JobCentrePlus…plus what, exactly?


We’re all about branding nowadays, and getting the dole is no exception. Thus the good old-fashioned labour exchange has had yet another makeover. Calling them Jobcentres was always the triumph of hope over expectation in any case, but even that’s no longer enough. Oh, no. Now the job centres have had something added, presumably, in order to justify their “plusness”, but you’d be hard put to discover what.

Perhaps a process of elimination will help to identify the elusive additional ingredient. We can rule out a welcoming atmosphere right away. The first people you meet in a jobcentre are not jobcentre staff, but security guards. And, it would seem, security guards that failed to get jobs in supermarkets or as bouncers because of their lack of social skills, or indeed, even the power of speech. I present my dinky little plastic wallet containing my laughable “job-seeker’s agreement”, only to be met with a grunt and a vague wave towards the seats already filled by my hapless comrades.

OK, so it’s not a warm welcome. Perhaps it’s staff who are attuned to your particular circumstances? Nope. “Well, Mr No-Job, what have you done to find a job this week?” I say that I’ve perused the GuardianJobs website, and followed up some contacts amongst recruiters I’ve used in my previous job. “Have you looked in the local paper, there’s lots of jobs in there?” Oh, for God’s sake.

Well, surely it must be increased efficiency then? Erm… On my second signing-on day I gave in my plastic wallet and sat down to wait. And wait. Eventually, someone asked me what I was doing there as the place was about to close.

“I’m waiting to sign on.”

“Where’s your wallet?”

“I left it on that desk, as I was asked to do.”

It was nowhere to be found. I was not best pleased as it had all my sensitive data in it, and I muttered darkly about the data protection act. Eventually they discovered that they’d given it to someone else, who fortunately had looked at it on their way home, and had phoned in to complain. The poor bloke had to come all the way back. We exchanged wallets cordially. Our joint resentment was reserved for Jobcentre Plus. Oh, resentment. Perhaps that’s what’s been added.


The credit crunch and the real economy

When I was made redundant I told my friends that I was “a victim of the credit crunch”.

In a way that was to make me feel that I was a part of the great unfolding economic drama rather than just someone without a job, but I think it was also true. I worked for a company that relied on massive borrowing from the banks, and which was scared that it might no longer be able to raise the credit it needed. At its simplest, credit is just a way of doing today those things that we’d otherwise have to wait until tomorrow to do. Or in the case of the company I worked for, what we’d have to wait 20 years to do. Unfortunately, credit has come a long way from its simplest. The opaque packaging of debt to be sold on in ever more, literally, fantastic ways is generally reckoned to be at the heart of the crisis.

Ironically, the solution seems to have turned out to be the suspension of one kind of disbelief, and its replacement with another. Suddenly the old disbelief that these packages of debt might actually be worth something to the suckers who’d paid for them could be suspended no longer. Instead, we are now expected to suspend our disbelief in “quantitative easing”, and pretend we haven’t noticed that it’s simply making money up. The banks’ bad debts were made-up money that was exposed as just that. The new made-up money is different in this respect, however: the con-men who made up the old stuff have largely got away with it, whilst the new stuff has got to be paid for eventually by all the rest of us through higher taxes and drastically curtailed public services. Meanwhile the real economy of making things continues as before, with the slight hiccup of depressed demand and massive unemployment.

Reflecting on the anniversary of Lehman’s collapse a couple of weeks ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Newsnight that if we’ve learnt nothing else in the last year we’ve learnt that economics is far too important to be left to economists. Whilst it’s probably not a good idea to leave it to theologians instead, Dr Williams’ criticism that we’ve been “projecting reality and substance onto things that don’t have them” seems a pretty fair one to me.

One year ago today… 23rd September 2008

It seemed like one of those irregular verbs:

I lose my job
You cock it all up at Lehman Bros
He, the Chief Excutive, panics

I’d only gone into the CE’s office to discuss the communications budget, which evidently couldn’t stretch to communicating to me what was coming my way.

I think I took it pretty well. The CE asked me if I needed to go home and absorb the information, but I declined since the message I’d received seemed pretty clear, and wasn’t going to take a lot of absorbing. I was out on my ear, not he was at pains to re-assure me, because my performance had not been good enough (heaven forfend) but because the business needed to prepare itself for the economic storm that Lehman’s collapse had so dramatically ushered in. Not a great choice, really. Had I been dispensed with for being rubbish at my job, well, at least there’d have been a sense of responsibility for events, however unsavoury. On the other hand, gratifying though it was to know that I hadn’t been rubbish at my job, the arbitrary unfairness of being sacked with no culpability was almost harder to take.

However, I was determined not to be bitter. I could see the economic logic behind the CE’s decision. I was also grateful that he’d owned the decision, and that it had been quick and clean. There’d been no period of anxiety, with my director colleagues all jostling for position, all of us knowing that one of us was going to be for the chop. If the price for this clinical process was the sheer shock of the bolt from the blue, I simply had to accept it as a price worth the paying. I drove off to tell my wife, and I think she was more shocked and distressed than I had been. Back at work, the CE asked me if I’d be able to pen a quick communiqué for the staff. Irony wasn’t the half of it.

When I got home, the dirty dishes looked at me accusingly. I couldn’t help but wryly note that when I’d left them dirty, I still had a job.