As I mentioned in my last post I worked with the long term unemployed for quite a while. In lots of ways it was a good job. I got a lot of job satisfaction from helping people, some people that I assisted in getting jobs still e-mail me. I get an e-card each year on my birthday from a guy who is still grateful that I assisted him in getting him a job 7 years on. A few months ago I got accosted in a café by a guy who told me that I changed his life. He said I was the best coach he’d ever had and the only person in the “system” who had ever actually listened. This is the kind of affirmation that you can’t buy, beg, borrow or steal and it feels freaking good. But there was a reason I left. The system was frustrating, it was depressing too and people who don’t work in it have no clue. There were people who you couldn’t help, people who were desperate but were beaten down by a multitude of factors and who you knew would never get a job. As I said yesterday basically nobody wants to be on benefits. There are really hundreds of reasons why being in the system sucks but here are my top 5.
5. If you weren’t depressed before you became unemployed….just wait.
There’s been little study done on the long term effects of unemployment what there has been can only say a few things with any certainty. A. Being unemployed isn’t good for your health. And B. The way you became unemployed matters.
Imagine this: You’re a 55 year old let’s say…male. You’re at least 10 years away from retirement but suddenly you get retrenched from your job that you have been doing for the last 35 years. It’s all you have known. You go onto Centrelink. Ok so let’s say that job was manufacturing. Many jobs for that about? No. Its ok you can retrain. So you put some of your savings into retraining. So you have some skills but you’re a bad bet for most employers. Your old, you don’t have communication skills because you’ve never needed them, your resume looks crap because you’ve never written one before. Your last job you just turned up and they gave it to you, trained you on the job. This is all on top of the pain of being fired from the only job you know. Humans hate change, they do irrational things to get away from it. So what now? Well now your 60 your still 5 years away from retirement but you still haven’t got a job. You’ve been in the system for 5 years and it hasn’t been good for you the constant rejection is getting you down. Now that you’re sixty what seemed unlikely 5 years ago, that a company would take on an untried 55 year old seems impossible. So you’re depressed. But being a 60 year old male you deal with it, not with therapy but with drinking. Which just makes it worse.
Think this sounds farfetched? In 2008-2009 when the financial crisis hit and after the 2007 slump I literally saw hundreds of cases like this both male and female. Those that I didn’t see personally I heard about from other people. It was a known quantity. So much so that we ran a special training course for over 50’s. It was profitable. For us. One guy who turned up to my first day of this course bought a goon bag of wine that he tried to share around. This was the most dejected group of people I had ever met.
But depression for the long term unemployed isn’t restricted to the over 50’s almost anyone who’s been unemployed for over a year will be depressed whether it’s been diagnosed or not.
4. “Free money” isn’t free.
Despite getting “Free money” there were very few people I ever saw dancing a jig on payday around Centrelink nor much celebration to be had at all for that matter. To most people each pay day is just a chance to get by, it’s not like they won the lottery. To some it’s also a grating reminder that they just don’t have a job. Like it or not a job is a status symbol in our society. Someone with a job is automatically valued over someone who has no job. It’s where a lot of people gain their significance. Do you think it’s a coincidence that one of the first things that people will ask you when they meet you is “What do you do?” and no matter what kind of pithy answer you have worked out ahead of time saying “Nothing” hurts. Yeah we’ve all heard the stories about dole cheats who are enrolled more than once earning a nice wage. I never, ever saw or heard of one real live example.
And it’s not like you actually can go on Centerlink and then spend the rest of your life playing computer games in peace. You actually do have to look for work, you often have to prove that you’ve been looking for work and then you have your activity agreement. Your activity agreements are enforced by your JSA (Job services agency) and they will hound you till you turn up or dob you in for non-compliance, three non-compliance reports and you payments get suspended. Under your activity agreement you have to turn up to your JSA for interviews once a fortnight, go to training sessions, get coaching, do Work for the Dole or just hang out and job search at the JSA as often as they want you too. They should also provide you with tram tickets, find you jobs you can apply for and can buy you clothes but this is actually really rare. With most JSA employees it’s all stick and no carrot. And that’s when things go well, things like your payments getting cut off for absolutely no reason are COMMON. And then you have to deal with the actual machine which is usually a terrifying descent into madness. EVERYONE will give you contrary information most people will tell you “Not to worry about it” but that will never solve your problem. The right hand never seems to know what the left hand is doing.
3. It turns you into either an irrational arsehole or a hopeless wreck.
Ok so occasionally I heard people saying this “I don’t want a job, I want to be on benefits, the government owes me a living” or words to that effect. When I overheard someone say this after a while I knew two things without looking. A. The person saying it had been on benefits for over two years. B. I had already earmarked them as unemployable. Now it’s sad but you have to make this calls when you are running a coaching business. These people were just too hard to deal with. I don’t have the time or resources to help everyone in the group. So you concentrate on the people you can help. You NEVER heard this from someone who had only been on Centrelink for 3 months. I watched people change their attitudes over time from “I want a job” to “I don’t want a job” over a matter of months. Why? Because no-one wants to be out of control. When you want a job but can’t get one who do you blame? You can blame employers or the market or the government but ultimately most people blame themselves. And you get angry about it. So to take back control the narrative has to change. “Na mate, it’s not that I can’t get a job, it’s that I don’t want one” that is much more comforting than facing the uncomfortable idea that you simply might not be good enough. Or facing contestant rejection. Imagine having a breakup at least twice a week. You’d go mad. But even though this is an acknowledged problem (I talked to many psychologists and councillors in the industry about this and how they might deal with it) nothing gets done about it because it’s in the “Too hard” basket. Most JSA employees are young and don’t get paid much they have a lack of life experience and a lack of motivation to employ the little they do have. It would take real money and real time and effort and expertise to shift these people and those things just aren’t there. The group I worked for was the closest thing that was and we didn’t come cheap and as far as I know we were the only group that offered what we offered.
The older men and women who didn’t want to work? We called the “Mentally retired” the women could usually be shifted into something but the men? Well…..there was a subset of the mentally retired. We called them Zombies, because they literally shuffled. These were guys who had lost their jobs and then their wife’s. A wife to a man of a certain age is important. Not just for companionship and meals and such but as a reality checker. With no-one to talk to and no reality checker they went downhill fast. The worst zombie we dealt with was in Springvale. A man of Indian descent whose wife had died. He came into the center all right but it was obvious his hair hadn’t been combed in weeks. He wore no shoes, his clothes hadn’t been washed and his nails hadn’t been cut in what was probably a year. His resume came with a photo (this is a no-no) but the photo couldn’t have been more than a two year’s old and he looked immaculate smiling and professional. He had apparently been an engineer, he had worked for some big companies in his time. Now he mumbled and seemingly didn’t know what we were saying. “Is this guy ESL?”I asked his case worker thinking he might not speak English. “Oh, no, he’s been like that since a few months after his wife died, he actually has a cute English accent”. We say MANY guys like this although few as bad. Help? Well we did what we could he got intensive coaching and suggested he join clubs like men’s shed but a powerful combination of pride, grief and being completely lost made it difficulty. I hope he’s ok.
2. It makes no sense.
The two times you need benefits the most are when you are just out of a job and when you are about to get one. I had heaps of conversations like this.
Person: “I got a job!!”
Me: “Oh that’s great! I’m so happy for you!”
Person: “I reported it to Centrelink and now they’ve cut off my benefits, but I need to buy a suit, and I need money for transport to my new work and I don’t get paid for a month, but I need to do things like….”eat” in that time….What’s the deal with that?”
Me: “The powers that be are so badly divorced from reality that it’s painful?”
It used to be that if you got a part-time job you could supplement some of your income with that. So you could be on benefits but if you got a short-term job or a job that didn’t pay much or had minimal hours that you couldn’t live on, on its own you wouldn’t die. Then that was changed when Work for the Dole came in. It’s been proven that if you get a part time job on your own that gives you skills especially in the area of work you want that can be incredibly beneficial to your job search. Once you are employed you are more employable. The same is NOT true for work for the dole as it’s usually mindless busy work, no-one will give you a reference and you are not up skilling in your field. Also as you didn’t choose it. It doesn’t help you make contact and it doesn’t help you work on the most important skills for someone out of work, resume and interview skills.
- You lose skills you once had when you are unemployed and employers know this.
Time management, communication, professionalism, movement to action and a multitude of others are skills like any other. You weren’t born knowing how to tie a tie or be polite to customers. And these are muscles that you have to exercise to be good at them. When you stop doing them for any length of time these muscles atrophy. And when you are out of a professional environment you lose those skills slowly and after a while it becomes obvious in interviews. Some people can fake it will but it’s often easy to spot. Employers don’t want those people. People who can’t be professional grate on everyone who can. Gaining these skills back is difficult outside of work but it’s not impossible but it take discipline something that will probably also take a hit if you don’t work for a while. Some people are self-disciplined and self-motivating. Most people however require a framework to support this. Work is a great framework for that. You need to be somewhere every day and be polite and nice to people usually under stress. When you are unemployed that usually goes away. How many people who are unemployed spring out of bed at the stroke of 8 each morning and go and do something constructive? I don’t have the actual figures in front of me but I’d bet it’s in the low teens. Add a cold morning to that and I’d bet that it dips to single figures. And you might be going “Well I’d totally be one of those people” but try it for a year, try it for two years. No reason to get up? Usually people don’t.