The Seeker finishes his six-month column on the lost generation facing hard possibilities
Called into the office, take a seat. "Napoleon" will be with you shortly. The chair beside me is vacant, the light in the windowless room scans at my eyes. I sign away my right to have a fellow member of staff present for the meeting. It’s a formality, they’ll be good to me, just as I’m good to all the authors I plagiarise.
A shock. At the end of my three-month probation period, I’m out of the cultural place, mumbling the words work ethic to myself like an item on a foreign menu, wondering if the managers decrypted or traced that email I sent anonymously.
“You can appeal,” says Napoleon.
I throw my hands up in the air. Then leave. Two days later my other job falls through. This is the nightmare of everyday life.
We’re clinging onto a liberalism that will, without doubt, be defeated at the next general election. A recent survey found that attitudes are hardening against the poor, even among young people, usually a more tolerant demographic. Outside the bubble of lefty blogs and comment pieces, we may forget that there is a general approval of what the government is doing. A majority of people, for example, would restrict what can be bought with benefits – this effectively means food stamps. So what’s the point? If you can’t get a table, get a waiting job, right?
My friends who used to be on the dole aren’t anymore. Maybe the government was right after all – there was game to be hunted, we just weren’t hungry enough. Is it a coincidence the promise of the dreaded Work Programme made us all crawl off the dole somehow? Cooking pizzas for cash-in-hand money, labouring on building sites, bumming around on friends’ sofas, applying for postgraduate degrees we’ll never be able to afford, moving in with our boyfriends, making life harder for the ones we love? Some of us would have (re)turned to shoplifting, or slept underneath beds, starving and screaming, but we’d have found something somehow, or we’d have killed ourselves on the drugs that seem to stalk the unemployed and hold their heads under the covers each morning, unable and unwilling to get up and look for work.
The truth is, and not many liberals will say this, but a lot of people don’t want to work. The government is probably right. We are lazy, we are choosy. Because don’t you think you’d really have to be masochistic to actively choose a lot of the jobs out there? To actually want to do this work, given the choice, knowing what we know?
As far as I can tell, the reason we’re elitist and choosy is because work has come to stand for something so much worse than we were promised. Promised by ourselves, the lecturers, the poets, the rock stars, the hand of history itself, which we thought would move forward towards greater equality, more opportunity, less misery – an end to deference, the shattering of glass ceilings. But for the first time since I can remember, history seems to be spinning backwards. And as my friend, the nearly-always-on-the-money Dan Hancox says, not back to the 1980s, but the 1880s. Old hierarchies are being consolidated through new power structures – internships, tuition fees, the pricing us out of cities, the rebranding of social security first as welfare and then as charity.
But wait. Everybody’s an artist! Everybody’s got something to say! Have we been coaxed into thinking we can all work for our own disgusting selves and our crippled ideology, outside of the present reality – become graphic designers and freelance photographers and whatever it is university courses train people to do? Most certainly. Our ambitious have given our masters something they feel they need to slap down, put in its place, remind that somebody’s got to serve at the till, tend bar, punch numbers into the database. Of course, they’re right. Somebody got to do it. Nobody ever denied that.
So I can’t ignore the fact that there are better solutions out there if we’d only consider them. Take the idea that the national debt ought to be paid off by the richest in society, which they could handle many times over. A 20% tax on the wealth of the top 10% – less in percentage terms than the cuts to housing benefit – would do the trick. Boom – gone. No more austerity, no more “tough decisions” of the kind that always wind up hammering the young and poor.
It would be great too if workers weren’t treated like disposable pieces of machine; if there was an actual incentive to get a job – if it felt like it meant something, and was worthwhile, as opposed to just another form of coercion. Hancox also has some enlightening things to say about this, too, with relation to what’s happening in the ‘utopia’ of Marinaleda in southern Spain, where the rogue mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo seems to be restoring some dignity for his people.
This is dreamy stuff, I know. I have under a month until I’m totally out of work again. I’m not sure what I’ll do.