With so many people now unemployed there is the opportunity to de-stigmatise unemployment and discuss the issue in a meaningful way. For it is quite obvious that it is not some individual failing that results in unemployment but rather that unemployment is a structural issue – that it is the product of the organisation of our society and therefore an issue for society to address collectively, rather than blaming it on, and demonising individuals. This latter tendency of stigmatising the individual that our society seems to have gets us nowhere.
In this article I will draw largely from my own experience of unemployment for the last two months to make my arguments for a radical rethink and approach to unemployment – clearly, my experience of unemployment for this period is somewhat limited, for example, I have been fortunate to have not been forced onto workfare – whereby people on Job Seekers Allowance are made to work for private companies, and even charities and local councils, for the equivalent of £2.25 per hour. However, in these two months, I have experienced many things that make up the contradictory experience of unemployment that I’m sure resonate with others – the absolute horror of seeing someone I knew when I was standing outside the Job Centre, frustration at being treated like a non-person by the Job Centre staff, distress and sadness at friends’ lack of understanding, outrage at the state’s treatment of the unemployed, worry about how I can make ends meet, yet also a brilliant sense of freedom as well. And therefore I hope that sharing these will help others to see the human faces behind unemployment and to generate a meaningful discussion. People often feel able to make comments on the unemployed without actually having listened to what we have to say, often resulting in prejudiced accounts and misunderstandings – listening to others, and listening well, is where we must start from.
There is a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding unemployment – however, for a long time this largely passed me by. My mum was a single parent and her time was dedicated to bringing me up as best as she could in difficult circumstances – on the pitiful amount of benefits she received. She may have been classed as ‘unemployed’ but she worked extremely hard caring for me as I did my absolute best to make her job as difficult as possible. The portrayals of the unemployed in mainstream media, by politicians, and held by much of society, do not see the valuable contributions that the unemployed make to society, the worthwhile jobs that they do. A good friend of mine whom I admire greatly has also struggled to find a job that would harness his many talents. Rather than him feeling inadequate and depressed about being unable to find a job, I believe that the problem is that our society has not created jobs that utilise his energy and enthusiasm – and yet rather than think about our job market, the nature of work in our society today, and the proliferation of incredibly boring jobs that revolve around Excel spreadsheets, he is made to internalise these issues and feel worthless. Perhaps also watchin The Full Monty many years ago with the scene of them queuing for the dole and dancing to ‘Hot Stuff’ may also have contributed to my more positive understandings of unemployment. Therefore, when I needed to sign on after finishing my master’s to support myself whilst finding a job, I was not at all bothered about this. In fact, being unemployed has at times been quite fun. It has allowed me a much needed break after three years of intensive study at university, to think about what I want to do now, and to pursue my research and writing passions – I have found myself co-ordinating a mapping research project and find myself almost as busy as when I was doing my master’s. My point is to emphasise that those who are unemployed are not ‘unproductive’ but engage in a wide range of activities that contribute to the enhancement of themselves and wider society. Furthermore, everyone deserves to feel that sense of freedom that one gets when one has free time and can do things on their own terms.
Yet, I have still strongly felt the stigma of unemployment and it has affected me greatly – despite my attempts not to, I have somehow internalised society’s attitudes towards unemployment that see it as a problem, as something to be ashamed of. The other day I was standing outside the Job Centre on the high street unlocking my bike when an acquaintance spotted me and said ‘hi’. It should have been no big deal at all. But I happened to have had a huge crush on this guy as a teenager. He is an incredibly relaxed, non-judgemental person and most definitely didn’t have a problem with the fact that I was unemployed. But walking away after this encounter, which involved me staring at him panic stricken and in which I was incredibly nervous and rambled away trying to justify my unemployment, I felt incredibly low. I felt a deep sadness that after so many years and now that I was an adult, he had seen me unemployed. Perhaps there was a bit of my teenage self still wanting to impress, but unable to with the low status that unemployment commands. Another distressing episode involved my closet university friends. It had been a while since we had all met and I was excited to tell them everything that I had been up to and my thoughts and perspectives on unemployment. These friends are certainly left leaning, yet as we talked about our lives, I felt my comments on unemployment and my life at present to them were not at all legitimate. They did not seem to know how to respond, which is fair enough, but also it felt as if they simply did not want to hear what I was saying at all – that it was so far away from anything that they could comprehend and was perhaps so ‘radical’ that it made them uncomfortable. I felt completely silenced – my experiences of the things I had been doing that I had been so excited to share were deviant and should not be spoken of. I was shocked to have provoked this hesitant and wary position from my close friends. At first I did simply stop talking. Then I tried to raise the issue a couple more times with varying success. Trying to discuss unemployment with them, I was surprised to hear them repeat mainstream perceptions about unemployment – despite the fact that I’m sure they knew very few unemployed people from which they could draw these ideas. This stigma that is associated with unemployment, that I felt myself in the previous episode and that others felt towards me, is completely unjustified and utterly unhelpful to thinking about and addressing unemployment in our society. We must challenge this stigma and highlight the significant contributions that unemployed people make to society – through valuing one another, we can move beyond the idea that unemployment is a problem of the individual and we can move towards addressing it as a society in a way that benefits all.
Linked to the stigma of unemployment is the state of poverty you find yourself in when forced to rely on state benefits. From the state’s point of view, the unemployed are clearly so undeserving that they should be punished for finding themselves unemployed. I was absolutely appalled and insulted when I received a letter from the benefits centre informing me that £53.45 is the amount ‘the law says you need to live on each week’. I was furious that the law (most likely a white, privileged man with no comprehension of what people need to get by) had decided this on behalf of me, particularly when the law does not feel the need to set an upper limit on how much people need to live on each week, so it is deemed acceptable that Frank Lampard ‘needs’ to receive £151,000 a week to live, whilst I need only £53.45. Well, I’m afraid there has been a massive error in their calculation. This measly sum is even less when we take into account that the state does not feel that I necessarily need a roof over my head – with housing benefit only covering some of the rent of my bedroom in a shared flat. Add to this money for bills and I’m left with about £30 for the week for food and travel – obviously the unemployed don’t deserve to enjoy any leisure or social activities. This amount of money immediately marginalises you from the rest of society as you are unable to engage in many activities that your peers do. Day to day living becomes a constant stress. Your benefits obviously do not allow you to live – covering as they do only food – and this is at a stretch. What happens when those other aspects of life, such as a bike in need of a new chain (£10), a need for new shoes (£30), a visit to a friend in another city (£20) crop up? What happens at Christmas? I guess the unemployed just don’t deserve to celebrate Christmas. Those who made this law, as well as the entire Conservative party, should be made to live on £53.45 a week, I’d like to see how they get by. Perhaps then they will realise that this is not how much a person needs to live a decent life. One of the low points of unemployment for me was when I checked my bank balance at a cash machine. Standing in the high street my balance flashed up as £10. My heart literally sank at this moment. All I had was £10. In a society where your worth is measured by your possessions, by your wealth, to have only £10 is to feel utterly worthless.
One further point that I would like to raise – and I haven’t even been able to address workfare here – is the lack of support that there is for the unemployed to actually find a job. Your signing on meeting is supposed to last 10 minutes, but is often much shorter. For the past couple of weeks I have been served by a woman who does not speak to me and barely acknowledges my existence. It is thoroughly demoralising. I enter the Job Centre keen to give feedback about my last two weeks of job searching and to receive advice, yet it seems that they do not have the time for this. Being ignored week after week was an incredibly frustrating experience, and it is no wonder that some people end up staying on the dole for long periods of time when there is such disregard for them and their attempts at job searching – what do they do when they have run out of ideas, or when they simply need some morale boosting? I’m sure the people at the Job Centres are doing the best jobs they can, but there needs to be more support for those who are job searching, just some recognition would be nice. It really does make a difference.
I hope that this account will contribute to productive discussions on unemployment and the ways in which we can address it. As described above, immediate demands include respect and value of the unemployed and the contributions they make, a decent standard of living, and greater support in finding a job that harnesses our talents, as well as an end to workfare. The most important thing is that we do not see it as a ‘problem’ of the ‘individual’ but as an issue for society to address with the voices of the unemployed at the forefront. Looking at unemployment may lead us to question the entire nature of work in society today for the two are intimately linked. When you are unemployed you think of the kind of job that you would like to have, and for me, my ideal jobs and how I would like to do them simply does not fit with what is out there. Let us all, the unemployed and the employed, think about the jobs we do and what we value in life and organise our society so that what we enjoy and what we value make up what we do each day.