Thoughts on Work and Unemployment.

“…the character of a society depends more upon what men think of themselves than upon what they really are.” Centennial, James Michener.

A word of warning: if you consider unemployment a valid reason to put your feet up while at the same time feeling pretty good about yourself, you’re not really who I’m writing for. It would seem in that case you’re surviving unemployment just fine, unlike a great many others, and I’m not going to be the bitter person who berates you for that. In fact, an individual bitter about having to work while others don’t is much more the kind of indirect reader I’d like, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Now for those of you who are currently unemployed and are wondering why it’s not as fun as everyone likes to make out, the last thing I want to do is come across as patronizing. This is a common feeling for you I’m sure; all the advice employed folk try to give you is coming from a position of assumed superiority, and some can only see your current situation as a reflection of overall character. You may even have begun thinking like this yourself.

Though I’d like to say I wouldn’t fall into such fallacies here, I nonetheless thought long and hard about whether I should write this post at all. Job or no job, this label alone would never make me an expert. For a label is really all it is. I can speak only from personal experience of living under the dreaded banner of unemployment between September 2013 and May of this year. In the end, I realise that I am essentially no different a person now than I was then – though my personal thoughts and feelings may have been different at the time, as yours may be now. And that’s fine.

This is why we must always carefully consider context when it comes to fair judgment. Indeed it is why I take so long setting the context for this post by way of lengthy introduction.

What I am about to do is attempt to pass on what I have learned about how unemployment, and furthermore the working world in general, operates. Some of what I have learned concerns the value of integrity, self-confidence, general health and the (occasionally negative) effects that social interaction can have on your decision-making process.

I have learned that the government uses terms like ‘job security’ or ‘job creation’ as justifications for some very questionable ethical decisions, and that many people are happy to go along with some proposals only because of the jobs they will create. The jobs issue has largely become the holy grail of both local and national politics.

This is partly because they have helped perpetuate the notion that income support and welfare benefits are a great burden on the typical working man, as is the one who benefits from the system while ‘the rest of us have to go out and work, paying for others to sit at home’. I have even known some Christians to carry this attitude while at the same time having a ‘heart for the homeless’, as if the two are not inextricably linked.

Perhaps what helps justify the separation between them is this: one has grey areas that can be exploited, while the other is pretty black and white. It is those grey areas, and the people who exploit them, that indeed tell us there is something wrong with the current system – though our government’s answers to the problem will only, I think, serve to exasperate it.

In order to ‘encourage’ job seekers to find employment, they have introduced further demands to make the experience forcibly more uncomfortable for you. Requirements for the amount of weekly applications you must make are incrementally increasing – as if the problem stems from you not doing that in the first place. You spend precious hours recording innocuous details of jobs you have applied for, essentially as proof that you have done so. It does not really matter what the job role is. Just that the check boxes are ticked off on your record, so you can get the money they are holding ransom.

The consensus says you are somehow too privileged in your present state. After all, you don’t have to work like the rest of us. You have multitudes of free time on your hands, right? If you weren’t being forced to apply for the next administration role or doing another online search, you’d be partying all-night and sleeping until lunch every day. Because that’s just the kind of selfish person you are. Living luxuriously while most others live in relative misery, taking advantage of all those poor folks who are struggling along in jobs they don’t like so they can pay for you to watch television all day.

You’re a leech on the system, a piece of dirt on society’s shoe. You are less than working class. You are like a criminal who needs to be tagged and kept track of. If you’re let out of sight, it’s suspected you will get away with not working forever. And that would be so unfair to the rest of us. So we will make you feel like all of these negative things, and say it is for your own good. You must be made to feel immensely uncomfortable in order to then feel extra ‘motivation’ to work and gradually become respectable, like one of the nice chaps that the rest of us are.

While this excessive description may sound exaggerated, it is close to the truth of how most ‘job seekers’ in the U.K. are broadly seen and treated. Yet I can’t believe any of it is really based on truth in the vast majority of cases. If unemployment was supposed to be fun then I, along with so many others, must have missed something at the time.

Why, then, does this image persist? The structured system that we are blessed enough to have in this country was originally set up as a way to help those in need while they looked for paid employment. But it now feels more like a handout through gritted teeth to an unfashionable group of people they want to ship into the nearest generic job to get off their books. Not for your benefit, but for that of their flailing system.

After a few months experience of this, you’re likely to be at least slightly depressed. You may soon be at the point where you no longer care what jobs you’ve applied for or what training course they kindly recommend. You only want to get out of this self-deprecating cycle and are willing to do whatever it takes to do so, even if it means working a job that you feel completely unsuited to. And that, I’m afraid, can create further cycles that you may be stuck in for five years, a decade, maybe even the rest of your working life.

So this is definitely something I see as a serious long-term issue, though I’m left with a decision now, as to whether I should continue focusing on the problems of the overall system or on helping the individual cope with it and through it. The latter was my motivation for writing this post so I will try to stick to that. But the former will not go away, and at some point there does need to be wider change – even if that means completely scrapping some of the privileges we have in this country. I’m not trying to demean those privileges; rather I’m saying we should not be made to feel so guilty about them.

If the government were to genuinely assist the unemployed, a good first step for us all would be to realise that the issue of money is not really the root of all difficulties someone will encounter when not working regularly. That root problem is lack of work in itself.

This leads me to my core point, which is more like the obvious rule no one likes to acknowledge: work is good. If you resolutely disagree with that simple statement then I’d daresay there are one of two things wrong; either bad experiences through working jobs you haven’t enjoyed told you it is merely something to be endured for a certain amount of time, or you have an illness or psychological ailment that prevents you from being able to reach your working potential. In the latter category I would include such things as laziness, lack of energy, insomnia, among other conditions that affect mental and physical performance.

Snobbish reactions may retort that by categorizing in this way I’m somehow giving lazy people an excuse for not working, but understand that this loses sight of my point. Work is not simply a chore that people are somehow ‘getting away with’ when they don’t partake in it. Let’s please drop that inherent thinking on both sides. While work should not be actively avoided, nor should we turn our noses up at those avoiding it. Because I suspect both would be misunderstanding the issue around which arguments are being formed.

Think, for example, of how you felt last time you completed a particular task well, and how you then feel when you do not complete said task well. The fact that we can make this distinction between doing something well and not doing it well, and the differing ways they make us feel, should give us a bit of a hint about ourselves.

That hint leads us to this: our species thrives on taking pride in our achievements. When one realises the positive psychological effects of good performance whether in completing a desk job assignment, playing sport or even cooking a good meal, the conclusion naturally follows that work (if done well) is supposed to be a joy. Laziness is just one factor that would rob you of that joy. It can be devastating in the long run, and frankly, it is not an intrinsic decision that someone makes any more than they would make a decision to be sad or happy, shy or confident.

There are always other contributing factors, and in this sense it is very much a genuine psychological condition – albeit one that someone can fight through and recover from. By all means they must; just because someone may struggle with laziness does not mean they should think it an excuse to stop trying.

Of course it is also naïve to think that a lack of trying automatically equals laziness in every case. You may lack passion for what you do on a daily basis and wrongly think this to mean you’re some kind of horribly lazy person because you don’t always feel like working as hard as the next fresh-faced fellow employee.

This is another attribute that many people unfortunately do not consider when looking for work; if it is not something you want to do, you are naturally not going to feel as passionate about doing it as someone else who does. You will end up struggling to give your full effort in the tasks assigned to you. Bearing this in mind, it then comes as no surprise when you encounter an office worker struggling along while observing how many others working in an area such as retail are more content with their jobs.

Yes, some people are most definitely passionate about working in retail, and you can always tell the difference between those who are and those who are not. That is no bad thing; if retail is what you are passionate for, let no one tell you it is a dead-end job. Though you may want to be aware of the background ethical practices of the store or chain you end up working for… the waters of those major industry names are very murky, and are a big reason why I personally have fought hard against succumbing to retail work in the past couple of years. Often the problem is not the job itself, but rather those who are providing it.

Upon sensing the tone of this piece, you may accuse me at this point of being unrealistic. Out of touch with how the world operates. A naïve young man not really understanding anything about actual priorities in life due to not yet having a family of my own, or blinded by the luxury of further education and a benefits system enabling me to supposedly pick and choose a job at my leisure.

Others, they will say, are not so fortunate as this. Sometimes you’re in a position where you have to take any job offered to you, even should you hate the very thought of it. Sometimes there is just no other option. Now, it could (and I think does) sound a little ridiculous to make such a claim while living in a first world country like the U.K. – perhaps you should try living in one where the phrase no other option would seem all the more pertinent – but I digress.

Even were the above points about my situation true, and some of it certainly is, I am not sure how that would change my underlying argument. My points about ethics and passion for your job still apply whether you’re in a position to appreciate them or not. So let’s say you’re bending your own ethical views, or instead remaining willfully ignorant of certain ways in which your company operates, in order to feed your family? That does not negate those ethics. While you may garner some sympathy from me, it would not change the overall problem. Thus I think it best not to end up in such a situation if you can help it.

However, the issue I am currently attempting to tackle is unemployment itself. Whatever the reason you find yourself unemployed, whichever job you’re trying to go for whether for passion, love, money, or to simply escape the dreaded four walls of your house, there are some basic principles you can follow to make that potentially long hard journey somewhat lighter.

The most important of which is not ‘eating well’ or ‘getting regular exercise’ (you should be aiming to do these things anyway), but finding something useful to do with your time. This will be difficult, because much of what the Job Centre will have you doing is not a useful way to spend your time. But there will be occasions when you definitely need a break from that, from being made to feel you can only get a job by having your hand held from application to interview.

It is important that you don’t just fill these occasions with ‘spending time with friends’ or watching a movie, however nice these things are to do. Instead, try to fill it with something that could be confused with work: a nice kind of work which you actually like doing.

I had my ‘thing’ right here. You’re reading it now in fact. I liked writing, so a few years ago I started a blog; a blog that has occasionally felt like work, if only for the amount of effort I have put into it. This very piece you’re reading is close to the kind of writing you could expect to find in any gainful writing-related employment. Granted, content would need to be streamlined a bit more and… Anyway that’s not the point!

Often I would change my environment for this, such as heading to a coffee shop or even occasionally to the local pub. For writers this change of setting is especially important; you get to soak in a particular environment or group of people in a way that you simply wouldn’t do when you visit these locations with friends. You may even find a source of valuable inspiration you could not have found at home.

Now, I do realise two things; first that you may not be a writer yourself and therefore do not consider this information applicable. Second that it’s generally expected of the unemployed to just sit at home all day, aside from their rare trips out of bed to view the décor of the Job Centre, so it may come as a mild surprise that I did not. Well, if you truly fulfill the criteria of the latter, I’m afraid you will go crazy before too long, and I’m not talking strictly figuratively.

I’m convinced that home in general is a terrible place to do most kinds of work, though if you have to I would recommend you assign a room or specific private place exclusively for it. This is why the more middle class among us venture out to find houses with a spare room: it provides potential office space if nothing else.

Of course you may not be in that position, nor may you be interested in writing. Though I would recommend journaling during this period at least, if you can stick that – you’ll need some method to air your frustrations, and this is one of the best ways to straighten out your thoughts if you would prefer others didn’t see your emotional side.

For those who do not like writing at all and certainly would not consider a job in which you have to do it on a regular basis, I’m sure that energy exists within you elsewhere. Maybe you fancy yourself a bit of an artist instead, or a keen photographer? Perhaps you like to think you’re a good talker and know how to handle technology; in the past ten years YouTube has exploded, providing you with an invaluable outlet for your potential talents.

My point is simple: there will be something, however slight, that compels you to produce some kind of work, and this can take more forms than you might think. One of the biggest lies unemployment can tell you is that you are unable to do this; it can make you feel like you’re incapable of working like everyone else, or you don’t have anything to offer. But this will only be the case if you let it be. It is never too late to start on something fresh; something that actually helps you feel like a valuable, respectable human being.

Should you still feel you would not be able to do this because you, in your own words, don’t have a creative bone in your body, then there are always other tasks you can do. The thing is, only you will truly know. Besides, I would ultimately wager that every person has that creative bone – but the longer it goes without being used, the harder it gets to dip into it. Some people never explore their creative potential and so end up feeling they have none. Creativity requires initiative – it is not something you can wait to be directed towards by someone else. When you do take that initiative, you may find some untapped potential. While unemployed, it is always worth a try.

Lastly, and I make this final point with a little trepidation because some like to go to stubborn extremes with it; be wary of the advice that is all-too-willingly given by certain people. As a writer, frankly if I listened to all of the well-meaning advice others have given me, there is little chance I would have ever considered myself good enough to get paid for my skills. To achieve goals you do need encouragement from some close friends. But to be honest, most of what will get you where you want to go comes from an awful lot of self-determination and will power on your part. Having some idea of what you could achieve, you must then dare to trust your instincts (whether for better or worse).

Periods of doubt may cause you to waver in that, and it is almost impossible to get through without encouragement from somewhere. It’s best to get that from someone close, who believes in you a little more than the average person – allowing for instances when, of course, you just need a telling off for being too unrealistic or unreasonable. If you’re confident that person/ those people actually know you well enough to speak with some wisdom on the matter, then it is obviously beneficial to listen and make changes accordingly. I would discourage you from extending this liberty to everyone though.

My conclusion is, in the end, the most basic point I have tried to make here: that work does not have to be directly related to a job, and therefore unemployment need not sap you of all confidence. Much of the problem that exists stems from how people think of work itself; whether something to be hastily avoided or drearily put up with. It is neither. It is, in fact, the only thing that enables us to survive. Without it we would not have discovered fire, or been able to hunt for meat to cook on that fire, or built shelter to comfort us for the following day’s hunting, when the thrill of surviving another day would take hold of us again. The most important question of all may indeed be the most primal one: where has that fire gone?


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