perhaps were a bit more qualified than the younger claimants were spoken to a bit differently. The work coaches weren’t quite as passive aggressive as they were to the people who weren’t quite as qualified or who didn’t have as much experience. We were often left to our own devices. I was asked a few times about work experience placements. When I asked what kinds of work it would be, I was told it would be working in a charity shop (I have lots of retail experience), working in administration or hospitality. I had quite a lot of work experience, so I didn’t really see the point of it. I wasn’t unemployed because I didn’t have enough experience. Rather than sending young people to work experience placements, that are in some cases mandatory, the government and the private sector could and should be investing money in creating *actual jobs*.
During my time signing on, I only experienced two members of staff who were actually helpful and nice. Each of the others seemed disinterested or passive aggressive towards everyone that they dealt with. I had to keep in mind that most of these people were unionised public sector workers. They didn’t necessarily believe the government’s programme was right, but had to go through with it because, just like the rest of us, they feared losing their jobs and signing on.
Ultimately, I didn’t quite experience any of the horror stories I had read on twitter, but it is telling that I expected to experience them. I would start to get anxious on a Wednesday evening “What if they say I haven’t done enough and sanction me?”. Every week, it felt like I was on my way to be told off by the headteacher for not doing something I should have done.
Most people have a negative experience of the Job Centre, and it is certainly not surprising. Wouldn’t it be great if we could change that experience? Job Centres could either perform their actual function and help people into employment, or we accept that the Job Centre actually doesn’t *really* perform the function it was intended for and run them as administration centres and increase funding to other agencies that support people into work and do a better job of it.
It would be interesting to see how many people have actually found a job via Universal Jobmatch. I am willing to bet not a lot.
I am fairly good with IT stuff, I can tweet, I can facebook, I can use Microsoft Word proficiently, I have basic web design and graphic design abilities but Universal Jobmatch is one of the biggest Kafkaesque nightmares I have ever had to deal with. Before I realised that using Universal Jobmatch wasn’t actually compulsory, I stupidly decided that I would agree to use it “every day”. Little did I realise this meant at the weekend too. Many of the jobs on UJ tended to either be out of date, not actually be a match for what you told it you were looking for or, in many cases, non-existent. It was unfit for purpose, clunky and unhelpful. The algorithms were terrible – my job options were things like charity work, research and policy, community development and public sector work, but sometimes my “recommended jobs” came back with nursing or engineering – work that I was certainly not qualified to do. I used universal jobmatch as a log book, rather than a way to look for work.
The psychological and social Impact
The psychological impact of unemployment is overwhelming. You go from being able to participate in society, from being alienated fairly quickly. To survive unemployment, you need supportive and understanding friends and family and I am glad to say I have a wonderful group of friends who understand the financial impact of unemployment and I have an especially supportive and wonderful partner. I’m not sure where I would have been for the last eight months without him. I spent a lot of time feeling bitter and angry about “the system” I spent a lot of time turning down offers to go out because I was skint. I spent a lot of time working out how I could live on £10 for the rest of the week. Thankfully I still live with my parents who would give me some money every now and then and who fed me and made sure we had an internet connection, but it was still rubbish.
Being technically poor in a capitalist society isn’t fun. Our lifestyles are predicated on buying things and talking about them or going out to places and talking about them. When you’re trying to get by on £57 a week, you don’t really have an option to buy stuff when you want to, or go out. It has to be an absolute necessity, or you have to really save up if you want to go out.
The psychological impact can be immense. I felt my mental health deteriorating, I cried quite a lot, I felt generally terrible most of the time. I lacked motivation. I felt like I had absolutely no purpose in life. Having had a job where I got to make a generally positive impact on people’s lives that I felt had a generally good purpose, it was difficult to try and deal with the fact that I didn’t have an actual purpose. Having a job makes you feel like you are making a valuable contribution to society, but being unemployed makes you feel like a leech on society, despite having been employed in some form or another since I was sixteen and having paid national insurance contributions throughout that time, I still felt like I wasn’t really entitled to Job seeker’s allowance.
At the lowest ebb, there were some occasions where I had to walk to the Job Centre which was a 45-50 minute walk away from my house. I had to search round the house for loose change if I didn’t quite have the bus fare. Sometimes I couldn’t quite afford my £12 a month phone deal and there was a point where I had to cancel my trade union membership because I just couldn’t afford it. When a trade union member becomes unemployed, I don’t think they should have to pay subs for the period of time they are unemployed, as long as they have been a full paying member in the past.
Support Systems In Place
During my unemployment, I made use of my local authority’s youth employment services. I found this to be a generally more positive experience than the Job Centre and there were people there who were more willing to be of assistance. I decided to take part in a six week training programme over the summer, because what else would I be doing? I met some interesting people and actually did some interesting things, but the best thing about it was Karen- the woman who was running the programme. She seemed to see the good in everyone and made people feel like they were worth it.
My criticism of this particular service would be that they seemed ill-equipped to deal with graduates. There were very few opportunities geared towards graduates. Whilst there are many other services such as university careers’ services and Skills Development Scotland that are better equipped, local authorities need to start living in the real world- nearly 40% of people in Scotland have gone to university. The best opportunity they could muster up for me was a four week work placement with a local charity doing some admin work. As grateful as I was for some experience in the sector I would like to get into, I’m not going to be able to find a good charity job because I know how to press print or how to use a stapler.
There are very few positives that come out of being unemployed, really. But there are some. It taught me the value of things. It taught me that having savings is probably a good idea and something I should think about. It taught me how to spend money far more carefully. It taught me about what skills I have. It taught me who my real friends are. It taught me that no matter how bad it gets, you will always get out of it in the end. I also had more time on my hands to read, to visit the library and write things. I took up a new crafting hobby and learned how to cook nice meals. I’ve now realised that I’m actually very good at cooking, even if my parents don’t believe me. I’ve learned that dreams have to be achieved in stages. I’ve realised that university isn’t always the best way to make sure you get a job. I’ve learned to change my name on twitter. Most of all, I’ve learned that periods of unemployment ultimately make you stronger and if you can live through unemployment, you can probably live through anything.