Column Unemployed people already feel they have no worth without being called

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first_img‘FIND A JOB you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life’ goes the cliché. Sayings become clichés because they express something that we all accept without thinking. What do we accept in this glib phrase? Basically, that humans find their worth and happiness in work – something ordinary people accept, but also a foundational assumption of much psychology, economics and sociology.Now, apply the saying to job-seekers. By definition, these individuals have not found a job they love, and therefore, they work every day in their lives. Seriously. Every day is a drag: empty hours, pointless leisure, killing time. The effort of job-seeking is constant, and increasingly enforced by the government’s Pathways to Work policy, which monitors, cajoles, re-trains and can cut social welfare payments to below the minimum standard for a decent life. Until 2013, €186 euro was considered the minimum cost of sustaining life – a baseline for survival; but recently this ‘luxury’ has been discarded.Before we explore the actual experience of unemployment in any greater detail, let’s definitively clear one thing up; most people receiving the dole are not ‘spongers’. This can be statistically proven – only around 30,000 people were long-term unemployed in 2006. And many of these may have had good reason, for instance, parents who could not afford childcare. 30,000 is less than a tenth of those currently unemployed; anyone blaming the unemployed for unemployment is 90 per cent wrong. However, the issues go far beyond statistics and economics. The experience of unemployment has serious consequences that cannot be measured on an abacus.Work equals worthIn previous eras, there were other ways of measuring individual worth, like good character, social connections or religious piety. The contemporary world values people in terms of work. We are raised in a culture which respects work and eventually espouse these values ourselves, whether we realise it or not; and the value we place on work is visible in the vitriol vented against ‘spongers’, in pubs, homes and cafés, at the end of this article no doubt, and even by those who are currently unemployed.Work benefits us in five ways: Firstly, it gives a person status as a competent, responsible and active contributor to the economy. Secondly, it provides financial rewards, comforts and pleasures which are not distributed to all equally but dependent on the value of one’s work. Thirdly, work gives a structure and meaning to everyday life, marking work as valued toil and leisure as deserved relaxation. Fourthly, work provides social networks of people united in a collective task who respect each other’s position and contribution. Fifthly, work provides a sense of collective purpose – even the most menial job is part of the doughty little Irish economy which, supposedly, will revive and lift us from the current mire.Unemployment deprives individuals of these five elements, which causes psychological suffering: unemployed people have twice the average rate of depression and are two to three times more likely to die by suicide, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if employment resumes after long term unemployment mental health is still impaired for years or even decades. These consequences cost the state in terms of missed ‘man-hours’ or the state expenditure in palliating these problems. More importantly, the suffering of the unemployed, and collective and political lack of sympathy, is a stain on the nation.How it feelsWhat does unemployment feel like? Firstly, one lacks status – at best you can say that you ‘used to be’ something or other, or have trained to be something, but essentially, you are not this thing. Those with other roles in their lives beyond a career – like being a parent or an artist – tend to feel better.Secondly, the financial rewards are meagre, leading to food poverty and a low quality of life. Moreover, the few comforts which €188 a week will afford are experienced as guilty pleasures – undeserved and begrudged.Thirdly, one’s days are a mixture of the interminable work of job-seeking and killing time, so that each day is a burden of hours which must be passed in activities which have no worth. Doing nothing is religious for Buddhist monks, but for the hundreds of thousands in Ireland who used to work, it is a meaningless limbo.Fourthly, unemployment leads to social isolation – even though there are more opportunities to socialise, being made redundant often leads to a retreat from society, the withering of workplace networks and a decline in hobby and voluntary activities.Fifthly, an unemployed person is defined in the media and the popular imagination as a drain on the resources of the state, and often subjected to surveillance and suspicion by the Department of Social protection.Rethinking work and unemploymentUnemployment is not just an economic problem to which jobs are the solution. Rather, how society thinks about work and leisure has to change. Plainly, the environment cannot support seven billion people behaving like Celtic Tiger cubs. Eventually, sustainability must be more important than productivity. Globally it makes sense to produce less and consume less, which ultimately means to work less.Much environmental and social depredation occurs simply to support the frenetic world of work. For instance, the production of fast-food and ready-meals pollutes more and creates more obesity, but would be unnecessary in a world where people worked less. Employment laws which decreased the length of the working week and enforced quadruple remuneration for over-time would lead to more people working for shorter time. And – for those who only count the bottom line – this would also lead to a reduction in costly state services, associated with problems from obesity to public order.Such measures would reduce the actual numbers of unemployment but more importantly shift the values, so that work would not equal worth. Instead, it becomes possible to respect people for their character, interests or beliefs – for who they are, not what they do.Tom Boland lectures in Sociology at Waterford Institute of Technology and is co-ordinator of the Waterford Unemployment Experiences Research Collaborative. To read more articles by Tom for TheJournal.ie click here. Read: ESRI predicts economic growth and fall in unemployment in 2013>Read: Another dip in live register figures but unemployment rate unchanged>last_img

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