Saturday, 7 February 2009

Recession - learning from last time

People are comparing the present situation with the 1990s and 1930s to see if there are lessons to learn. I think there are. For that reason I offer my own experience of unemployment, and consider how it can be different this time around thanks to the Internet.

I won't write about my experiences first. They are offered more as a post-script - to demonstrate that I write from the heart and from experience, not from theory. I'll start with a statement of what I believe.

I believe that being out of work can be different (less horrible) this time around because one of the worst things about losing your job is the isolation and the Internet overcomes many isolation issues. I don't know how many social networking sites are now focusing on job loss and how to deal with it, but I would guess it is emerging as a major topic.

There are increasing numbers of people, at all skill levels, who will be using the Internet to exchange experiences and information. This networking could be put to good purpose. Yesterday I was writing an email about this in more detail in response to a question about re-training
(copied to my blog here) I have more thoughts but have not yet started to write them.

I believe lots of people will be giving opinions about unemployment, some with little idea of the realities. For this reason I share my unemployment credentials below. I genuinely believe that if the Internet had been around when unemployment was hurting me and my family then the hurt would have been less. I do know about unemployment. (That is one reason I went on a returners course when they were offered in 1999 so I could return to teaching. Then I got involved with Africa which pushed out teaching as a full-time day job.)

Looking back to how things were in the 1990s. I have relevant experience of unemployment and its impact. I remarried in 1990. During the first six months of our marriage my husband and I lost three jobs between us and we then lost our home. (The 1990s were similar to now - lots of job losses, lots of repossessions.)

I have other experiences too.

My first marriage was affected by unemployment. My young children were raised in a rural area and my husband left because of lack of work locally, and was not able to take us with him.

My own work history is varied, influenced by family responsibilities and other issues. I have never had "a career path". I know all too well the dreadful feeling when a job you are depending on is taken from you. I have known it at different levels of job security. My experiences of losing jobs range from seasonal work in the tourist industry to three months notice in a large company - and others in between.

In one training job I had the manager told me he was worried about a phone call he was expecting. If it was bad news we would both be affected. At lunch time he got the phone call he had been fearing. A planned project had been cancelled. He, I, and one other were about to lose our jobs. It was only my second day at work in a new post.

In my first experience of job loss I had been working all season in a local hotel. I was a young Mum and we really needed the extra money I was bringing in. I knew the job would wind down, but I was totally unprepared for the casual comment from the manageress during my tea break "I won't be needing you tomorrow dear." (I was hourly paid - end of story.)

The details of all my job-losing experiences were very different - but the feeling of shock, and unreality, were the same - an almost tangible feeling of blackness closing in, a sensation of separateness, of feeling I was on "automatic pilot" and just observing myself responding. In my memory it is like the memory of being in a car crash - an awful kind of slow motion, unreality, heightened experience, the dreadful feeling of sudden lack of control over what is about to happen.

Then there are the money problems.

There are also questions of identity. Without a job - who are you? What do you say when people ask what you do? Where do you fit in? Who do you mix with? What are you "worth" now that no employer can be found who thinks you are worth anything at all? The person you used to be is no longer of any value in the job market (and we have been taught to values ourselves by our place in the job market).

This is even worse for people who have no family commitments. At least if you are a Mum you can welcome the opportunity to be a full-time Mum for a while, and even make it look like a considered choice on your CV - but of course then there are more people in the family to suffer.

What if you try to re-package yourself, in endless application letters, and no-one wants the re-packaged version either. (In the 1990s I remember reading that on average it took 100 letters of application to land an interview. Employers were said to whittle down the pile of applications by some random rule such as "Reject all typed envelopes (or all handwritten envelopes, or whatever)" - confident that the smaller remaining pile would still have more than enough good people for a short list.

At a time when I was in work and my husband wasn't we would have rows because we'd be invited out as a couple and he wouldn't want to go. Even if it was something we could afford he wouldn't want to go. It was mainly because of the inevitable early question "So.. what do you do?"

Personally I think that question should be turned around, so no-one replies by giving their paid job. After all, it is only an opening conversational gambit (which is a fairly safe one for people who assume everyone is in work). I think it would be better if people always replied by saying what they do in their own time - not by saying what they do in their paid time. Of course that interpretation of "What to you do?" is potentially awkward and embarrassing for people who only have a "paid time" identity - which is arguably as sad as having no job - but that is another issue.

How do you remain employable when you know that "The best way to get a job is to have a job"? It is hard when your main task (other than making ends meet) must be finding work, and your main pre-occupation and identity is that "I have no job, but I must not look like a loser, or I will never get one". I remember going to an employment agency where I thought I was being "positive in my job search but not desperate". The interviewer told me I came over as angry and so she would not be able to place me anywhere. Gradually I developed a life style where I didn't have to rely on one single employer, so I would feel less vulnerable.

Becoming unemployed can be a terrible emotional and financial shock. Isolation and "uselessness" can follow. Using the Internet is the key to it being better this time around. "Rubbing minds" is the first step to using all the unemployed new talent to help create a better post credit crunch lifestyle. Let's actively seek out this influx of newly time-rich people and enable them to share their skills freely for a while and help to create a better tomorrow.

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