Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Insidious Lethargy of Being Unemployed

Since I started this blog in May 2007 it seems that I have gone from one crisis to another. Back then I was in my third house in two years and was facing the pressure of a nasty landlord. Having resolved that and the shock of bills from Newham Council and the Inland Revenue for a flat I had bought in London in the 2000s which ate up more than a year's salary, I was looking forward to a period of a little calm in a house that I had jointly bought. Of course, I had not expected redundancy to appear. I suppose I cannot be blamed for not anticipating the recession given that so many apparently skilled economists did not predict it. I was more prescient that them in some ways and in late 2007/early 2008 was saying UK house prices would imminently fall sharply to the scepticism of estate agents who at the time had a shortage of properties to sell (it turned out in the branch of one that the bulk of the photos in the window were of properties that had already been sold) and being hounded by the landlord I had no choice but to buy the house at the peak of prices and get a fixed rate mortgage at what now looks like a madly high level of 5.98%. At that time interest rates were rising sharply and it was better than some rates I could have got. Of course, I did not realise I would be so short of cash that I would not be able to buy my way out of that deal when interest rates fell to levels that previously economists would have said were impossible. My car dying earlier this year did not help.

Anyway, I have characterised my approach to redundancy as like being in a very slow car crash. There were warning signs last August that I picked up on, which is why I attempted suicide. Having failed that, I was faced by the over-optimism of my boss and the woman in my house about my future where I am working. Of course, by February it was confirmed as mistaken optimism. I get redundancy pay of £1400 for four years' work. A friend of mine got £7500 for 21 years' work, so I suppose I cannot complain, but I think you should get a minimum of 1 month's salary. I know companies moan that they cannot afford it, but that is because in the UK they always hang on too long and fritter away the funds they need to lay people off. British workers are cheap, we only get 12 salary payments per year, not the 14 that they get in Belgium and yet companies here still seem incapable of actually factoring in labour costs to any of their calculations and see them as a soft element that they can squeeze. For some reason, their capital expenditure, they feel, is far harder to reduce.

Of course, I have struggling to stave off unemployment, but given the level I have reached, job applications are involved and I have spent coming up to 80 hours and written over 85,000 words in applications in the past four months, to no avail. What I have noticed is with my third failed interview (with no expenses for a round trip of 255 Km; no feedback on the interview either) the lethargy which comes with unemployment is already creeping on me. There is a great deal of weariness from the start on my part as I saw all the pain of unemployment back in the 1980s and hoped that it would never haunt the UK again in my lifetime. In terms of my personal circumstances I am constantly spiralling around all the elements of hindsight trying to find the time and place I should have done something different to avoid ending up here. Ceratinly buying a flat in London, especially in Newham and not selling it the minute I got work outside London was a huge error. The charges Newham Council levied (£14,000) for work to the estate could probably have been avoided if I had bought somewhere different. I should not have trusted the Inland Revenue's initial assessment of my capital gains tax, which was wrong by £10,000. However, even if, through selling the flat immediately I had escaped these charges it would have only lifted my financial burden now (I borrowed money to pay off these sums) and not made my work more settled. Given that I have so few savings because of the loan repayments (and through trying to not get into so much debt using savings rather than larger loans to settle the bills) I probably could financially stand be unemployed for longer than I will be this time, before my house is repossessed. In addition, life has been very spare throughout the past four years, constantly having to cut back. Now it has got to the extent that we are removing light bulbs around the house to cut down on electricity costs, but for the past four years there has been no going out and cheap holidays and now no holidays and a 12-year old car. I do not want the high life, but it has been wearing to have to scrimp for so long now with things clearly now going to get worse still rather than better.

The advertisements on the radio about 'finding your way back to work', as if you have somehow lost your way, not tossed on the scrapheap by greedy employers, emphasises how finding a job is a job in itself. Yet, anyone who is unemployed knows how difficult that is. Your energy and enthusiasm burns up easily especially as an unemployed person you fall immediately into that second-class citizen status 'enjoyed' by tenants, disabled people, etc. People feel they can despise you and look on you as lazy, despite the fact that mass unemployment has been a feature of life in the UK for the past thirty years. Apparently it affects men more than women. In my experience, which is limited, women seem to more miss the things they cannot have because they are unemployed, whereas for men sometimes there is a Spartan appeal about that, 'we can rough it' attitude that actually gives some spark. They say women are more used to shifts in their lives. Even now, the number of men who move house so that their female partner can get a better job are far smaller than the number of women who do the same for their male partners. Motherhood is an immense change that many women experience or have knowledge of through family and friends who have children and they know that it can turn your world upside down. The menopause is another thing that men do not have (or possibly they do, but it is not as apparent, certainly) and yet all women will experience.

Women are the mistresses of change, men prefer stability because with that comes a sense of self and actually self-importance. In an age when men seem obsolete this is even more important than before. The problem for men when losing their job is the associated loss of status and self-respect and I am already feeling that, at times it is an almost physical thing as if someone literally is trying to castrate me, I feel it in my testicles. It seems mad, but it is the truth. Loss of self-respect is immediate and leaves a legacy of fear in you even when you get another job. Employers were worrying last year, that this fear in their workers had subsided too much, they wanted the return of the 'whip of unemployment' and must be delighted that they have got it back.

The cry 'get a job' is not as common as in the 1980s, but the sense that the unemployed person is still unemployed because they are 'not trying hard enough' is an enduring one. It is tiring constantly applying for jobs, lowering your expectations further and further in what you apply for. I accept that people must be 'actively seeking employment' to be entitled to benefit, but they seem to get absolutely no recognition for all the effort they put in unless it leads them into work. Back in the 1990s 24 out of 25 of the applications I submitted did not get me an interview, 125 out of 126 applications did not get me a job. So far 0 out of 20 applications has got me a job. Yet, there is no recognition of the days that have gone into that work. The incessant nature of looking for and applying for jobs is a real burden, then facing taunts from people on top of it is sometimes impossible to cope with. Such things just feed the sense of 'why bother?' and 'there's no point'. If 80 hours of applying can get me no work who is to say 160 hours or 800 hours of applications will. Yet, I have to keep trying despite my mental and physical exhaustion. People seem to expect someone who is being made redundant to work hard (in fact harder because there is so much to tie up) until their very last day. However, that is ridiculous. Putting aside bloody-mindedness at an employer who has snubbed you, there is the exhaustion as you now have two jobs, the one for your employer and the one assigned you very vocally by the government, of finding another job.

I am beginning to think I cannot go through this again and regret failing to kill myself last year. I think I could be clear of yet another round of humiliation and mind-numbing process with no end in sight. Of course I will be chastised by those people who say absolutely absurd things like 'you make your own luck' (I am proof that that is a lie, however hard I work, however many precautions I take thing after thing goes wrong for me in every aspect of my life: house, car, job, relationships, health, holidays, computer, there is not an aspect which is not blighted by bad luck and I would have had to be omnisicent to have foreseen the bad consequences of so many actions which at the time seemed the best option) and that I must work to find work, because it offends them that anyone might find the process exhausting and somehow that is morally bankrupt in their eyes. Looking back at my story 'Technido', I am sickened to think that once again we are going through all of this rubbish we had in the 1980s once more. So I drag myself through yet more applications and beg people to be more understanding about just how unpleasant, how tiring and soul-sapping it is to be unemployed. It is not our fault, go and moan at the employers who laid us off, shout at them 'get a conscience', rather than making our lives more unpleasant by portraying us as lazy pariahs.

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