Life

Bullshit Job Diary: The Unemployed Art School Graduate Stuck in Job Centres

"I’m angry, despondent, frustrated, tired, and none of this is good enough."

by Tom Glencross; illustrated by Esme Blegvad
04 February 2020, 12:47pm

Turned 27 the other day. Moved out of London up to Leeds at the end of September. Quit my bookshop job in March – zero hours, menial, not paid well. Wasn’t sure I was going to move out of London then, assumed I’d be able to find work pretty easily. Approaching December now, and up until this week there’s been nothing. Now I’m in the process of getting a temporary job through a recruitment agency.

Here’s what I’ve spent the past year thinking about.

The first few months unemployed were alright. Began a hopeful fantasy that I’d make a few job applications in the library each week, and spend the rest of the time teaching myself something. I had a go at a 3D design tutorial, got into the physics of solar power.

Soon enough I realised the offers weren’t going to be pouring in, and concentrating on my little self-education project – or concentrating on anything – became impossible. An application was taking me 12 or more hours, a few days sometimes. Elaborately typing and retyping my CV into each website’s unique job portal, rearranging words from the job description into a covering letter. I’m still doing this, and I’ve done it so often it comes out fully formed in scripted lines. I’ve got an application down to about eight hours or a day’s work.

After three months I started getting worried. A year before when I was working I’d bought a plane ticket to go to my brother’s wedding in Michigan. Without a job and the wedding fast approaching I went to the bank and was given a credit card with a £5,000 limit.

I ended up taking a “gardening” agency job but stayed for less than a week. I spent 30 quid buying my own safety boots, which they didn’t supply. Then I had a few abysmal and unforgettable days working on a building site, wheelbarrowing cement and rubble around a yellow-brick terrace house, just like the one I’d rented a room in a short lifetime ago during my degree. We were building the concrete foundation for a sauna in the back yard of a home in Willesden.

Sitting in the truck on the first day at about 8 in the morning, my old Goldsmiths’ lecturer walked by the window. I went to his Freud and cultural studies seminars during my MA. He’s just written a book Not Working: Why We have to Stop. Then on the last day, I was emptying a load of soil into a skip and fucking Louis Theroux cycled past – he lived a couple of doors down.

The owners of the house were two women in their 40s who periodically turned up in a white Tesla. They wanted the house stripping out to the dirt foundations, the back garden completely astroturfed. The inside of the house was a ditch you had to cross over on a plank. I carried a ton and a half of rubble and machinery backwards and forwards over the ditch, whilst my boss for the day screamed at me in broken English and Italian. He had been in the UK eight weeks and was, like the rest of the site, wearing obliterated sports direct Lonsdale trackies and trainers.

In the afternoon I watched the scaffolding platform I’d spent the day crawling beneath collapse in a clanging heap of steel. It hadn’t been put together properly and I was the only person on site who had not been given a hard-hat, ear defenders, safety vest, or gloves. I’d asked but there were none available. Obviously I wanted to walk away from the job the moment I got there. But with this kind of agency work, your week’s pay is only ratified by a signature from your foreman at the end of the final shift – if you need money, you have no choice but to stay until your boss is finished with you. The agency had repeatedly stressed to me that without a signed timesheet I would not be paid.

The next morning I’d already had enough and went to job centre in Marylebone. My “job coach” was nice but didn’t understand my situation whatsoever. They one-finger-typed “google” into the search bar, then a space, then a dot, then a space, then “com”. Later they asked if I’d considered working for the civil service, and one finger typed “civil service jobs . com” like that, with all the spaces between everything. The next session they spent the entire 15 minutes struggling to download the CV I’d uploaded. Once they got it open they flicked through the document, ticked-off the session’s task, and organised the next appointment for a fortnight. Attendance was mandatory and the meetings took place every two weeks. Universal Credit is paid in arrears, so failing to show up stops your payments immediately.

To get UC in the first place you’re made to sign a charter of bleak and arcane pledges. One is accepting whichever job you are offered, no matter what it is. Another states you’ll spend the equivalent 40 hours of a full-time job searching for work. My favourite pledge promises that you won’t sabotage your own job search, and will take part in interviews enthusiastically. You log into an online account to record your progress, and how often you access and remain logged-in to your account is also recorded.

The pledges are all different ways of promising to refashion yourself into an ideal “job-seeker”, variations on the usual neoliberal drone. You must persistently re-examine and remake yourself, anything but focus on the structural conditions that made you unemployed in the first place.

Naturally, breaking a pledge can freeze your benefits for up to two years.

Excluding agency and temp applications, and discounting CVs I’ve handed out or emailed cold, I’ve made 31 job applications for actual vacancies since the end of March. That’s about one a week for eight months, or realistically a few a week, followed by a week waiting for responses and doing more job searching. I’ve been in Leeds two months and have applied for ten vacancies.

I began by searching for full-time jobs I was qualified to do and actually wanted. Then I looked for part time jobs I didn’t want so much but were paid OK. Then badly paid jobs I was overqualified for, and finally, minimum wage agency jobs without proper contracts or employment rights.

I haven’t received a response from almost every one of my applications, the rest were mostly automated. Other than the obvious knocks to my self-worth and wellbeing, applying for work like this has been the most colossal, consuming and surreal exercise of wasted time and energy I’ve ever carried out. It’s a brutal and numbing sensation to spend hours and days and weeks agonising over a succession of near-identical documents written in a specific yet inscrutable job application tone, only to cast each of them into an un-replying digital ocean like a message in a bottle.

The sea thanks you for taking the time to complete this application. Shortlisting and interviews will take place over the next 7-14 days. If you do not receive a response from us please assume you have not been successful. Unfortunately due to the sheer volume of bottles in the ocean during this time, we are unable to provide feedback.

Were many of these vacancies even real? What have I been doing with hours and hours of my time? I often wonder.

All I have to show for it is a bank of CVs, covering letters and online application forms, near-exact texts in each of them just reassembled in different permutations. I am an after-dinner speaker with anecdotes about the customer experience, teamwork, and being a flexible proactive employee. There’s hours of material I know by heart. But where the fuck is my job?

To rent a house in Leeds I’ve had to use Sarah’s* dad to fabricate a job and references and pretend to be my employer. It’s near-impossible to rent a house if you’re unemployed, have a low income, or don’t pass a credit check. The estate agents and credit agency called him up straight away to check I was telling the truth.

Still living the lie, still living through the biology of debt that began with my parents, and their parents, and their parents, I’ve had plenty of free time to give some thought to the last decade – of leaving home, living, studying and working in London, and now moving up to Leeds.

There is no such thing as a unified working-class identity or experience so I’ll just speak about my own. Apologies if you’ve heard it before.

I started to leave home probably when I was about 12, maybe earlier. Something happened during school and I began to realise that there was no future for me in Scunthorpe. It was a process that had been going on for a long time really, something my own family would occasionally stress to me.

“You want to keep on at school.” “You could get a job you enjoy, and you won’t have to work like we have.” My dad has always struggled with reading and writing – he reckons he’s dyslexic, but in the 60s and 70s at school in Scunthorpe that just meant your were being insolent. In my lighter moments I consider my decision to study English Literature (of all things) as a triumph for social mobility. In my darker moments I consider it as one of my most definitive acts of class desertion, the conclusive decision to relinquish any attempts to communicate or understand the real story of my home and my roots.

Growing up in a working-class household and aiming to leave your hometown is a bit like preparing to fire yourself into space. You start to make early preparations to forget yourself and your old life, because it’s quietly obvious to you and everyone else that you’re not coming back – or if you are, you’ll be changed irrecoverably. I’d occasionally be round a mate’s house with an older sibling who’d done the same thing, and their loss was mourned as if they’d gone to fight in a far-away hundred-year war. Picture frames of pale graduates that looked like they could be have been taken anytime between five and 50 years ago.

When I go back to Scunthorpe now to see my family and visit the retail parks, chain pubs and ring roads, I do not wander around with the mind-set of the flaneur. I don’t keep myself company with the rolling internal monologue of the “psychogeographer” or comfort myself with the insight of the LRB diarist. I don’t experience working class realities with the quintessential and wry “Britishness” of Martin Parr. Neither do I look at Scunthorpe through the desaturated concrete tones of an Adidas advert’s brutalist estate stairwell.

When I look at my dad’s steelworks or my mum’s NHS, I don’t see the clean Barbican tea-towel modernist typography of the once great nationalised British Steel, and I don’t see the Nike swoosh streetwear branded iconography of a viral social media campaign NHS. I don’t see a town of builders, lorry drivers and schoolchildren all united at rush-hour by a poignant spoken word poem read aloud in heavy Northern dialect in a McDonalds. But these are some of the one-dimensional expressions of working class culture the university educated and privileged worldview finds acceptable. I am unable to fully express what it is like to grow up in the vacuum of Scunthorpe without a tendency to resort to any one of these palatable fabrications.

The way working-class culture manifests at home, the way the environment itself can produce a certain anxious and nervous personality, it’s as if the strength of its gravity becomes a lived experience. There is pain and blood buried beneath the surface of the ground, there are incommunicable wounds between generations. There is an 18-year stretch of childhood and young adulthood of experience and feeling that remains closed off to me. It is not forgotten, it just looks back at me blankly. I have unlearned its language. It’s surrounded by an opiate fug – not a Film4 approved Danny Boyle directed opiate – but a clean, medical grade, undocumented, slow, creeping, insular prescription opiate crisis. There is nothing to describe here, no authentic way I know of telling the story.

Every time I speak about my past it is a lie in a language that doesn’t belong to me. The last year of worklessness, of endless CV revisions and empty covering letter boasts, has brought me to an unexpected end-of-the-road. I have no idea how to make my education and my resources take me any further. It feels like the class-indebtedness of the past, the social and cultural credit I’ve been unsuccessfully blagging for the past decade, the log-book of biopolitical and intergenerational debt – it’s all finally caught up with me. I have two degrees but in my hands they are evidently worth nothing.

Without possessing a certain way of selling myself, without the necessary confidence, self-belief, or a sense of rightful inheritance to the world I want to take part in – without all of these qualities which do not and will not come easily or at all to working-class people.

To study and live and work how I wanted, as an academic or an artist or a “creative” or whatever you want to call it – inhabiting a working-class sensibility from a place like Scunthorpe is worth absolutely nothing. It has no exchange value, no capital, no credit.

The working-class identity is believed to be naïve, an unstable currency, people can’t rely on it. At best you might be able to present yourself as earnest, plain speaking, sociable. But I spent a decade watching the expressions change and flicker on people’s faces. I’ve undergone the night bus self-examinations, failed to capitalise on friendship networks. I stopped drinking for six months at the start of this year, partly for the health benefits and to see if I could. But looking back I think it was a kind of long goodbye to my friends in London. Without being boozed I could properly witness the slow extrication of myself from the groups I’d failed to perform an acceptably sociable and networked role within.

Thousands more working class people are going to university and there are thousands more qualified graduates. In a lifetime of constant painful revisions, the prospect of an academic qualification for a working-class person holds the hope that you might be able to finally stop reinventing yourself. Your credentials will speak before you. Twenty odd years ago, with the social capital and mobility I might have gotten from holding two degrees, this may have been the case. I thought on my own journey to getting educated I would be leaving the production line of my dad’s generation behind. But to accommodate for the imbalance of power generated by thousands of new working class academics, society has restructured and reorganised.

In fact I was just working on a new production line, one created for people just like me. The knowledge economy and the higher education sector. Debt was my new line manager. And just like the old industrialists, it was all owned and operated by a minority of private interests, managers, board members and vice chancellors.

I’ve amassed huge amounts of personal debt along the way to pay for an education still obviously considered a privilege rather than a right. This debt is another weapon used to disproportionate effect against working-class students. Since graduating I’ve realised for people like me, the place where class lines are being redrawn is within the job market, the recruitment process, and all the spheres where power is restructuring itself to manage and dominate an overqualified and casual workforce.

If you believed you were lucky in getting a university education to begin with, you’re in absolutely no position to use it competitively. Neither are you equipped to understand all the complicated shades of self-confidence, belief and entitlement you need to make your education “work” for you. These are traits that cannot be taught at school, gleaned off Wikipedia, practiced in the mirror, nor can they be performed and pretended in a convincing or sustained enough way – without being subjected to a regular series of mental crises, breakdowns, depressions.

Ways of scrutinising your identity, your financial, social and cultural debts and credits – they have become more networked, sophisticated and far-reaching. The job application is a two-day personality test, an examination of your compliancy, and a grim and schizophrenic exercise in self-deception.

Once the relevant checks are made, the CV is scrutinised, the references are followed up, judgements are set – as a working class person you are left completely exposed.

Traits of self-belief and entitlement belong to the privileged, they’re instilled from birth and they’re reflected back at them from the security of their surroundings. For working-class people and communities, the battle here has been lost inside the mind, the spirit, in the streets and in the surroundings, for a long, long time.

Leftover is a sense of anxiety and dejection that bridges between generations of parents and children. We’re 40-years deep in an on-going litany of Tory-led class revenge that started with Thatcher, and places like Scunthorpe are literally broken by this. The prospect of a better future – or even a future of any kind - has been surrendered. You learn to inhabit and become this surrender.

“Have you tried… just… getting something casual?”

Yeah the reason I spent the last 15 years locked in confusion and reinvention, abandoning my home and working to get educated, qualified and trying to build the only viable future I saw possible for myself, was all so I could make sure to get something c a s u a l.

On Wednesday I bought my second return train ticket from Leeds to Bradford for another meeting at a recruitment agency. On the first visit I signed a temporary contract which waived my holiday entitlements and opted-out of the statutory maximum working week hours. Today I filled the same details in another form, and payed £40 to cover the cost of my own DBS check. If everything goes to plan I’ll be working as an admin temp for the county court.

My hourly wage will be less than the hourly rate I was paid in the first job I ever got, when I was 19 and had just moved from Scunny to London to study at Goldsmiths. Eight years later I’ve turned 27 and I have two degrees. I haven’t had regular work in eight months and the last job I had was zero-hour and minimum wage.

After months of unemployment it looks like I might have a temporary admin job, but I am refusing to be happy about this. This refusal feels like the only shred of power and satisfaction currently available to me. I think what I’m trying to say is that I’m angry, despondent, frustrated, tired, and none of this is good enough.

I want more from life, and I don’t want to feel unreasonable or ashamed for wanting that.

The last eight months have been a slow and painful haunting of my past. A lot of the effort I’ve put into accepting who I am and settling into peace with myself has just been bit-by-bit gouged out in exhausting internal monologues and endless questions.

Questions on the bus
Questions in the blank bright grey office of the recruitment agency
Questions with my family
Questions with my friends
Questions in the supermarket
Questions in the bathroom mirror
Questions in bed
I am fucking knackered.

@tom.glencross

Tom Glencross is planning a project documenting the responses to this article, and would welcome comments to his Instagram inbox.

*This name has been changed.

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University
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working class
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scunthorpe