There are few things in life as soul-crushing and depressing as being unemployed. In our modern society, people are defined by their work; your job is who you are. Those without a job are therefore excluded from society and feel as though their very identity is in question. Words cannot fully express the overwhelming sense of shame and humiliation that the unemployed feel. Even in times of severe recession they still blame themselves. There is a severe stigma attached to unemployment that makes them outsiders in society. Unemployment is a social curse that robs people of their dignity and self-respect.
As a student, I am occupied for most of the year, but every summer I go looking for work. Some years are better than others. 2011 and 2012 were not good years. I walked all over Galway city and neighbouring towns of Oranmore and Athenry handing out more than 100 CVs. I got the same reaction most of the time. I’d go in as enthusiastic as possible ready to dazzle the manager into hiring me into an unskilled minimum wage job. Unfortunately, I rarely got that far. Instead someone at the desk would take the CV and add it to the pile. There was usually a sad shaking of the head as I was told that many places were so inundated with applicants that there weren’t even taking CVs. Shops just weren’t hiring. Those two summers of job hunting and hundreds of CVs netted a total of only a single interview (for a job in a fast food shop) and about five rejection letters. I heard stories of offerings of a single low paid job getting swamped by a tsunami of applicants.
Every rejection hurt. There was no way to pretend it didn’t. You threw your best at an employer and they dumped you in a bin. There is no nice and easy way of saying you’re not good enough. You couldn’t harden yourself to the inevitable rejection because without enthusiasm you wouldn’t get hired. So I had to repeat the pain continuously over and over. It was like going to a club and having every girl line up and reject you. The feeling is comparable to that of being bullied. You do not feel like a victim but rather someone who brought it on yourself through your own incompetence. You feel defeated and crushed. The worst part is where you think you deserve it. You agree with the humiliation and start to think you are not good enough for a job. You can’t give up but you can’t continue.
The people who are hardest on the unemployed are themselves. My number one critic was inside my head. Every time the staff politely took my CV and placed it on top of a large pile (probably destined for the shredder), I was criticising myself. It was as though a voice in my head was mocking me for not being good enough. I would see my friends who had jobs and the pain was worse. How could they find work and I couldn’t? What was wrong with me? Even though unemployment was 14.5%, I internalised it entirely. Blaming the economy seemed like a weak excuse. No, the reason I couldn’t get a job was that I wasn’t good enough. Rejection made me timid and battered my self-esteem. I was crippled by a sense that I was inadequate and worthless. It was as though I had failed. All the time I blamed myself. It must be because I wasn’t looking hard enough, smart enough, wasn’t being friendly enough to managers, wasn’t presenting my CV right etc. Somewhere along the way I had gone wrong. Even in times of mass unemployment, the belief that there is work for anyone who is willing doesn’t go away. There was work, but there must be something wrong with me.
I was lucky in that I come from a middle class family who could support me. My parents ensured that I stayed in university, had a roof over my head and dinner on the table. For that I am immensely grateful and conscious of the hardship of those who do not have any backup support. However, it was also an affront to my dignity that I pretended to be a responsible adult, yet had to rely on my parents to pay for, well, everything. The only thing more damaging to your dignity than having your parents’ drive you everywhere is when you can’t go because your parents aren’t free.
I don’t know what unemployment is like for women (probably still pretty terrible), but it is very bad for men. Men are supposed to be the bread winners, the ones everyone else can rely on. Men don’t fail. Men rate their successfulness based on their job and how much money they earn. Women can have non-monetary successes like family, but a real man has to be a working man. Not having a job robs a man of his dignity and pride. Even in this 21st century, it is still humiliating for a man to rely on a woman for money. If you job is a measure of your worth then being unemployed makes you feel worthless. For a gender based on strength and success, it was humiliating to be in a position of powerless and rejection.
A job is more than just a way to pay the bills; it is part of your identity. It is part of who you are. When you meet a person for the first time, the two standard opening questions are where are they from and what their job is. Note that it is usually phrased as “What do you do?” implying those that do not work, do nothing with their lives. The absence of a job leaves a void in your life rendering it empty. This is certainly how it feels to many people and why retirement is so difficult. Whereas people who have jobs rarely respond by saying “I work in a school”, rather they say “I am a teacher”. Their occupation is a defining part of their identity. Your job gives shape to your days and direction to your life. Unemployment on the other hand feels empty and directionless, like you are wasting time. Unemployment is linked with mental health problems as the stigma causes stress and misery. The shame is overwhelming and unavoidable; it leads to lower life satisfaction and even lower physical health.
One of the most important things I learned was the importance of contacts and networks. If you want a job, you have to know someone. This was explicitly told me at one place when I went to hand in a CV. There was no point as the boss had two nephews who had the summer jobs secured. Most jobs I have had were gotten because I or my parents knew someone working there, a common experience among my friends. This is another cause of inequality in society; rich people can use their contacts to get themselves and their children ahead, whereas the poor know few employers. Unfortunately, my parents work in the public sector in GMIT, a place that doesn’t hire many young unqualified people, to my great disadvantage. The unskilled job market is unfortunately just as much a case of who you know as what you know.
The other decisive factor was luck. You literally had to just be in the right place at the right time. Getting a job often came down to walking in just as the manager was there or the just as an employee quit or having your CV top of the pile. That getting a job is so heavily based on contacts and luck should be deeply worrying, but it is to an extent unavoidable. As I haven’t yet graduated, the jobs I was applying for (working in cafés, bars kitchens etc) are relatively unskilled. Most of them you learn quickly on the job and no qualifications are required. This means there is no particular way to stand out from the thousands of other young people looking for work, so employers’ choices will be random to some extent. Likewise seeing as the jobs are not overly complicated, cronyism in the hiring won’t make much of a change to the overall efficiency of the business. Of course for higher skilled jobs the situation is different, but I was below that level.
My story is better than most. Thanks to the support of my family, I never had to go on the dole (receive unemployment benefits), the ultimate shame. I was able to find some sporadic work. However, the thought of another summer of unemployment filled me with dread so I am spending this summer in San Francisco, America where I have luckily found a full time job. However, I will soon graduate with an Arts degree and have to enter the working world, a prospect that my classmates and I find foreboding. Unemployment is still stubbornly high and has barely changed even after five years of recession. It looks like Ireland is headed for a decade of despair.
Unemployment is such a shameful and depressing experience that most people try to avoid thinking about it. This is the least painful choice, but also the one that is least likely to solve the problem. This is why unemployment is something of a black hole that is easy to fall into and difficult to climb out of. The unemployed are thus left with the difficult choice of daily experiencing the shame of rejection or turning numb to their situation. Either way they lose.
Let no one ever say unemployment is easy or comfortable. The loss of a job is one of the most distressing and dispiriting experiences that can be suffered. It robs people of their dignity and self-respect. It bares a crushing stigma of shame. Pity the unemployed who must suffer in silence.