Where to start on a topic that is political dynamite.
There are so many different angles I can approach this subject from – whether looking at what standard economic textbooks teach about the link between inflation and unemployment, the political challenges of reducing unemployment to the impact on the lives of people who find themselves unemployed. (Even the media portrayal of ‘the unemployed’)
As ‘The Unemployed’ are not a single homogenous group that some in the media would like us to believe, I’m not going to write about how there’s this magical solution to solve the problems of those who find themselves unemployed. For a start, they – we – have found ourselves out of work for a variety of different reasons. Approaches to get me back into full-time employment may not be appropriate for those who have just left school and are struggling to find their first job, or for someone who ‘the market’ has decided is too old for the jobs market. (I used to work with a number of civil servants in their 40s & 50s who were extremely worried about their prospects in the jobs market.)
By some definitions, I am unemployed – i.e. I am someone of working age with the ability to go out and work but am not engaged in a form of employment that brings me something in the way of an income that enables me to earn a living. By other definitions – e.g. not currently claiming any state benefits at the time of writing, I am not unemployed and will be undertaking a number of activities shortly that will more than keep me occupied. (For example retraining). One of the things that some of my parents’ generation have said to me in the past is that having gaps in your career history is a bad thing that employers will frown upon – especially if you have claimed benefits. (Think of all of those job application forms that ask if you’ve ever claimed state benefits and if so, for what period).
The most immediate impact of leaving the civil service is losing daily contact with lots of people – people who were not just work colleagues but friends too. The civil service, just like our educational establishments are institutions – and to a greater or lesser extent, we become institutionalised by them. Moving from an environment where you are surrounded by lots of people to one where you are surrounded by very few people is a culture shock. I remember thinking this when I started working for a bank during what I called a ‘year out’ from full-time education. (This was in the late 1990s before the term ‘gap year’ was in our lexicon). There were less than 25 people in our office & I didn’t really click with any of them (that’s not to say they were bad people – most were decent sound people, only with little in common with me at the time). At the end of my first month I asked myself the question of whether this was ‘it’ and that my life would be 50 years of working in a small office with people I didn’t get on with. Which was why I applied to go to university at the same time – with my grades already secured.
But the months between leaving college after A-levels and starting work were some of the most emotionally tough that I’ve ever had to cope with as everyone went their own separate ways. Remember this was just before the internet and email really took off – and several years before FriendsReunited and later, Facebook. Dependent on parents, nothing to get up for in the morning, no one to go out and about with during the evening, everyone you previously knew going off to university (and no easy way of staying in touch at the time) …it was a culture shock. (Remember that this was probably one of final years that people were writing down telephone numbers in little notebooks!) It all seems so quaint now.
My next experience of unemployment was in the two years between graduation and joining the civil service. This was a time where I was studying part-time for a masters degree (which subsequently became a post-graduate diploma because the Foreign Office wouldn’t release the documents I needed for my thesis). This was interspersed with temping, agency work, retail work and voluntary work. Again, the big problem with the periods of unemployment was the lack of certainty over when the next wage packet was going to come in, as well as trying to tread water with university-era debts. It was only through voluntary work and evening classes that I was able to have something of a social life. Yet not being in work was not good for my personal pride. On paper I was studying – and could have spent every day in the library if I wanted to. But I was capable of so much more – and that was the big frustration. “I’m better than this!” I’d sometimes say to myself.
It got to a stage when what felt like ‘drifting’ came to a head: I needed a challenge. I also needed to swallow my pride and say ‘I need help’ – which is what I did when I stumbled across The Prince’s Trust Team Programme. I arranged to meet the course leaders – whose names to my eternal shame I’ve forgotten, but whose impact on my future I won’t. To this day I will affirm that my three months in that team were far more challenging than my three years at university. Myself and one other participant stood out like sore thumbs in the group as being the only people who had done well at school but for different reasons had turned to the programme for help. The rest of the group all had their own significant personal battles and challenges – most had struggled at school for one reason or another. For those of us who completed the three months, the sense of achievement was huge. Again, getting through all of that was far more challenging than my three years at university. We were very lucky at the time to have the support of Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue who hosted us for the day and putting us all through a basic training session in full gear at their Huntingdon HQ, as well as hosting the awards evening at the Cambridge station that, at the time of writing is currently a building site.
After the Prince’s Trust programme came to an end, I spent a few months working part-time in a supermarket until the civil service came calling. With the former it was a case of simply taking whatever job was going to give me something of an income. Hopelessly over-qualified and ill-suited but they needed bums on tills and I needed the money. With the scale of cuts to the public sector I imagine that there will be lots of people who may find themselves having to take whatever job is going if only to make ends meet. And for that I don’t look down on them, even though I am aware that there will inevitably be others that do.
The two years between graduating from full time university and joining the civil service were tough going – and that was during a nominally booming economy. It’s that experience that makes me concerned for those school, college and university leavers who are going into this autumn looking at a very bleak short-medium term future – and that’s before mentioning the existing long-term unemployed or those who, like me have either lost their jobs or who felt they had to jump before being pushed.
What also disturbs me is how the politicians (of the major political parties), think tanks and policy-makers seem to have turned some of the issues around unemployment into ‘political football’ that seem to omit the fact that unemployment has massive consequences for those who lose their jobs. The big three political parties all made it clear that the public sector was going to have to make cuts at the 2010 general election. Those of us working in the public sector knew what was coming. Some of us also knew that we would be both writing and signing our own death warrants with regards to our own careers.
Yet the manner in which some of the job losses have been made has left a bitter taste as one of my former civil service colleagues Hilary Cooper wrote in The Guardian. It’s not just people in the public sector who have been treated with contempt regarding job losses – numerous examples can be found of job losses being announced by text. (Sacking by text can lead to legal comeback).
In terms of my current situation, I’m in this strange position of having experience of the intellectual battles economists have on whether unemployment is ‘a price worth paying’ to control inflation, the policy battles on unemployment in the context of multiple deprivation in our inner cities, and the personal experience of watching my career evaporate before me with a feeling that there was nothing I could reasonably do to prevent that from happening. Thus I struggle to look at each one in isolation. What might suit an economic model may not be politically palatable, but at the same time the policy alternatives that are put forward may not be suitable to solve the problems that people who are unemployed face. How do you solve a problem like unemployment? Humanity is still trying.