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.

 

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era