The last time I signed on was when I left university. It was during the dotcom crash and I was discovering that applying for a job was much more nuanced than the governments approved advice to school children had prepared me for. One had to think about the jobs and your skills carefully, and find the right sources of jobs. I quickly worked out that the job center was only good for claiming benefits.
Anyway, when I got to the job centre (a short car journey away) I was told off for not filling in a form listing the companies I’d applied to. I had been persuaded that the allowance was an entitlement that I should take even though I was not exaclty destitute, and the form was a condition of getting my job seeker’s allowance. It seemed entirely reasonable at the time since the idea of the form, I remember, was to ensure I’d been seeking a job.
The form had 3 slots and I’d left my copy blank. Plainly, there was going to be some difficulty claiming job seekers allowance if I could not claim to have contacted at least three companies in, what was it? two weeks? What was I thinking?
Well, I had my trusty notebook with me, with a list of at least 12 companies that I had phoned or sent letters to and all the scribbled notes next to each set of details. Rather than saying “maybe try quality rather than quantity”, or anything remotely sensible the woman signing me on said “please remember to fill in the official form next time”.
She barely even glanced at my notebook.
I know IDS has been trying to tighten things up a bit, but I was still surprised when someone at work sent me this “Realistic Unemployment Simulator” from “Us v Them”. The amusing game, which lampoons Ian Duncan Smith as lofty and out-of-touch gives you a limited time to walk your character between the house, job centre, mandatory job interviews, and mandatory voluntary work. As the game progresses racing around to eat, seek work, claim benefits and train becomes physically impossible. My maximum score was 6 job interviews.
Sure it’s been 12 years since I was last unemployed and I was 12 years younger at the time. It was also a situation that quickly resolved itself by, first of all, contacting an agency for a few days work. I ended up putting the rubber bits in double glazed windows in a freezing hanger full of sharp metal edges, a process that involved getting super-glue all over my hands. I never got to know how much heat was turned up on people who were out of work for more than a few months but my experience of over-delivering on the requirements by a factor of 4 simply does not gel with the message of this silly game. Sure, it was a tricky business, but I did have time remaining to experiment with baking bread and to complete Max Payne.
I am probably not the only person to have had a similar encounter with the benefit system after leaving University. We have now grown up, got experience, and are in jobs. They may not, if they are lucky, have signed on for 12 years and all they will remember is the ridiculousness of the controls the system had in place when they last claimed. I think the left, to be taken seriously, needs less of the whiny multimedia presentations prepared by well off IT professionals and should generate memes that explain why they think it is so damned hard to find a job. Thier message in this “realistic simulator” is not that it is tricky, but that it is physically impossible to do. There may very well be good reasons to think it is physically impossible, I am not claiming JSA now, but that is not my experience and is not going to be the experience of very many more people like me who have gone on to pay for the system.