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.