South of the River – Who are you?

Compass-SouthComment logo 2What’s your identity? I’m not interested in your documents: passport, driving licence, bank pin number (I certainly don’t want to steal them). But who are you and what makes you who you are?

Employment is central to who you are. You don’t believe me? Let me ask you, when you meet someone new how do you answer the question ‘What do you do?’ You could answer ‘I bake cakes’, or ‘I watch football’, or ‘I help my children with their homework’, or ‘I do the washing’. But a pound to a penny you tell them what you’re paid to do in your working life. That’s if you’ve got a job of course.

On Wednesday night I was at the Inner South Community Committee discussing unemployment amongst older men. I was struck by this comment from a chap in Belle Isle:

“I’m scared I won’t get another job – and I won’t have a reason to live.”

He wasn’t over-dramatising, it was clearly said from the heart. He was a working man who couldn’t find work and couldn’t provide for his family. It cut right to the heart of his identity and left him wondering who he was.

I don’t like being put on the spot about what I do. I’m not in regular employment. How do you describe that to someone? Even saying ‘it’s complicated’ raises the issue that you’re not employed and therefore … what? If not worthless perhaps worth less?

I often use the witty phrase ‘I describe myself as self-unemployed’. Well I think it’s witty, but then I can afford to. I’m in a fortunate position of having grown up kids, no mortgage and an Other Half on a good salary.

I’m one of the government’s success stories. I’ve ‘moved off Job Seeker’s Allowance’ – what a horrible phrase. I’ve started my own business. I’ve just completed my first tax return, but I haven’t earned anything like enough to actually pay tax and I doubt I will this year either. I suspect there are many others like me. Along with Zero Hours Contract ‘jobs’ it’s one of the scandalous way they’ve made unemployment ‘fall’.

Whilst we’re on the subject can I just point out that the statistic that ‘more people are in work than ever before’ is nothing new and is next to meaningless. As long as the population grows year on year we will always have ‘more people are in work than ever before’.

But I was supposed to be talking about identity. Employment shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of who we are and it rarely is. But it is something of a pre-requisite for most of us. Work is often a stick and only occasionally a carrot for most people, but either way it does make you get out of bed in the morning. It provides you with social contact and perhaps most importantly it puts cash in your pocket. Most of that wage may be taken by bills, but it does allow you to have an evening out now and then, go on holiday, have a hobby, etc. Be yourself to some extent.

The trouble with unemployment is both the lack of money and the lack of purpose.

The amount of benefit is pitifully small even if you aren’t ‘sanctioned’ (denied benefit) for failing to turn up in two places at once (it happened). It might cover the bare minimum, but what happens when the washing machine breaks down, or your mother goes into hospital, or your children need school uniform?

Unemployment saps your confidence. It starts OK, almost a bit of a holiday and they pay you benefits – great! But once the first dozen job applications are rejected you start to wonder what’s going on. The appointment with your Adviser at the Job centre becomes more threatening.

There’s a vicious circle of time wasting. You have to apply for so many jobs each week whether they are appropriate or not. The more rejections you get – actually it’s just a deafening silence, a rejection letter or even email is a rarity these days – the less effort you put into your applications. The employers are flooded with inappropriate applications which they have to sift through or bin. It’s not productive for anyone.

The lack of progress is depressing, the shortage of money is depressing, the feeling of isolation is depressing. It’s no wonder 50% of the people in Leeds claiming Employment Support Allowance (what used to be Sickness and Invalidity Benefits) have mental health conditions.

So what do we do? We need talking therapies and we need projects like Men in Sheds to break the circle. But mostly we need jobs and that means ending austerity, creating jobs, increasing the money circulating in the economy.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.