Compulsory unpaid “work experience” for young “job seekers” in a context of high youth unemployment? What is this? An attempt to create a third world economy, where the unemployed compete for the privilege of working for the pittance which is their “marginal value” (excuse me if my grasp of theoretical free-market economics is a tad rusty) in the floundering job market? And whose only chance of survival is to work every hour that god sends in different “marginal value” jobs? Less abstrusely – making the unemployed personally responsible for not getting non-existent jobs, essentially taking the rap for everything else going wrong out there? How fair is that?
How far should the unemployed be held responsible? For their unemployment, for their inadequate levels of education, their inevitable sense of worthlessness? For their reluctance to fake an enthusiasm and optimism they don’t feel? For not feeling enthusiasm and optimism? Whatever the answer, whether they admit it or not, they will feel responsible, guaranteed. It’s inevitable; where success and good-fortune is always viewed as well-deserved and hard earned, what does that do to failure?
I’ve been asking myself these rhetorical questions all my life. I know the answers: life’s a lottery, so winning and losing are just matters of chance, blah blah. But that’s never what it feels like. If it did (some would declare) what would be the point in winning?
I graduated from university in 1981 and signed straight on the dole. I didn’t have a particularly good degree, or anything to make me stand out from the other 3 million + signing on in Thatcher’s early years, many of them equally young and also graduates. I stayed on the dole for five years, by which time the economy was picking up. I, however, had long ceased any attempt to find work. The DHSS (as it was) hassled me remarkably little, partly because I was a graduate, and hence allowed a certain leeway regarding what enforced “work experience” schemes were around at the time, but mainly, I think, because a constant “natural” army of unemployed suited 1980s perceptions of a healthy economy. Never mind that most of us were rapidly becoming employable, for life – that was our problem. Somebody has to lose, after all. By 1986 a new generation of fresh graduates and school leavers had already taken our place on the bottom rungs of any careers going. As a generation, we were quietly expendable.
I got the message, and went abroad. There I quickly acquired work I would been deeply depressed by back home; packing pills in boxes, sorting mail, and – oh joy of joys – typing up procurement forms in West Berlin’s US Army Hospital. It was great, in a way; freed from the real and imagined snobbery of my high-achieving family and associates, I could be proud of myself for any crummy occupation I liked. As immigrants went, I was an achiever, helped of course by being the right sort; white, relatively well-educated, English speaking. At 27 I was congratulating myself on the first regular pay-packet of my life, acquiring fluent German in the process.
I’d like to report that the experience turned my life around, but of course it didn’t, in employment terms. Back home, years later, my foreign experience seemed as good as discountable, my references non-existent, and my basic employment fortunes unchanged. No doubt all down to my persistent inability to jazz up my CV and apply myself properly. However – I’m too old for it now, but anyway, enterprising youngsters take note – the point that the indignity of a slightly humiliating job is easier to stomach away from one’s routine environment, and that discouraging environments do not only come in the form of undesirable peers or reality TV shows, is a lesson that still stands.