As regular readers know, since the start of June, I have been unemployed. My unemployment benefit based on my national insurance contributions has now run out. I could apply for benefit based on my income as it is now so low, but hit a stumbling block. Owing to the fact that the woman who lives in my house runs a business, even though it made a loss last month, and works on it more than 24 hours per week, this is too much for the Job Centre and they say that the household income will be too high for me to claim benefit. This seems to stem from their belief that everyone working earns at least the minimum wage each hour. Of course, with the self-employed, some months (and currently many months) you actually lose money. However, because she works too hard to scrape together her income, I cannot claim benefit any longer.
As of yesterday I had applied for 65 jobs in that time and have attended 18 interviews; I have another one next week. The average application form requires around 5,000 words, the most complex one needed 10,000 words, which took me 8 hours to write. I estimate that since June I have written over 320,000 words in applications, equivalent to more than three doctoral theses or five novels of the length Agatha Christie wrote. My 'hit rate' had improved moving from 1 interview for every 5 applications to almost 1 for every 3 by the start of December. However, I still have no job. In some cases the feedback from the interview (forthcoming from about half of the interviews I attend) has made it clear that I stood no chance because a local candidate, 'someone who could draw on specific examples from this company', was in line to get the post.
To some degree I think I am now also facing gender discrimination. Almost all the jobs I have applied for are in offices with at least 10 female workers for each male one. One even admitted that they had a 'token man'. I am not saying that the discrimination is apparent to the interviewers, but we all know that there is a tendency for people to recruit people like themselves and to recruit the 'face that fits' in the office environment. With 90% of the staff, female, it is clear that in so many offices, I am not like the interviewers or the bulk of their staff. Consequently, with so many candidates to choose from, this is going to be another factor which makes it close to impossible for me to be appointed. It is ironic as being a child of the 1970s I am far more of a feminist than many of the women coming out of universities today.
I have noted 'The X Factor' approach used by one company which meant I was sent home even before reaching the interview stage. Fascinatingly, a lot of interviewers end their feedback saying they are sure that I will find a post soon. I have been hearing that since early June. I believe they are simply assuaging their own discomfort. Many of the people who have interviewed me have been very poor at the job and being British, in most cases, are not good a giving people bad news. Conversely, some have been more than happy not simply to reject me, but to send me three page reports outlining everything that I did wrong and even accusing me of having lied on my application form. They have done this on their own iniative as usually it is down to the Human Resources department to tell you that you have not got the job. Given such harsh feedback, I have gone on two training courses run by the Department of Work & Pensions, helping people with interview technique, I even attended an 'executive level' session. However, this does not seem to have helped. At the last interview at which the panel asked what seemed to be straight forward questions, they kept correcting my interpretation of the question, saying I had misunderstood. After a while I almost felt like leaving before the interview had finished, as it appeared that how they used language and how I use it, were so far apart that I would be battling to say anything that they felt was relevant.
I have now taken additional guidance from a retired personnel manager who said that however complex the interviewer's question might be, I should not respond in kind. He said that I must do a kind of 'verbal Powerpoint' presentation and stick to four statements at most. He advised me that a huge error on my part was to give any context; I should not say, 'at my last company they had a hierarchical management system which meant that...', I should just respond, 'I can do...'. It does not make me any better or worse a manager, but it is clear that I am still not dancing to the interviewers' tunes in the way they insist (though, of course, never tell you).
Feedback has been contradictory. I have been told that I am 'insufficiently blue sky' and then that I was 'insufficiently hands-on'. I have been told that I am applying for a job 'below' my 'level' (even though one of these posts was exactly the same as the one I was made redundant from in 2009) or aspiring too high for other posts. It seems that unless my last job was exactly the same level as the one I am applying for then I am ruled out almost immediately. I cannot say, 'just give me the job, I will work at any level you want', because you have to continue the pretence that somehow employment is much the same as it was last year. If, after the interview, you outline how challenging the situation is, you hear that all-too-common phrase these days 'I don't want to hear that'. I do not want to hear it or face up to it, but I have to, because it is the truth, that is what is happening to people, no matter how much you may wish to keep believing it is different.
The sense that unemployment is somehow 'contagious' seems to have reappeared and the 9-year old boy who lives in our house, is now finding friends are not allowed to come round, as if there was a red cross on our door saying 'unemployment victim; stay away'. Do these parents think I will rob their child or press him to work in our house? I know it is irrational and the people themselves could probably not explain why they behave that way, but it certainly feels like them kicking you when you are down. The only thing that makes life tolerable in such a situation is good interaction with people and anyway, the boy is not to blame for my joblessness, so why should he be punished? You can see why sociologists investigating the 1980s talk of how it blighted a generation; not those out of work, but the children in jobless households.
I am a friendly, one could say, avuncular, manager. A lot of that stems from my personality, but also because I know that if people feel trusted and that their knowledge and skills are respected, then they tend to work for the best. I really believe that keeping people informed about what is happening in the company is the way to get them engaging with it and working well. However, I dare not outline my approach to management any longer as it is clearly out of fashion. At the last interview, disparingly, one of the panel told me that my approach was clear. I am now certain that I will have to begin lying and begin to portray myself much more as a manager to harangues his workforce and keeps the flow of information to them very restricted. The 1980s style of management is back in fashion, very clearly. This is ironic as staff are aware how treacherous the current economic situation is and that their jobs are often at risk, they do not have to be keep being told it. Nervous staff do not take the initiative and conceal errors rather than revealing them in time to have the situation rectified. At the last interview, even haranguing, was not felt to be enough and there was an eagerness somehow to use regulations as a way of managing staff rather than setting the parameters. Even if the economy suddenly improved tomorrow, the negative consequences of these troubled times are going to impinge on the work place for years to come.
People say I should be trying to get other jobs. Everyone assumes that you can always simply apply for a job in a shop or some manual labouring post. As it is, I am applying for jobs with a salary less than 45% of the level that I earned before. I have applied to shops and have found constantly that I lack the NVQ or the ABTA or other professional qualification that is taken as the basic level for entry into so many posts. I was lined up for a 3-month temporary post, via a temporary employment agency, at a company 45 Km away. However, before I could simply take it up, five other people came forward and they implemented a formal interview process.
This situation will not improve in the new year. At the local job centre, both of the two staff I have been handled by in the past six months have told me they will not be employed there after the end of December and it seems that quite a few of their colleagues are on fixed-term contracts which will not be renewed for 2011. The first influx of public sector redundancies will begin flowing into the jobless pool. I imagine a lot of them are already applying for other jobs anyway. I have not seen any increase in private sector jobs; even the usual increase of seasonal work seems muted. The job centre staff believe that locally, due to the number of retail jobs in the area we will experience higher than average lay-offs in the new year when the 20% VAT comes into force, though other people have commented that it might not be that bad.
I am 43 and am competing with people who are younger, can understand what an interviewer is asking and have a range qualifications that are demanded. My house is up for sale though with the prices falling I may come away from this house with no money left over even to rent a flat, separate, of course, from the woman from my house due to her job. I will be dependent on my family, and it really seems a retrograde step, moving back in with your parents aged 43, but the only other option seems to fall on the mercy of the council and beg a place in a bed-and-breakfast. Of course, there will have to be a furniture and book sale at my house to get rid of all that we have gathered in this house. It seems ironic that 1-2 years ago, I was looking for my career to take the next step and was ironically optimistic that it would. Now, I would be happy if I could get a job in a shop over Christmas. It is at least 21 years until I can retire, probably longer by the time I am in my 60s. Given how hard it is proving to find work, even now before the worst of the economic depression has kicked in, is there any chance of me working again? I keep applying, I keep pretending at interviews that everything is going fine, but after so much effort and so little success, I do wonder whether I will still be unemployed this time next year or even longer term? My career seems to have been snuffed out so very quickly. Despite that, happiness is compulsory, and you are not allowed to appear disheartened let along disgruntled or depressed even at the job centre. David Cameron's objective of measuring our level of happiness seems, in that light, to be very sinister and I am reminded of rank upon rank of smiling faces marching past Chairman Mao.
The future for me seems now to be not the steady career of rising through office management over the next two decades, but rather scrabbling around with the other middle-aged, washed up managers trying to beg a job. I know that I am going to have to work very hard not only to understand the ever-changing tricks of the interviews but to remember when a complex question is thrown at me, to respond with bare-bones answers. I also must pretend to be a much harsher, aggressive manager. However, there is no certainty that even if I master these things, that years of unemployment do not lie ahead of me.