Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A Year Of Living Joblessly

This posting started out being entitled 'Joining The Ranks Of The Long-Term Unemployed' to mark my year without a full-time job.  However, incredibly I have been offered a job which starts today, 12 months to the day from when I was laid off by my previous employer.  Whilst I have been incredibly fortunate, after 80 job applications and 29 interviews to have escaped unemployment (for now) and stop the sale of my house, I still feel it is worthwhile reflecting on the impact being unemployed for longer than all the combined previous periods of joblessness in my life has had on me.

The latest figures I can find for long-term unemployed people, i.e. those without work for 12 months or more, date back to summer 2010, so with the recession having continued since then, I imagine they are higher.  The figure in July 2010 was 787,000 people, with 50% of unemployed people over the age of 50 falling into this category, the suggestion being that they will never work again.  I have heard that current figures are over 900,000 people, though cannot find hard data to support that.   In addition, it is claimed possibly millions of people are in part-time work as they cannot get a full-time job and so there is also a category of long-term 'underemployed' who are not able to contribute as much to the economy as they could and would like to do.

Anyway, as of today, I suppose I can count as long-term unemployed.  The last time I had a full-time job was 12 months ago.  Strictly I suppose I am not counted because I worked for a couple of days per week for a period of six weeks around the start of 2011.  However, it did nothing much to raise my household income.  I guess I will also not count because I am not claiming jobseekers' allowance.  I exhausted my contributions based payments back in December 2010 and because the woman who lives in my house runs her own business and works more than 24 hours per week, I am excluded from claiming incomes-based jobseekers' allowance.  It is for reasons like this that there is always a discrepancy between the number of people claiming jobseekers' allowance, currently around 1.45 million and the actual number of unemployed people, now 2.48 million, according to BBC figures.  This is because benefits tend to look at the household income so an unemployed husband/wife (or co-resident lumped into that category) or grown-up child living in a house with a man or woman working will often not be entitled to any benefit, but still be without work.  If it had not been for HM Revenue and Customs realising that they had made a vast mistake in the tax I had paid, then by now I would have had my house repossessed and guess I would be begging friends to sleep on their floor.  I certainly count myself one of the lucky ones.

What does it signify being long-term unemployed?  Well, the first thing seems to be that people feel free to treat you as if you are feckless or lazy or an idiot.  As has been discussed before on this blog, I think this varies depending on the area you live in, as in areas of high unemployment, it has to be a fact of life for lots of people.  Living in southern England where the recession is only steadily biting, and especially in a district where most residents seem to be self-employed, the Thatcherite attitude that you are only unemployed because you want to be, persists.  Without any knowledge of the vacancies available or what qualifications you need to fill them  people insist that there is work.  As I know from trying to get jobs in local shops, these days it is not an issue of being qualified but having a whole array of industry-specific qualifications whether to work in a baker's or as a travel agent or an estate agent.  With unemployment high there are always lots of people around that have such qualifications that I do not have and so I got knocked out of the running at the application phase, especially these days when so much recruitment is about matching requirements to the applicant's statements as the first phase.  If you do not have a 100% match then you stand no chance.  So you get told that there is work and then bewildered questions about what you are doing wrong turn quickly to condemning you for being flawed in some major way.

Though less common than it used to be, there often comes the suggestion of setting up your own business.  Given that we are in a recession and established businesses are folding every day and 50% of new businesses collapse within 6 months, I do not see this as an escape from unemployment, just a way to quickly lose whatever money you may have remaining.  In addition, if we were all budding entrepreneurs, would we not all be doing it anyway?  As programmes like 'Dragon's Den' show, even many people who think they are entrepreneurs are often sadly deluded and many more people get rejected even on that show, than win funding.  Why should it be any different in real life?  The laziness comes in the assumption that that is the answer for everyone, when in fact it is only the answer for a small minority and then only with luck rather than skill.

Ironically, whilst long-term unemployment is usually seen as being your fault, people also treat it like an infectious disease.  Unemployment defines my life as it has for the past 12 months.  I go nowhere, I talk to few people, so being out of work and applying for work are the key elements of my life.  Yet the moment you start talking about them, you get the 'I don't want to hear that' attitude, almost as if it is a contagion that through talking you will somehow blight that person's job.  This myth is one the government and employers like to perpetuate, that unemployment is the consequence of your personal actions.  If you have been dismissed for inappropriate behaviour, then, yes, that is acceptable.  However, very many unemployed people have been made redundant as a result of lay-offs affecting hundreds if not thousands of people.

We have minimal control over our working lives these days.  Unless we can go back in time and change which career path we went down.  When I started in my industry back in 1994 it was seen as a secure one which was going through a period of boom and now it is in crisis.  How could I have predicted in 1994 that instead I should have been taking travel agents' qualifications so I could still get a job in 2011? 

People say 'save'.  I have done this throughout my life.  I used up my first batch of savings covering my mortgage while unemployed for five months in 2009.  I have now used up my redundancy package and tax rebate paying it in 2010/11.  Of course, I had mortgage protection, but it does not apply if you are not claiming unemployment benefit and you cannot claim that if someone in your house works for more than 24 hours or you have been in fixed-term contract work.  I should have saved the premiums on paying for that insurance.  If I had got a job just 3 months after being unemployed or even 6 months, then I would be comfortably off and ready for when the next crisis hit.  We are only at the start of the government-augmented recession, we have years of this to go.  It took from 1979 to 1994 before the economy recovered last time, so on a tight estimate we have about until 2023 before we can breathe easily in the UK, perhaps longer given how severe Cameron has been compared to Thatcher in the damage he is intentionally doing to the economy for ideological rather than pragmatic reasons.  However, all that money is now gone, so next time I lose my job it is going to be very nasty.

Of course, I have not been lazy. I have now applied for 80 jobs which works out at 1.5 applications per week, below the level of 2 per week that the Department for Work and Pensions insists on. However, that average does not reflect the seasonal ebb and flow of vacancies and that in some weeks I have applied for 6 vacancies and in others none. In addition, applying for jobs these days is not just about sending in your CV. On average I write 5000 words per application, with some as long as 10,000 words. The longest, with 51 requirements, took me 8 hours to complete. In addition, as so many applications are done on unstable online application forms, I have probably re-typed many thousands of words again when the system has crashed and lost all that I have input. I lost two hours' worth of work last month because they system decided to drop out. Another even timed me out, after three minutes, before I had time to set my password for the application, then would not let me access or delete or replace the account which only had my name and address on. When I emailed the company I was told that a lot of people had had a problem with the online application. Why not get it fixed then?

I estimate I have written 400,000 words in applications, enough for four doctoral theses or a series of novels (I used to calculate things on the basis of an Agatha Christie novel, they were 60,000 words long, but these days they seem very short, so probably 120,000 is closer to the average). Of course, a lot of it is repetitive stuff and I still have no idea why companies want to know which 'O' levels I got in the 1980s, what grade I got for each of them and the precise day (not just the month or year, but the actual day) on which I was awarded the qualification. What difference does it make if I got a B or C in Chemistry 'O' level on 29th June 1984 for whether I am a good office manager or not?

I have had 29 interviews which works out at more than one every single fortnight.  Of course, they have not been spread out evenly and things like Christmas, Easter and the run of bank holidays, means they have been ill-distributed; on 4 occasions I have had 2 on the same day.  I have applied for jobs ranging from £19,000-£54,000, meaning, in fact my life could have gone down very different paths if I had got a job from one extreme or the other.  The same applies to where I will end up living.  The geographical bounds of my applications are now Southampton-Swansea-Edinburgh-Colchester, an area which covers a large chunk of the UK's population and economic activity.  In southern England, of course, it is distorted because a lot of the jobs in a particular circumference are actually in France and some UK employers seem reluctant to accept applicants from other areas.  One employer in Hertfordshire actually said to me 'we've never employed anyone from the other side of the M25' as if it was an iron curtain.  It is bitterly ironic when the phrase 'get on your bike' has returned to attack the unemployed with, you find employers who have a difficulty envisaging employing people who live elsewhere even within the South-East region.  Of course, being unemployed, you cannot be picky, you know you have to be willing to go anywhere and rent a shitty room in a house that you have had to compete with six others to secure in order to get work.  Quality of life does not even come near the equation.

The biggest problem for me being long-term unemployed is the fear.  Having already lost my house and the career I once had, I worry how much longer this can go on and how much worse it can get.  Employers are reluctant to take on the long-term unemployed as if they have succumbed to their disease and are now incurable of all the bad habits that unemployment instills in people.  They do not understand that we are so desperate we are willing to work for poverty wages, wherever they choose and dare not question whatever outrageous demands they may make.  That is the impact of 12 months' lashing with the whip of unemployment.  I am doubly cursed now because I am over 40 too.  An article recently said employers see the over-40s as lacking energy and being fixed in their ways.  This is ridiculous, I have had to adjust so many times in my life, I have worked for four different employers at times, that I am honed in the art of being flexible and adjusting the work changes.  As for energy, I have never rolled in hung over like many in their 20s, I do not spend time texting my friends or updating Facebook pages, in terms of productivity I will be better than someone 20 years younger.  However, of course, such prejudices are not challenged and in fact as attacks on feminism have shown, in many ways, prejudice in terms of what you are is again acceptable, just as David Cameron and his supporters have desired.

Stretching out in front of me is an ongoing path of uncertainty.  Will I still be unemployed this time next year?  How much poorer can I get?  I know there will be loads of disappointment.  I have been rejected 28 times from interviews and another 51 times been told I was not even good enough to get there.  Every piece of feedback seems to contradict the one before.  Just recently I was told that I did not come across as sufficiently sympathetic to workers when apparently being overly-sympathetic was criticised in my last job.  Even now with work, nothing seems certain.  I have been incredibly lucky, but will always remain fearful that it will be short term.  I was laid off from my old job only 7 months after being appointed to it.

I am both weary of how long having no job went on for with no succees and retain a fear that this is the pattern my life will hold in the future especially as I progress further into middle age.  No-one seems able to offer practical help, they just seemed to be able to harangue me or avoid me.  Joining the ranks of the long-term unemployed does not permit access to a fraternity, rather you simply become classified a pariah.  Of course, I am grateful that I am now in a job, but I know that there are many hundreds of thousands of people in the UK in even worse situations with even less hope than me and I mourn for that and the long-term damage it is doing to the UK.

No comments: