Lessons from life on the dole: your job is not your ID

“So…what do you do?” In an age of soaring unemployment and people struggling to find any work at all, nothing can kill conversation as promptly as this seemingly innocent question.

I had a good share of those when I was on the dole. It made me start avoiding all social gatherings requiring self introductions, or I’d attend, but stick with people I knew, carefully avoiding eye contact with strangers. 

Having been unemployed for a long time, I can relate to that sinking feeling you get when, upon revealing your jobless status, the enquirer suddenly changes the subject of the conversation, or worse, they swiftly switch their attention to someone else who does have a job they can talk about. 

Columnist Oliver Burkeman wrote in a Guardian magazine that, in troubled economic times, the question ‘what do you do’ “is far more likely to draw attention to the fact that someone’s out of a job, or tolerating one they’re not proud of”.  I couldn’t agree more. 

“What do you do?” is no longer an icebreaker; it is a humiliator, a self-esteem destroyer. How do you explain to someone your occupation is….to look for an occupation? And why do we feel so guilty about it? No wonder there are so many sociophobes among the jobless.

Yet people can’t get out of the habit of asking it. Have you ever scanned delegate badges at a conference, looking for “the right” people to talk to? We feel compelled to classify and label people to increase our chances of associating ourselves with the right crowd. We need to know where we stand in relation to them, whether they have anything to offer us, anything in common with us. 

Being a terrible liar, when asked, I usually told people I was a “freelance journalist”, which is not entirely untrue, as I am NCTJ qualfied and am regularly involved in several journalistic activities. But the next question always tripped me up:  “What type of freelance journalism do you do?” “One that does not pay and keeps me going to the JobCentre”….is what I was tempted to reply.

There is no denying our job titles pigeonhole us into some type of definition of us as people. Think about how differently you react when someone has just told you they are a doctor (“must be educated and knowledgeable, wealthy”), or an actor (“never heard of you so you must be unknown and therefore poor, probably waits tables to supplement income”) or an accountant (erm…fill this space yourself).

We are going through the worst recession the world has seen since World War II, and many highly educated professionals can be found driving buses, stacking shelves or cleaning toilets in order to feed the family because they aren’t enough jobs in their field. There is no room for misplaced pride in the age of austerity. You do what you can in order to survive. But can people accept that? Can the unemployed accept it themselves?

During my many months of unemployment, I came to realise how much of my identity is defined by what I do as a job. Because without one, I felt like a nobody, I felt embarrassed and ashamed, as if I no longer deserved a place in society. 

The sentiment behind the stock answer: “I am between jobs” is like an apology on a train’s PA system: “We are very sorry for the interruption to your service. Normal service will resume shortly.” Like train services, we don’t actually know when normality will resume.

If losing a job blurs the borders that delineate who we are as people, if we can then no longer be defined by association with a profession, I wonder whether we should not use that time to reassess who we really are when we are not playing roles described on business cards.

I now have a job again, at least for the next few months, and a job title I can proudly announce when asked what I do. The irony is: I no longer identify myself with my title. That alone may have been the most valuable lesson I took away from life on the dole. Having experienced first-hand how transient jobs can be (here one day, gone the next), I now don’t take titles nor jobs for granted.

The new me is “dedicated but detached”, a healthy balance, come to think of it, for someone who has been overcommitted to work all her life.

I am no longer enamoured with concepts such as “career”, “promotion”, “progression”. I am, of course, immensely grateful for my current job, but what I do is not what I am, nor necessarily what I want to be remembered as when I die.

No experience, however mundane, teaches us nothing. Unemployment has taught me my real value lies in what I have to offer as a person, the things I can see and understand beyond the job, exactly because I am not blinded by the false security of one.

It is quite a nirvana. 

Do you have a lesson to share too?



Filed under Unemployment

6 responses to “Lessons from life on the dole: your job is not your ID

  1. Dave

    Thanks for the blog, I enjoyed reading your insights into the beleaguered life of the unemployed claimant. I, too, had to go for my jobseeker’s interview yesterday having been laid off again on Friday. At Burnley job centre (one of the more notorious interrogation centres of the needy) a typical desk Nazi began to harangue me with all kinds of questions and insinuations about my unemployed status while acting all cockily in control himself. He was jolted when he checked my record and found out that I am, in fact, a teacher (I also corrected his spelling of accommodation – two Cs, two Ms – which gave me leverage).
    I wasn’t too bothered about him assuming I was just another piece of excrement come to see him about squeezing a few pennies out of the state just so I can buy a packet of chips and pay my bus fare to and from his centre of operations. After all, he is well accustomed to the daily tide of human detritus, such as he perceives his clients, washing up to his desk in the mistaken belief that he is there to help them out of the trough of despond. What did bother me was that he should treat me differently when he finds out that I’m someone of so-called professional standing. Presumably he sees me as someone who’s not going to be a burden on his caseload for long, having skills and qualifications that supposedly elevate me above the shell-suited lines of the traditional underclass. He ceased to notice, as he’d previously noticed upon my approach to his desk, the threadbare holes in my jeans and the unravelled seams of my coat. Now he sat up and tried to improve his vocabulary. Now he told me that he himself trained as a teacher but never pursued it as a career. Now he was all chatty about his family and his former career in West Africa as a textile regional manager who only gave it up because he was ‘tired of getting shot at’.
    It seems that you are right in saying that our jobs are crucial to how people perceive us as human beings. In my case nothing could be further from the truth about me as a human being. Although I always try to do a good job when I teach, my success is mainly down to having an approachable and down to earth personality, which is something you don’t learn in university (not in the classroom at least).
    Since I started teaching in the private sector short term contracts and work dependent on the size of student intakes have been my lot. As such I have experienced all of the nasty little prejudices and ‘What do you do?’ social bludgeonings that you talk about in your blog when I find myself temporarily on the dole. I also meet unemployed and socially excluded people who I find are not anything like they are perceived to be by Burnley job centre. The problem lies in the attitude of this government and the front line bureaucrats towards an entire strata of society that they have marginalised and ignored until it has swam up and bit them on the arse (last year’s riots being the case in point). This scapegoating for society’s ills is aided and abetted by the gutter press and eventually finds its way into the home and into the pub.
    I’m planning to leave this country and teach in the third world where there is no name calling (or less, at least) and scapegoating of the poverty stricken. I imagine if I ever return I might well see some fairly humbled people in these coming years, keen to forget what they once said to me.
    Thanks again


  2. Will P

    My job-shop adviser yesterday told me that the most important thing to remember was not money or employment but “expanding mind”. He has a wafer thing moustache and bald head. He repeated this mantra a few times, and it was his final echoing comment as I shook hands and left: “Expanding Mind”.

    I think perhaps the world is ending soon.



    • Ha ha, I actually agree with him, Will. Expanding your mind is much more important than jobs, money, etc. The problem is without jobs/money, we get no food, no housing, etc. I say, get a job but be open minded about what you will do (expanded mind). 🙂


  3. GT

    I was searching for some JSA answer and came across this blog.. I’ve read some of the pages and skimmed the rest…. I don’t feel alone anymore.. whether it’s the JC cycle of depression… the way I’m continuously being judged for what I do for living .. I’m not sure anymore that I can break out of this cycle. It certainly won’t happen just because I managed to find another job working like a slave for the rest of my life… Hope you’ve managed to find some peace..


  4. I sometimes say “I’m temping on and off” – which is technically true this year (even if it’s mostly “off”). And don’t loads of redundant former executives claim to be “consultants” even if they’re not really doing anything? When I actually am temping, I just say “I am an X”, or “I work for Y”.

    Depends who I’m talking to: wealthy, stuck-up yuppie types (many of whom live with parents and/or have spent years not having to pay their own rent, so live in a bit of a dreamworld), I say the above sometimes, at least when first meeting them, or in groups of people I don’t know well.

    Sometimes, more recent graduates, or people I know better, I just tell the truth.


  5. West Londoner

    Enjoyed reading your blog, much of which resonates with me. I too HATE going to any social event and facing the dreaded “what do you do” question. The same thing happens with online dating. It is clearly an obsession in modern-day society, we are all defined by what we do. I tend to alternate my answers, like you saying I’m a freelance journalist (but omitting the fact it doesn’t earn me any money), I work in retail (I volunteer for a charity shop), or just saying I’m volunteering, which makes me sound like a trendy do-gooder to some I suppose. If I’m feeling really honest I might use the old “between jobs” excuse. Because, let’s face it, saying “I have a chronic long-term health condition which means I’m not working” really is a conversation-stopper (I’m on ESA). I don’t look physically disabled or come across as mentally disabled (I can converse quite easily) therefore the average person would assume there’s “nothing wrong” with me. I did briefly have a job this summer, and for a while I was able to give a truthful answer when asked “what do you do”. But I hated it. Was it really worth doing a soul-destroying job just for the dignity of an honest answer to that question? No, is the answer.


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