There is more to life than unemployment misery, says a letter from the Thatcher era

Last weekend I unearthed a most wonderful piece a 25-year-old unemployed young woman sent as a letter to the Guardian in 1985, mid-Thatcher era, and which the author recently reproduced in her blog.

Even though it was written 26 years ago, the content is as relevant as if it had been penned this morning.

Fed up with getting nowhere with job hunting through the JobCentre, Kim Blake Baker decides to stop looking for work and, instead, spend her days writing novels on an “ancient borrowed typewriter”.  For that, she becomes a much happier person, who is interested in and enjoys life.

Her insight into the devastating effects of long-term unemployment is surprisingly mature for a young lady. She talks about the impact of long-term unemployment not only on those who suffer its effects directly, but also on the next of kin: the parents’ sense of helplessness, marriages that crack under the strain of financial stress,  even children feeling guilty about birthdays and Christmases.

In the meantime rejections to job applications pile up, despair increases by the day, while everyone labels you a benefit scrounger… Nothing changes.

Baker, now 51, proved by example that there IS an alternative to the endless pursuit of misery. Her letter provoked a “furore”, and “sackloads of letters” came pouring through her door (this was pre-email times) in response. One person “someone reported [her] to the DHSS (the current Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)) for not actively looking for work”…

Baker says in her letter:

“[…] there is an alternative. By refusing to accept the ‘work ethic’, which is not the same thing as ‘a day’s work for a day’s pay’, which measures a person’s total worth in terms of whether he or she works at all, you can stop the rot. If you accept that continually chasing non-existent jobs is harming you, and that by not doing it you can be a healthier and happier person – and have time to devote to whatever it is you would really like to do, be it brewing homemade beer, or reading, or gardening, or learning judo – then you can start to respect and value yourself again. You can truthfully tell yourself that it is not your fault that you do not have a job; you have tried and it did not work out. That too is not your fault.”

Her comment about the government of the time still rings true:

“The last thing that the Britain of the 1980s needs is a government without understanding, without vision, and without even the most superficial regard for large sections of its populace.”

Whether it is actually feasible for the unemployed to follow in Baker’s footsteps in 2011, and be successful, is a debate for another day, but her chutzpah and her resilience in the face of hardship filled me with inspiration and pride.

Kim Baker, I give thee a standing ovation.

Read Kim’s blog in full here.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “There is more to life than unemployment misery, says a letter from the Thatcher era

  1. You know this seems to make so much sense. As I too have been searching for these jobs. I am now so stressed and feel rejected and down that I feel I have become lost. This has cheered me up 🙂

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  2. Gissajob

    These are wise words indeed!
    ” If you accept that continually chasing non-existent jobs is harming you, and that by not doing it you can be a healthier and happier person – and have time to devote to whatever it is you would really like to do, be it brewing homemade beer, or reading, or gardening, or learning judo – then you can start to respect and value yourself again. You can truthfully tell yourself that it is not your fault that you do not have a job; you have tried and it did not work out. That too is not your fault.”

    I have also reached this conclusion. I am a healthier and happier person spending my time growing veg, wielding the odd golf stick and plotting ways to undermine the useless Work Programme.
    In a long and varied working life I have rarely felt so fulfilled. So much for “work ethic”!!

    Society should take this on board and realise that there is not now, nor likely to be in the future, enough proper work for everyone. This being the case it should accept that there will always be people who do not have paid work, that it is not necessarily their fault, that they should not be abused, vilified by right wing press and forced to spend time on pointless, punitive work programmes/MWA/Community Action programmes (and whatever else can be dreamt up to make lives miserable).
    If work is so great and fulfilling (as we are always being told it is) then those who have it should feel grateful and stop trying to make everyone else’s lives as miserable and guilt ridden as possible.
    Thank you for reading this.
    End of rant.

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    • Like your rant. You are so right. In fact since I have been on this work programme. (only a few weeks) I have not had as much pressure on me or me on myself, and I may just have to except this is it for now. I love my volunteer role, helping people. I get rewards from it that money never gives. I hate money and what it represents but we do have to survive, but all in all I feel much better at the moment now I am not chasing my tail. 🙂
      Justine x

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    • ES

      “Society should take this on board and realise that there is not now, nor likely to be in the future, enough proper work for everyone.”

      I very much agree with that line, and it makes me think of what’s been going on in Switzerland recently. Something I find incredibly curious and thought you might find it curious too. They recently passed a referendum, that is now being considered by the Swiss parliament. The proposed changes would overhaul their benefits system, to do away with a huge number of their individual separate benefit systems, such as job seekers benefit, rent and housing support, low income support, etc. And would then replace them with something called, “Living Allowance”.

      And to qualify for this Living Allowance? You need to have been a Swiss citizen for a certain number of years, over 18, living in the country, and alive. The allowance is equal to roughly £11’000. You get this allowance whether you are unemployed or in work, healthy or to sick to work. This means that when a jobseeker finds a job, they actually get to keep their basic allowance on top of the job. A 100% profit for their sacrificed hours. There is none of the nonsense where people have to turn down low hours jobs because they wouldn’t provide more than the benefit, or where low skilled jobseekers are disincentivised to find work, because they’ll end up getting the same measly amount of money but 40 hours less per week to do so. The allowance is just enough (considering higher Swiss living costs) to get by comfortably and healthily, but humbly. To be able to afford the fun things or buy property, a job is still essential.

      There would also be no repeating signing appointments or other bureaucratic requirements. It is incredibly simple and low maintenance system. The proponents of it explain how the layers of bureaucracy behind running most benefit systems cost equal to and often substantially more than the actual amount of money that they distribute. A system like this would also essentially eliminate the vast majority of homelessness in one fel swoop.

      All sounds very crazy and ambitious, but the brilliant kind of crazy. And if Swizterland (Third richest country in Europe) is taking the idea seriously, then so can I. It’s yet to actually be decided upon in any significant form past the initial referendum, and may well not actually happen. But just seeing a country actually thinking like this, somehow feels like a form of progress to me.

      As a whole the world has less and less traditional jobs every day, and more and more people. Governments talking about “making new jobs” are simply being delusional if they think they can actually out compete the march of automation, just by trying to ‘look busy’. New thinking and working social structure is required. It really is the only way.

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  3. Chris

    Is there anyway I can read the entire letter? Her letter seems to touch upon a few things that I’m thinking myself right now and it’d be great to read it.

    Great blog by the way!

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  4. omyogaK

    Hi, many thanks for your blog. Totally agree about chasing non-existent jobs is really draining and not good for your well-being.

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  5. Teddy

    It’s really heartened me to read these blog posts. I identify with Kim. I’m around the age she was in 1985. Claiming ESA without the pressure of “job hunting” on JSA is quite freeing. I’m lucky I live with family so I’m not struggling to live. At the moment I’m paying paid around the same as a part-time job I had when I was younger… granted it isn’t easy for everyone to do. Because I live with family I don’t have to worry about the stability of my home, paying the rent, or being able to afford to eat. I can basically do what I want with my time… the downside is the social aspect. I have become incredibly isolated from my peer group (most of whom will always ask THAT question) and as a consequence quite lonely. I hate the stigma of being “unemployed” as it tends to make you a ‘non-person’ in this wage-slave Tory-dogma-led society we live in. As you say, you get so fed up of always being asked this question that you begin to avoid any social situation where you may be asked it. I think many of my friends/acquaintances are embarrassed to ask as they feel sorry for my ‘situation’. But if I am sad it is because that is how they think of me. At the recent Labour Party Conference, I applauded a delegate who stood up and said “I am a scrounger”, admitting she wasn’t working because of a hidden illness.

    I think the Swiss idea is a great one; just give people enough basic money to live on, as I currently have, and let them do what they want! Can’t see the likes of Osborne and co. countenancing it, or, at this stage, Labour (the party for working people…). It’s sad we live in such a right-wing country intent on hating those that don’t conform to the “wage slave” mentality.

    I do have to wonder though, if we were all given that basic income, would everyone stop working, and would the world grind to a halt? Would there be anyone left to do the public services we rely on? I suppose we have to take it for granted that a large portion of the population *enjoy* working. You do read about lottery winners who don’t give up their jobs. Probably still social taboo for me to be happy I’m not working though… partly because the working taxpayers of this country resent anyone getting “something for nothing”. If they have to go out and be a wage slave in misery, so should everyone else!

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