How unemployment is different this time around

The last time I was unemployed was 1998. Now, the reality is that there are not enough jobs.

Unemployment is up. As a jobseeker, this comes as no surprise. But what has surprised me about being unemployed this time around is how different things have become, and how much harder it is to find work.

I was last unemployed when I graduated from university, in 1998. To find work, I simply popped into an employment agency, showed I could use a computer and type things, and was offered a series of placements, despite having hardly any work experience. It was pretty straightforward, and I managed to hack a living quite merrily until the fateful day I started working as a journalist. What was the big deal about unemployment? It seemed to be a simple task to find a job, and earn a half-decent living.

This time around, I thought it would be that simple again, so before I was made redundant I popped into a few employment agencies, CV in hand. With much more experience and a wider range of skills than I had back in 1998, I thought it would be even easier this time to glide into temping, or some kind of work. I was wrong.

I knew things had changed when I couldn't even see a human being. "Send in your CV by email," said the weary receptionist at the first place I tried.

"But I've got it here, in my hand, here it is."

"No, it needs to be on email."

So I stood there, in reception, and emailed it using my phone, to someone who was sitting three feet away.

"We'll get back to you," they said. They didn't. And they weren't the only ones who didn't. I must have applied to every employment agency around here, and applied for every job that I think I could reasonably do. Nothing. I've filled in dozens of application forms, repeating the same information again and again, and sent my CV off enough times to kill a few trees, if they'd been printed out. It's been like having a job, but without the money. But still, nothing. It's got to the stage where I regard the terse "Dear Candidate" rejection email as a kind of near miss.

I thought it was something to do with the stigma of being a journalist, as if working in a poorly respected industry meant people perceived you as hacking phones and upsetting grieving relatives all day. But it wasn't that. This is the reality for a lot of people out of work at the moment; there just aren't the jobs to go around. As well as that, for those lucky enough to be on the books of an agency, they're being paid almost the same rate for work as they were paying me all those years ago, when I had a full head of hair. It's as if all the time in between never happened, but I look in the mirror and I realise it has.

So, it's the Jobcentre every two weeks to collect the 60-odd quid I get for having paid national insurance for the past 13 years. They call it Jobcentre Plus nowadays -- I think the "plus" is "plus a sense of grinding ennui and despair". The people inside are helpful and kind, and do their best for me, I know, but I have grown to feel sick about my fortnightly visits to sign on. That building is Svidrigailov, taunting me, teasing me, forcing me to confess... confess to a sense of hopelessness. You can't hide it when it's staring you in the face. Those who have been doing this for some time tell me I'll face pretend applications, literacy and numeracy tests, training courses to show I know how to use a computer, all to ensure I'm really trying my best to get a job. The humiliation will be complete, although I don't feel sorry for myself. I'm just disappointed that I can't do any better.

All that said, I think I'm extremely lucky. It could be so much worse. I'm fortunate enough to be able to scrape a couple of hours' work here and there, and my partner works hard to pay the mortgage (you don't get housing benefit if you've got a mortgage) and the bills while I dick around at home, doing nothing except writing and applying for jobs that I won't ever get. There will come a time, quite soon, when I will do something -- anything -- rather than this.

But I am lucky to have that choice. I hear stories from others about how much worse it is if you're disabled, or claiming long-term sickness, and are facing the barrage of suspicion and contempt from those who think you're faking it, or putting it on. Compared to which, me being on Job Seekers Allowance is really a small, and hopefully temporary, inconvenience. But it's an inconvenience that a few more people are having to go through than before. And it's an inconvenience that seems a lot harder than it used to be.

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder