Satinder Bhatti, a job seeker from Middlesex writes, “So what do you do?” I have come to dread this simple conversation opener when I meet people. I recently bumped into an old colleague and the very first thing he asked me was where I work.
Now I would have found this strange even if I did have a job because it was so immediate it felt intrusive. Didn’t he want to know what I had been doing with my life since we last saw each other? Maybe I had travelled extensively, made new friends, started writing a novel, become a Tolkien fanatic. All those things are true but apparently unexciting. When I answered that I wasn’t working right now, he actually tutted and shook his head. I was shocked to realise that this person, who once upon a time ago used to take my advice and discuss important decisions with me, had made the snap judgment that I was now a wrong ‘un and therefore justifiably subject to his disapproval.
I have been ruminating on how work defines how we perceive ourselves and others. Take away the daily grind and you remove this cloak of definition - which may be a narrow and limited version of you. There are probably people out there who scoff at such introspective reflection because they love their jobs and feel quite fulfilled thank you very much. (Do they have any vacancies?)
Maybe I am still to find an environment where I fulfil my creative and intellectual potential, but this experience has given me the chance to look at myself afresh. No longer having that routine has forced me to make the most of my time. The onus is on me to fill my days without an order dictated by a job description. And let me tell you, that is a challenging task. So what do I do? I indulge my passions and do all those things I never had enough time for. I read vociferously, study history and science, I write, work out, I am learning to cook and to make craftwork which I haven’t done since my schooldays. These skills may not save anybody’s life or change the course of human history, but they add a new dimension to mine.
"If you find yourself without a job at some point, you owe it to yourself to try and make the best of it."
Let’s keep it real: unemployment is not romantic. Should you pack it all in for a life of perfecting brownies and indulgent self discovery? No. The reality is panic and stress - about bills waiting to be paid and all the fun times you have to sacrifice. Not to mention those ubiquitous companions, loneliness and boredom. But my point is that if you find yourself without a job at some point, you owe it to yourself to try and make the best of it.
Sometimes being down and out teaches you lessons that balancing on the vertiginous rungs of career ladders just cannot. Having to instil a routine for yourself, to be productive with limited resources, to diligently make those applications, to brave the rejections and to Keep Calm and Carry On; if that’s not character building then I don’t know what is.
So what have I learned? Tenacity and patience. You need deep stores to delve into, in order to keep yourself motivated, not least to get out of bed every day. I have also learned not to judge people solely by job titles. There are millions of jobseekers out there; remember that every one of those statistics has a story. Do not be quick to dismiss them as good for nothings, luxuriating in empty days of shouting at The Jeremy Kyle Show while the ‘rest of us’, the upstanding fully paid up members of the human race, do the right thing and go out to work. So the next time I meet someone new I will not cop out and make small talk. I will ask them what they do, not just for a living, but with all the days in-between.
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Main picture credit: Rex Features