Tag Archives: identity

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?

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