Wonder if/when this will end in a sanction.
Let’s start at the beginning:
On Monday, I headed to over the river for a trip to a North London jobcentre with a guy I call Eddie in these stories. I’ve known Eddie for about a year now, I think. Eddie’s a 51-year-old man with learning difficulties who has been out of work for more than five years. He worked as a kitchen assistant for most of his life, but his last job ended in about 2010. He’s signed on for JSA since. He talks a lot about wanting another job – “I should be going to work now, not going to this stupid place [the jobcentre]” – but it is pretty obvious he’s struggling on that front.
I suppose there are explanations for this, although I get tired of having to cast about for explanations for unemployment. I get sick of having to somehow justify people’s situations when they are out of work. I don’t know people’s entire back stories and I generally don’t want to know. I only know that people are where they are and that most people have been many things by the time they’re 50.
Eddie is getting older and his health isn’t great. He’s diabetic and injects insulin three times a day. He spends a lot of time at his GPs’ surgery, or getting bloods done, or seeing consultants at the hospital. He doesn’t always present well these days: more often than not, he’ll have food down his front of his clothes and tiny sores on his face and he’ll wear the clothes with the foodstains more than once.
He’s become more defensive and cantankerous in the year that I’ve known him. He speaks a non-stop, belligerent stream: he says that his neighbours are noisy drug addicts “up banging on the walls and shouting all night”, jobcentre staff are useless, that the landlord who owns Eddie’s tiny studio flat is hopeless and won’t fix things when they break, and that England was fine until it was ruined by immigrants (Eddie’s parents moved here from Jamaica before he was born. He describes himself, often, as “British born and bred”). He isn’t tragic, or pitiable, or pathetic, or vulnerable. He’s opinionated. He’s tough. He’s been around. He’s older and he’s probably not first choice for hard, low-paid manual work anymore. I’m not entirely sure that he wants to be. He speaks fondly of his working days, but seems to fear a return to the sort of work that he did. Perhaps he feels that he is out of that race now. I would say that he is stressed. He seems to hate change and he fights it. He’s ageing and knows how that is likely to roll. Don’t we all. Getting older probably isn’t so terrible if you’ve got golf and good health. It’s another story when you’re at the GP a lot, but still expected to grind your last working years out in a kitchen for £7 an hour (if you’re lucky), or for your JSA (if you’re not). I know we’re all supposed to be grateful for the chance to slog at hard manual jobs for stuff-all money until we drop dead, but I can see why someone would rather not. I would rather not myself. The older you get, the less you’d rather. “I could do that work in the big kitchens when I was younger,” Eddie said to me last Thursday when we went to have a coffee after his JSA signon appointment. “I couldn’t do that now.”
People are where they are, as I say. Pity there’s no room for that. At least one of Eddie’s jobcentre advisers seems sold on the idea of Eddie throwing himself into kitchen work to get back on track. He’s just started signing on at a new jobcentre – and is already up against an adviser who is evangelical about the restorative wonders of work (that includes unpaid work, of course). Just two visits in and Eddie’s already been bombarded with voluntary sector application forms, Work Choice training bumpf, instructions to get on a bus and check out work programme training sites, and veiled threats about pulling finger.
“You have been unemployed for six years, you know,” the adviser said snarkily when Eddie asked if he must attend these programmes. It was pretty clear that he was overwhelmed by the options and the pressure to make a choice then and there. It was also clear this adviser had decided that he was resisting the thought of work – when it was endlessly possible that he was resisting the thought of change.
I don’t suppose it’ll matter much. Resistance to work is futile, now. It really doesn’t matter if you’re older and unwell, or whether or not you’ve done your bit, or whether you’ve reached a point where you should just be left to it. If you’re unemployed, you must be Fixed. You’re expected to leap at the chance of work. You’re certainly expected to leap at the chance to get into voluntary work – the logic being that voluntary work is your stepping-stone back to the low-paid, hard manual work that you were made redundant from because you were older and unwell. You’re expected to Think Positive! about this equation, even when you’re pretty sure that it doesn’t add. Anyway – I’ve been thinking a lot about the endgame here. Eddie has already cut one appointment with this adviser short and cancelled another (we went straight round to the GPs’ after the first one. Eddie’s blood sugar levels were high that day). I’d bet they’re already talking about Eddie’s Attitude Problem. These people really don’t like to hear guys in Eddie’s situation say No, even when No is the logical thing to say.