This will be the first in a series of short pieces on the experiences of unemployment. We have previously written about the origins of our project, which came from the Waterford Unemployment Experiences Research Collaborative (WUERC), a team of researchers based out of Waterford in Ireland who were making our tentative first steps into understanding the world of unemployment in 2012.
But of course, it is not 2012 anymore, here we are 8 years later, and we have learned much. This series will document some of those findings, beginning today with one of the defining features of unemployment: waiting. Or as we have also called it: doing nothing.
When we first began to research unemployment, we were seeking a description of what it was like to be unemployed, from the perspectives of unemployed people themselves. Many accounts and reports had been written about unemployed people, and many governing forces had worked on unemployed people, but there was little to be found about working with them. For this reason our method is ethnographic, sociological, anthropological and qualitative.
Almost from the start we found ourselves frustrated. Unemployment seemed to be a blank page, a null zone, an empty signifier. Unemployed people repeatedly described the experience of doing nothing. This seems paradoxical, we all hunger for more free time. From psychologists to self-help gurus, we are told to take it easy, you’ll live longer. Yet the boundless free time created by unemployment does not produce a positive experience.
Instead, unemployment is a vicious cycle of doing nothing, followed by anxiety over not doing anything, followed by more nothing. Attempts to enjoy the time created by unemployment tend to backfire, as people feel that they should be spending that time looking for work. It is a dislocating experience, with accompanying feelings of guilt, shame, boredom, anxiety. As was often said to us, free time doesn’t mean anything when it’s all you have, and so unemployment is a totally free and destructuring experience that not a lot of people know how to handle.
This boredom and waiting is interspersed with moments of panic when you receive a letter from the department of employment affairs and social protection. You must appear before a case worker and explain your job seeking efforts to them. To this person, you must endeavor to appear as a worthy failure. You must be seen to have tried. If you have not tried, then you must at least have a general plan for the future: how will you find work? You can’t do this forever you know, it’s not responsible.
One of the metaphors we used to understand unemployment is Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot. In the play, two men Vladimir and Estragon engage in various activities to entertain themselves as they wait for someone named Godot.
Frequently throughout the play, one of the characters will get bored and will suggest leaving this dreary place, with its bare tree and lone rock, only for the other character to remind them they can’t.
“We’re waiting for Godot”
This is similar to what we found concerning unemployment. Unemployed people can’t do anything, they’re waiting for a job. Spending time on one’s hobbies would be self-indulgence, there is only the job and the quest to acquire it. To give up on finding a job would be like Vladimir and Estragon leaving the scene before Godot shows up. Of course in the play Godot never arrives, and there have been uncountable analyses and speculations of what Godot means. Unlike Godot in Beckett’s play, unemployed people do often find the jobs they are seeking. After the fact, this reinvents the experience of job seeking, the conclusion rewrites the introduction. People feel vindicated, the anxiety and pain had a purpose, the relief of finding a job is amplified by the anxiety experienced by not having one.
If you found the ideas in this blog interesting, please check out this open access journal article by Tom Boland and Ray Griffin which gets into these issues of nothingness and time in much more detail than is possible here.