I am unemployed. Again. And the fact that it has snowed this week did not miraculously create an occupation in itself, of ‘playing with and wondering at the snow.’ I wish that was a job. I have been unemployed before. But the first time it felt like a holiday casual job search. Now all of the sun and carelessness has been sapped from the endeavour. It’s snowing, you are unemployed.
The phrase ‘the dignity of labour’ never meant so much to me as it does now. Without a job I am a failure of a person. The impact of unemployment is never as clear as when you meet acquaintances:
‘So what are you up to at the moment?’
That question becomes anathema. You have a number of options, bluster about something: ‘Well I am working on a few projects.’ Some people are miraculously talented at this. They are seemingly never unemployed, whatever they are doing is exactly the right thing at the right time and on top of it all it is fascinating. I am not one of those people.
Another option is enthusiastic diversion: ‘I watched a really weird film the other night, have you ever seen…’ This sometimes works, but only for fleeting conversations. If it is a long stint then you have to come prepared with a series of deftly linked anecdotes. You were watching a film, then your cat threw up next to the TV, which reminded you of a letter you wrote which made you throw up which resulted in a terrible chain of events that you will relate NOW and will be so confusing that hopefully the person you are talking to will walk away. I employ this technique sometimes, but it does not do much for my self esteem. And usually I go too far and, out of sheer desperation, end up telling people facts about myself that should have been repressed, not broadcast.
The final option is one I experimented with last night which is to try to brazenly state that you are unemployed in tones of despair bordering on hysteria. The response it precipitated was only fear. The person tried to make his excuses and I actually found myself saying: ‘I know you are leaving only when your girlfriend leaves and since she’s deep in conversation you’ve nowhere to go to.’ WOW. Safe to say the colour genuinely drained from his face and I have already blacked out whatever conversation followed.
The fact is that people’s jobs themselves are often not that interesting to talk about. You work in an office, a pub, a nursery—great, I don’t mind that much about the details. What this proves to me is that you are a successfully functioning adult who can pay for themselves to eat. I, on the other hand, am what? An unsuccessful adult, sapping from the state. If you have not prompted fear or bewilderment in your listener, the chances are you will get pity or, worst of all, suggestions. I hate suggestions: ‘Why don’t you just’ is how they always begin, which is already a bad start because the very construction of that fragment belittles the toil you put in daily to find work and implies you have overlooked some basic way in. ‘Why don’t you just work in a bar?’
I was in a pub in Oxford the other night, and Thom Yorke was sat in there, but all I could think about was how unbelievably skilled the barmaid was, and how I lacked any of the requisite experience to do her job. I was obsessed with how she had got that job. I kept thinking that she must have been working there since she was at least 9, perhaps the daughter of the publican. No, my friend assured me that she was actually a student balancing her studies with her work and had only got the job a few months ago. Now, contrary to this Oxford success story, I have found bar work very difficult to get. Indeed, the fact that I am unemployed should hint to the suggest-o-tron that I have found every job they propose hard to get. Otherwise I would be doing it, rather than having this awful conversation.
Unemployment makes you look at the world differently. I find myself lusting after the employment of everyone I see, romanticising it to a
ridiculous degree. From out of a bus window yesterday I saw two heavily wrapped up people in fluorescent jackets and mittens scraping up the snow into piles from a raised flower bed. I kept thinking how their work must supply their mittens for the job, how, for each minute of their snow scraping, they were making something, and although they might not have wanted to wake up in the morning at least they had each other’s company while they worked. Then one of the people turned round and chucked a snowball at the bus driver while the other one found some sticks to make arms for the snowman they were making. They were not snow scrapers. Snow scraping is not a job. They were bus drivers on their break, and I am a fool stuck in some weird Dickensian concept of labour.
The truth that I have increasingly come to realise is that my education has not made me qualified for work, or at least employers do not seem to think so. I did plays in my holidays, not internships. I have been launched upon the world capable of writing multiple essays in a week but not of working in a café. And as such I spend days writing tens of job applications for secretarial work, waitressing, hairdressing assistants (I’m casting the net broad) and receive round rejections. I have not lost faith. Someone, somewhere will surely take a chance on me—right? If I apply for a hundred jobs someone must choose me, right?
The only thing is, when you see statistics such as ‘one in four young people unemployed in London’ or headlines like this in the Evening Standard ‘I’ve Applied for 3,000 Jobs and Haven’t Got One,’ the stab of panic and fear cannot be avoided. 3,000 jobs? 3,000? I haven’t applied for that many yet—do I have to apply for that many before I get a job? Is that how it works? It can feel like there is essentially something I am missing, that vital contact that can teach you how to use the coffee machine or wash hair.
For now, without these golden individuals, I have to keep searching and inhabiting this limbo, because you cannot make plans for further study or travel without the prospect of a wage. Here’s the bleak sound of unemployment by Ewan Maccoll that I hate listening to because it is too dreadfully accurate:
But hey! Here’s the bright side! I can look at the birds on the trees all day from my computer; I can stay warm despite the snow because I am allowed to stay inside; I am woken by feverish need rather than fear of an employer. Which is all pretty great. I haven’t failed to notice that all the same perks could be listed by someone who had recently had both their legs broken and was now bed-bound. And don’t think I haven’t considered that, convalescence is an occupation and a conversation piece.
So there we go, I think I have quite successfully proved that unemployment is a type of madness and for the sake of those I come into contact with someone really ought to give me a job soon. Hear that? A JOB. Otherwise you’ll find yourself opposite a frantic woman insistent on telling you about her cat’s sleeping patterns and the number of birds and snow scrapers she’s seen that day, and believe me that should be no one’s fate.