Thursday, 5 January 2017

Things nobody tells you about unemployment

When I was in high school in the 1990s unemployment in Victoria was grindingly high.  My High School annual from 1990 recorded sadly that many pupils had left the school in Years 11 or 12, but mostly not in order to take up jobs.  The younger version of me felt that unemployment was the worst thing that could happen to a person, and that it was somehow the parent of every other bad thing that could befall a person (drug addiction, petty crime as a victim or petetrator, not owning books, never watching the ABC).

This had a certain amount of truth to it.  However, there were a couple of things about unemployment that nobody tells you.  For example, nobody tells you you'll develop a complicated relationship with humiliation.  There's nothing to be proud of in being out of work.  The unemployed are regularly exhorted to do volunteer work; in the "Work for the Dole" pase they're compelled to.  This corrodes the pride you might have had in being a volunteer.  You say you want to serve your community?  Yeah, well, so you should be since it's supporting your lazy arse.  It doesn't stop there.  You come to apply some of that venom to yourself.  You say that you're a dole bludger, a parasite, a leech.  Drink in every last contempt-powered syllable.  That hate says you won't be like this forever.

Something else nobody tells you is that unemployment obliterates your past.  When you tell somebody "I'm out of work" or "I'm unemployed", surprisingly few questions follow about your life before your current state.  It doesn't matter at all what you did or what you studied, how many languages you understand or how many times you've been published.  You're unemployed and that's as much as anyone needs to know.  Please report to this three day course to be taught how to write a cover letter.  Remember not to wear football shorts to a job interview.

It's a shock to discover that you become deconditioned for work remarkably quickly.  Physically you're fit and hard and strong.  In the past you worked 10-15 hour days for a week or more at a stretch.  And one day after a couple of months of compulsory idleness you contemplate an 8 hour shift and wonder how on earth anyone manages it.

You also don't expect to become self-buttressing.  The world that affects you shrinks to the outer layer of your skin, or perhaps the foot or two surrounding it.  If you can keep that more-or-less inviolate then you have a bunker from which to emerge if things get better.  At an intellectual level you're aware of events beyond that little bubble.  When you can't affect something the only question is whether you can endure it.  Keep building the walls and the buttresses.

Unemployment, it turns out, isn't the worst thing that can happen.  It's unlikely you'll die.  It's not more likely to ruin your life than any number of other experiences.  But it's corrosive and suspends your future and erases your past.  And this is something you should know when it happens to you.

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