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Happily Unemployed: The People Who Quit Their Jobs to Live on Benefits

Young executives talk about why they left their jobs to live on benefits.

by Souen Léger
04 April 2016, 11:01am

Receptionists to some, Hell's Gatekeepers to others. Image via.

This article originally appeared on VICE France

"I didn't go into my last job thinking I wanted to get fired. I studied Engineering and when I graduated I was very motivated. I wanted to work," Benjamin tells me in a coffee shop in the French city of Le Mans, where he moved after he left Paris.

Benjamin is now 31. In 2013, he founded Sortirdutravail.org – a website for people who want to quit their job and have no desire to find a new one. On the website, he offers some practical tips on how to survive without a job in a society that expects you to work.

Benjamin worked long hours at a start-up for two-and-a-half years before he negotiated a part-time position. "There was a guy there on a training contract, and my bosses were horrible to him. I stood up for him but that backfired," he says. His working conditions got so sour, he decided his only way out was to get fired. "First I made sure everybody saw my motivation was gone, and then I started making huge mistakes. I emailed a shareholder – with my bosses on cc – inviting him to lunch to talk about my grievances with the company. My email account was blocked in less than an hour." In November 2014, he was fired for serious misconduct and he hasn't had a job since. Not because he couldn't find one but because he never looked.

With 1.77 million unemployed in the UK, leaving a stable job because you just didn't feel like working can seem reckless to some or a complete dick move to others. Benjamin has been called a scrounger many times but that doesn't bother him: "I now have time to help anyone with anything – when they're sick, sad or need a hand. I'm never tired and I am very happy with my choice. But that's what makes people angry, too – that someone young, who didn't suffer long enough, chose to stop working and is happy with that choice." He says that his life isn't one big decadent blowout on taxpayers' money: "I'm not living on much and maybe I'll have to get back to a certain form of work one day but I have no definitive plans about that yet. All I know is that I feel more alive living with less, than I used to when I earned a lot."

Image by Kate Haskell via.

Benjamin's not alone: Vincent (37) used to make £4800 a month as a project manager in IT so quitting his job meant a radical change: "I was completely devoted to the company but I had a burnout in 2003. I tried to commit suicide, so they gave me three weeks of sick leave. I got better for a bit but went in the same direction four years later. So I just quit in 2008." He worked as a scuba diving instructor in Egypt and came back to France a year later, when his outlook on life had completely changed. "I've become an anti-capitalist. To me, there is no option but to actively fight this system." He now divides his time between working in a self-sufficient eco-village and activism: "I help set up permaculture projects, rebuild the roof of a mansion or build a greenhouse with waste material – that kind of thing."

He lived on his savings for a while but today he lives on the RSA (the French Jobseeker's Allowance) and some resourcefulness. "Having money kept me from making the radical changes I needed to make in my life. I hardly have any money now but I'm much happier." To minimise his expenses further, He plans to move from his social housing and live in a truck: "I'll buy cigarettes and other small things. I bought a headlamp recently. But I do distance myself from money because as soon as my actions focus on money, I feel trapped."

The reasons for leaving the rat race were also political for Claire (32), who has a BA in European Project Management: "I started getting some critical distance during the G8 and G20 protests, which led to me to ask myself whether my job was right for me." She decided to take a break and travel for a month but didn't come back refreshed and ready to get back on the horse. "When I saw people's stress, the absence of meaning and how sad all that makes us – I knew it doesn't have to be like that, and that my life could be more meaningful outside of the office."

She enrolled in a Masters programmes in Geographical Research. "I started feeling alive again, so I decided to stay unemployed for a year. I wasn't very comfortable for the first three months of unemployment – my old values kept popping up. I kept asking myself, 'Are you really happy sitting on your ass while others are looking for a job?' It took a while before I could admit to myself that the answer to that question was 'Yes!'. Now I don't even consider going back."

Elise (31) was disappointed by her job as well but she found a compromise: "For 8 years, I've been working intermittently as an executive in the Public Sector with periods of paid unemployment." Unlike in the UK, where you'll basically only get a Jobseekers Allowance if you're unemployed and qualify, French people who lose their jobs can get around 70 percent of their old pay for the amount of time they worked for that salary. There are still some requirements: you'll need to be employed for at least 122 consecutive days and not have been fired fired for gross misconduct. On top of that paid unemployment you can qualify for the RSA.

Elise now works the number of days necessary to get the unemployment compensation that equals 70 percent of her standart pay. When that money's through, she goes back to work. "Of course, when I say 'I work to get unemployment', it doesn't sit well with people." Her parents worry that she's wasting her potential, and she often feels stigmatised when talking to people about the way she handles her career. "But usually people with full time jobs are a bit jealous of me."

In recent years, alternative ideas to the concept of 'Work → Money' have gained popularity – Finland is trying out a trajectory of universal basic income later this year, for example. But it'll probably be a while before society can step away from the idea that you're only entitled to money if you're working for every penny. Money still makes the world go round, so it's likely that Benjamin, Vincent, Claire, Elise and others like them will be considered freeloaders for a little while longer.

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