My drafts folder is ridiculous at the moment. I have one, almost fully-formed post, along with about three with titles and a couple of lines. I have a tendency to begin things, but never see them through.
I left my job a little over six months ago. I planned to take a little time off, to clear my head, settle in, get the lay of the land, and then get back into work. My birthday, which is at the tail-end of January, came and went, early thirties slowly becoming mid-thirties. Time to start looking for a job, earn some money while I figure out what I want to do.
You can probably guess what happened. Or didn’t happen, more accurately.
Our past predicts our future, to some extent. Every choice we did or didn’t make, every action taken or delayed or missed, every act that happened to us, or by us, or because of us… they have impact. They have consequences, far beyond the immediacy of now, or then. Simple choices like deciding to walk to work, instead of driving, or taking the bus; what to eat at lunchtime; even what clothes we decide to wear on any given day; all of these tiny, seemingly insignificant choices, they add up. They shape a future that we can only guess at, but have inevitably created without realising.
Of course, the so-called ‘big’ choices have impact, that much is obvious. Whether to apply for a job, or to continue education. Whether to live in another country (funds and status permitting), or to never leave your hometown. Whether to have children, or to adopt, or to remain child-free. These can be, and in various combinations are, the tentpoles of our individual futures, the at-a-glance highlights of the movie that may be made of our lives someday. Some of us may even become famous and be heralded as a bastion of humanity. Some of us may even end the world as we know it.
But our future, for all its unknowns, can be shaped by our past. Every single choice, action and reaction we take, lays down another piece of our personal yet-to-come. It’s not quite our destiny, but more a writing of roles in a production as-yet unconfirmed.
What gives our lives value? In the west, it is considered to be a person’s economic contribution to the machine that is late-stage capitalism. From a very early age, children are able to recognise brands; before they reach puberty, they are capable of having brand loyalty; by the time they’re teenagers, they understand their role as a consumer, with the ability to make decisions about purchases. They are taught, literally and figuratively, that a career is desirable. They are infused with the notion that hard work is admirable and that if they work hard, they will be rewarded. They are taught that they are only worth anything when they are working.
If they are incapable of working? Their worth is instantly destroyed. For a particularly chilling example of this, take a look at the way people with disabilities are treated by the current UK government. Fitness to work is seen as the only way to contribute meaningfully to modern Western society. But I digress.
So what does this have to do with my job hunting?
I went to uni at 19, after deferring for a year. In that year, I worked in a ski resort in the French Alps, and hated every single minute of it. I was one of the youngest there, and as I worked in a kitchen, I frequently had to deal with hungover/drunk/high chefs. I can tell you one thing I’ve learned from that time: chefs can be bastards. Anyway, I came home, older, wiser and slightly worried about the lack of French I’d learned. I went to uni, and everything fell apart. Long story short, I dropped out after a disastrous year abroad.
University is not a good place to be if you’re mentally ill. Cheap alcohol, a lack of boundaries, a mental illness and newly-found independence leads to a collapse of identity and an increase in self-loathing. It takes every grain of resistance and bloody-mindedness to stay in an environment like university, when your own brain is telling you to jump off the tallest building on campus.
Worth becomes a significant factor in scenarios like this.
When I made the decision not to return to university for my final year, I was relieved, to a certain extent. I wasn’t enjoying the course, I was drinking and cutting heavily, and I was 90% convinced I would barely scrape through with a degree.
I was made to feel like a fool for this decision. My worth as a human being, as a family member, was non-existent. I’d squandered this opportunity to be the first in my family to go to uni, and that my family had spent so much money on me, which was being wasted. I came home from Europe, to face my family. There was a lot of talking, a lot of shouting, a lot of bargaining, but I remained firm in my decision.
I found a job with Borders (the book company, who are sadly now out of business) at the airport, and fell into a rut. Get up, go to work, come home, sleep. Repeat ad infinitum. But it was ok, I was earning money, I was proving my worth. I got promoted, with a pay rise and extra responsibility, and the job promptly consumed my life. I would work long hours, come home late, get up early (3:30am alarms were common), and gradually became less and less satisfied with the job.
But I couldn’t just quit. Bills needed to be paid. Food needed to be bought. I went to work exhausted and miserable, came home exhausted and miserable. The whole situation was beginning to take a toll on my marriage (which was barely months old at that point). We had talked about moving back up to Lisa’s hometown, as she was missing her mum. So I began, on my days off, to look for work in that area. After a few weeks’ searching, I found a job with a well-known tech company, applied, interviewed and was hired.
The cycle began anew.
This employment lasted 9 years. I gave all of myself, worked my way through opening two stores, contributing to sales and eventually training, developed a specific skill set, based on facilitation-based training. Until I burned out. I didn’t do it spectacularly, with some sort of public breakdown. No, it happened slowly. It became harder to care about the job. Harder to care about my place in the business. Harder to care about the customers. By this point, I had been in the retail sector for over a decade, and I had just had enough. I found myself questioning what my value to the world was.
The western world has instilled this sense of work being a noble and admirable thing; that to work is to be a good, upstanding member of society. Capitalism has done a fantastic job of attaching self-worth to economic output, and this attachment has led to demonisation of the welfare state, people with mental and/or physical disabilities, diminishing of the value of the arts, and has done so in a astoundingly sinister way. A casual glance at the rhetoric from political parties, from businesses, even from education will show a society built around the concept of work = value.
So when you’re out of work, and unable to work/find work? You might as well not exist.
I’ll let you in on a secret: I signed on for Jobseeker’s Allowance about four weeks ago. Anyone who tells you it’s easy to get benefits is a liar and probably a conservative. It’s long, drawn-out, humiliating and requires the same amount of commitment as working. The initial interview lasts about an hour and makes you feel like you’re a waste of a person. It makes you question yourself far more than just sitting on a sofa, watching Jeremy Kyle, does. Now imagine if you’re disabled. Or have a mental illness. Some days, it is nigh-on impossible to get dressed, because the thought of job hunting makes me feel so anxious, I get light-headed and flighty.
There is a very real problem at the heart of western society. Because we have allowed ourselves to believe that capitalism (and consumer culture, something I became acutely aware of during my time with the tech company) is the best solution of a bad bunch, we have also allowed the slow, creeping dehumanisation of people to numb us to each other’s inherent, non-economic worth. This saddens me profoundly. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution, except to suggest that the arts need to be given more prominence and support, so that creativity can be nurtured, and some of that worth reclaimed by people.
Or maybe I’m just being too idealistic.