Jobseeking Surrounded By Fictions, Myths And Convenient Narratives
Weekly Welfare’s revelation that the DWP used completely fictitious quotes from imaginary claimants in its Benefits Sanctions Leaflet made headlines throughout the UK.
It is worth considering why these quotes might have been fabricated. When confronted the DWP suggested that these are the kinds of things that benefits claimants say all the time at their counters but also somewhat contradictory, that the quotes were educational.
One fictional narrative sticks out – Sarah who did not realise she needed a CV, and was laissez-faire about attending her sessions with her work coach; the tough but fair measures got through to her in ‘her’ plain spoken story. “I didn’t think a CV would help me but my work coach told me that all employers need one. I didn’t have a good reason for not doing it and I was told I’d lose some of my payment.“
How did the DWP think this was okay? Perhaps it is because jobseeking is generally surrounded by fictions, myths and convenient narratives; all of which support the systems rights over the individual, with troubling impacts on the individuals who depend on the system.
In the DPW’s fictitious quotes, the typical case of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ jobseekers was apparent – one individual was diligent, personally accountable and was treated well by the system; while the other was lazy, unthinking and therefore punished. It is worth remembering that the origin of the social welfare payments by the state was to stop these kinds of moral judgements being made about a deserving and an undeserving poor. The state officially supports the stereotype of sympathy for the ‘deserving poor’ and scorn for the near criminality on the part of ‘scroungers’.
The very concept of a blindly fair, bureaucratically administered standard payment for the poor is a very British concept; one of the few British wins to emerge from the disastrous Treaty of Versailles negotiations. It requires a huge discipline on the part of those giving welfare entitlements not to meddle in how the money is spent.
With this leaflet, the DWP shows how much they have moved away from the concept of universal benefits for the poor. The unemployed are now subject to a relentless, omnipotent force, that works them over to be a different person – more agile, more flexible, a team player who takes the initiative, not afraid to speak up, but will not make waves, not afraid of hard work, with a sunny, upbeat disposition, trustworthy, accountable, responsible with a firm handshake and a great hello. The wider culture around jobseeking gleaned from self-help books is now official policy; and unemployed people are forced to drink this cool-aid or face destitution.
Underlying all this is the deeper fiction that individuals are responsible for their own state of unemployment. Unemployment is generally a problem of a lack of demand for labour. Most unemployment is short-term as people move between jobs. Some of it is structural emerging from broad shifts in the economy; forces beyond individual control such as the decline of coal-mining and ship-building. There is a broader change in the world of work, often called neo-liberalism whereby the rules developed at the height of the industrial revolution are now fully circumvented by employers – casual work, part-time, flexi-time, zero hour, contract work, free-lancers, task worker, crowd employment, voucher work schemes, continued professional development, external training and collaborative employment. All of these transfer the risk and responsibility around labour from the organisation to the individual. In supporting this, policy makers feel trapped by global competition for work; leading to lowest common denominator regulation.
Seeking a job, almost like seeking love, is a very complex and varied thing, but often surrounded by stories – and these stories shape the process. In a secular world, seeking a job is almost like seeking salvation, seeking a ‘calling’ in life. Herein we draw from a study of websites, leaflet and books in the UK and Ireland, concentrating on the most common and unexceptional advice.
Jobseeking advice, whether offered by official state services or posted on internet sites, starts by telling individuals to control themselves. For instance, one website counsels:
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“As time passes, the rejections mount up and budgets get tighter, it’s easy to become disheartened. However, this is exactly the time when you need to dust yourself off and put in more hard work than ever.”
Even though the individual has to compete with thousands of others in a tough labour market, the emphasis is on self-control. Effectively, the story is one of resilience and constant practical work on yourself; applying more, polishing your CV and so forth. The consequences is that the individual has to face and overcome the negative impact of unemployment alone. Of course, it is practical advice, but since everyone receives approximately the same advice, the real beneficiaries are the state, which has compliant ‘clients’ in the welfare office, and furthermore save on the health costs of physical and mental illness because ‘good’ jobseekers don’t get disheartened.
In a world of uncertain career paths, contemporary jobseeking involves not just having skills, but also ‘selling’ them to employers:
“Imagine you’re selling a product. We often find it hard to sell ourselves, so imagine you’re selling a product or service and then apply the same rules to yourself.”
So, all jobseekers should view themselves, their experiences, skills and aptitudes in terms of how they would be valuable to employers. ‘Networking’ is a good example here; no longer are friends and family simple social bonds or sources of solidarity, instead they are a ‘resource’ to be ‘tapped in to’; effectively individuals are now expected to commoditise themselves.
The ‘Find your way back to work‘ leaflet from the Jobcentre instructs its readers to ‘Be positive and emphasise why you are perfect for the job’, and:
“…use positive action words, for example ‘consulting’, ‘negotiating’, ‘managing’…make a good impression; this means presenting the facts about yourself in a clear and positive way.”
This official government advice subtly works the deliberate obfuscation of the truth through buzz-words into ‘presenting the facts in a clear and positive way’ – in ordinary parlance, lying.
Jobseekers are encouraged to inflate their own CVs and construct an ideal self-image, even though they are likely to be frequently refused. The act of being built up and knocked down again and again is surely corrosive. Furthermore, the leaflet advises ‘tweaking’ the CV to fit any job on offer, encouraging all jobseekers to apply for all jobs, indiscriminately. The consequences are more rejections for more jobseekers, a waste of more peoples’ time. This is the corrosive advice given to the unemployed.
The problem with these storylines is not that they are fictional, but that they shape reality. Flesh and blood jobseekers eventually accept the Sisyphean tasks of jobseeking, repeated again and again. They eventually become the sort of chameleons that career advice demands, flexible and creative, willing to put on whatever show will get them the role. Beyond the outright lies, it is these stories that need to be challenged.
Tom Boland and Ray Griffin lecture at Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland. They are editors and principle authors of The Sociology of Unemployment, published by Manchester University Press this August.
This analysis is based on the article “Seeking a role: Disciplining jobseekers as actors in the labour market”, forthcoming in the journal Work, Employment and Society.