I’m the writer-in-residence at the jobcentre. That’s the title people attain shortly before they’re immortalised as statues, thrown in the madhouse or bundled onto the work programme.
Since the new government got in, contrary to their best efforts, I’ve been pretty solidly idle. All this time, I’ve been either unemployed or working freelance. And we all know that in a lot of cases, freelance is just the educated person’s way of saying unemployed.
After university, when I was training to join an industry which is being killed off by the internet, they didn’t bother to teach us much. They knew most of us we were heading for the scrapheap before we’d even hit the road. But the one thing they did tell us, as we made our way out of the door, was never to refer to ourselves as ‘students’, ‘trainees’ or ‘unemployed’. Always tell people you’re working freelance.
So that’s what I’m doing. I’m the freelance writer-in-residence at the jobcentre.
It’s Thursday, 10am, which means I’m doing my duty with my fellow freelancers at the J.C. As always, it feels like the middle ground between a sixth-form centre and a funeral parlour.
G4S security guards graze the room, presumably to make sure nobody comes in and tries to steal all the jobs
As the months have worn on, it’s become more evident that the J.C. is understaffed and woefully underequipped to deal with the gravity of the unemployment problem. Watching it trying to cope is like witnessing a provincial nightclub buckling under the pressure of hosting a sold-out appearance by the Chippendales. It would be funny if it weren’t for the desperation of the queue.
G4S security guards graze the room, presumably to make sure nobody comes in and tries to steal all the jobs. I print out a couple from the console while I wait.
Temporary Vacancy: November 17 to December 24
Meets National Minimum Wage
CRB check required.
My ‘adviser’ Colleen calls me over. She’s no more an adviser than a traffic warden is a traffic adviser. She’s an enforcer.
She gives me a bullish stare. “Ten weeks, then we move you onto the work programme.”
The work programme is where they send you shortly before you’re immortalised as a statue or thrown in the madhouse. My friend Adam has been on it for four months, and he could go either way: statue/madhouse, statue/madhouse. He’s a photographer. Freelance, naturally.
Adam is supposed to attend extra meetings as part of the work programme, but has so far managed to avoid them simply by lying to whoever is in charge. Being on the dole is in many ways like being a functioning alcoholic, in that you learn to maintain certain deceits. And while it can be fun for a while, it drags on the soul when it stops feeling like a holiday and more like your life.
So the J.C. has finally caught onto Adam’s non-attendance at the work programme, and they’re cutting his dole because it’s the only thing they can do. Non-compliance means they try to starve you into submission and hope you don’t have the tenacity, or the literacy skills, to go through their protracted appeals process.
Along with the threat of the work programme, Colleen says I now have to apply for six jobs a week instead of three. Or is it twelve instead of six? I can’t remember. Either way, it doesn’t make sense, and they know it. Flooding the job market with applicants – especially when they’re banging out two applications a day just to fill a quota – doesn’t improve anyone’s chances.
As if to prove how hopeless the situation is, the government has set providers of the work programme dismally low standards. They’re only asking work-programme providers –companies and charities like Seetec and Working Links – to get the same number of people into work who would have found work without their help, which is 28%. But they’re not even hitting that target. Their average is 24%. So, assuming these numbers are correct, they’re worse than useless.
I return home from the J.C. to see a rejection letter. I know before I’ve opened it. Long periods of failure induce a trance-like state of visionary consciousness, where you can see exactly what’s going to happen next but you’re incapable of doing anything about it.
It’s from a publishing firm whose interview I attended last week. It was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever experienced. The interview consisted of one question: “Tell me about yourself”, a written test and a ‘colour test’.
I know I scored close to 100% on the written test, and didn’t reveal anything about myself that could make me unsuitable for the job. This can only mean I failed the colour test.
A colour test is where you’re presented with eight different coloured cards and asked to rank them in order of preference. Then you’re asked to do the same again (you’re told specifically that it’s not a memory test). The order in which you choose them, and whether you repeat the selection, is supposed to indicate some bullshit about your personality.
I must have chosen the wrong colours. But the letter obviously didn’t say that. Instead, it said the company has a policy of not giving feedback to unsuccessful candidates, presumably because it would make it look ridiculous.
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