The Fearful Symmetry of Employment and Unemployment

The Tyger, a poem by William Blake

A fan on Twitter linked me this article about the hardships of being unemployed and looking for a job. As someone who #knowsthosefeels, a lot of the points struck true for me. I’m not so much into Marxism or that part of the left but the personal stuff was really depressing but in a very astute in and relatable way. So yay depressing articles?

It got me thinking about my own struggles with employment. Wanting to have a job so I can have money for rent, food, etc. but also being nervous about the prospect of actually getting it. Because the job comes with responsibilities I don’t want, for people I probably won’t like, and a company I likely will not care about. It’s not a pleasant thing to imagine and in practice it’s usually even less pleasant than I originally thought.

Currently one of the worst things about my job is that they want us to (get this) scrape off the ad tag residue that’s left behind. You know those tags that say “THIS WAS $13.85 BUT NOW IT’S $7.76”? Well, we have to scrape off any of the sticky stuff that has gotten caught there in the months since this has last(?) been done.

It’s as fun as it sounds.

Which is to say it’s boring, monotonous, basically pointless (I sincerely doubt customers care) and awful.

You have to stand (or sit, I usually sit) and use your favorite lackluster tool (key? pen? box cutter?) to scrape them off.

And while it’s not the hardest job in the world (I can’t believe I get paid for this shit) it’s soul-sucking and terrible. It feels like one of the most pointless things because it doesn’t seem to be helping anyone or anything except maybe store aesthetics. And who the fuck cares about what the store looks like on the inside?

Are customers really aching for that ad tag residue to be scraped away? Is that really what some inane report or study that the company I work for told them? If it’s actually true that this is a concern of customers (and I’ve never heard anything about it in the almost 6 months I’ve been here) then the customers are valuing insignificant things.

And instead of giving these concerns the time of day, the company should actually be working on putting the employees to some more marginally useful task. What would that be? Heck if I know. I don’t have much of an ongoing knowledge with what the companies needs are and I can hardly care as it is. All I know is that this sort of minutia screams, “we don’t have any actual job or use for you so we’re just going to assign you this.”

My manager said that while it’s not hard there’s just (and he sighs) “so many of them” which is the real kicker of it.

If it was just an aisle two it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But there’s just so much of it because the store decided only now that this shit was super important and demands our attention.

Okay, side-rant over.

So that’s the perilous nature of going on Indeed and looking for jobs you know you’re gonna hate.

As the author puts it:

Hours wasted trying to look for the delicate balance of what you’re vaguely qualified or experienced for and what you are willing to bother spending your waking life and energy performing.

Though you know it won’t last, don’t you.

If you actually cared about what it is you’re going to be doing, and not just the hourly rate then you wouldn’t be on fucking Indeed in the first place, would you? You know you don’t really care, and for some reason that makes you feel bad. Is it guilt?

Not quite guilt- anger. But with no ‘line-manager’ to take it out on, you just end up angry at yourself.

I have had so many times where I go on Indeed and then look at jobs I’m vaguely interested. Sometimes I even get interviews for these positions but usually I’m under-qualified if I’m qualified at all. Usually I’ll need some sort of license or certificate from a college that will put me in even more debt than I already am in.

So I sigh and move on and try to look at jobs I might marginally hate less than the one I have now. Or, if I’m unemployed the least-shitty option. And for me, since I don’t have a car that usually involves factors like distance a lot more than any of the other factors. It actually narrows my field of options quite a bit, which is both good(?) and bad.

It’s good because it means I don’t have to spend as much time wondering what is out there and what I can apply to. But at the same time it also means that what I have in front of me is likely what I’m going to be dealing with. There’s not much more out there for me to think about or even consider.

Like I said, a lot of this article spoke to me, so here’s another bit from it:

Much of this work is literally pointless, sure sometimes you end a shift and you feel good, you reached your targets, you actually helped a customer, some old nan on the phone had a good chat with you.

Sometimes at work it feels good when you feel productive and not just scared.

Sometimes at work you’re angry and you feel the beautiful fleeting moments of militancy, speaking in hushed voices to co-workers in the stock room, but mostly you’re just fucking bored.

There are times with one of my co-workers where I almost feel like I am not at work. Where we are laughing, showing each other pictures of dogs, trying foods from the store, sharing food and supporting each other, etc. When we’re doing social activities like this, it’s almost like I’m not at working but hanging out with a friend…but in a really shitty context.

And most of the time when I’m at work, I’m pleasant enough. Underneath the bays in the aisles are scores of ad tag residue I threw either under there or I stuck them way behind the products. That was my “beautiful fleeting moment of militancy” yesterday. And the rest of it is made up of reading a book, instead of doing my job.

But even when I’ve got a really good book, I’ve got to look up and constantly be aware. A manager could be around or perhaps a customer is near me and I haven’t noticed them yet. Or worse, both at the same time. That’s fun.

What you really want is someone to talk to, to feel loved, useful, and valid.

This is super true for me. I’m lucky enough to have some lovely friends in my life (including my roommates) but I think at the heart of things, many of us want to feel like we’re good enough. I think a lot of our self-doubt isn’t helped by the way work operates, which is to diminish our ability to function and narrow it to carefully constructed routes.

There’s a great part about Uber and emotional labor:

Another hour, maybe more, a few more pints and you’re in the Uber home regretting every meter of the 5.40 journey. But the driver’s nice you think, he keeps smiling at you and asking if you how your night was, he offers you a mint and tries to start a conversation about what you do for a living. You tell him you work at a bar, that’s the last gig you had over summer, better than the truth innit.

But he’s just as nervous as you are, he wants a 5 star review so he can work tomorrow and feed his kids, because it’s not enough now that we actually do the job we’re supposed to, we have to smile and act nice and emotionally prostrate ourselves in front of the customer. Which is you btw. Equally as poor and scared and anxious and pissed off as the person driving/delivering to/serving/selling the contract to you.

The shame of being unemployed is also something I’ve touched on (here) and I noticed through the show Master of None it has another element or side to it which is the “funemployed” person. This is the white person with the trust-fund parents who is using their period of “funemployment” to “learn more about themselves”, e.g. go to parties and get drunk.

There’s a lot going on in a scenario like that, not all of it necessary bad. But more to the point, I’d love to see people be unknowingly snobby about their unemployment. Perhaps less of an oblivious way because it makes you look (and sound) tone-deaf but in a way that conveys you don’t even know what shame is when it comes to being unemployed.

I think this kind of rhetoric is better suited for challenging what we think of unemployment. There’s a lot of truth to the fact that it’s bad for our mental health. But there’s also truth in that we’re much more often hurt by society’s perceptions and labels then we are the act of being unemployed. And when it does hurt us, often that’s the result of capitalism bleeding our resources dry, not the “fact” that being without a job is something to lament.

And when folks are lamenting unemployment for a lack of things to do, I’d argue that’s because society has labeled anything meaningful as a “job” or as “work”. But these things do not even begin to encapsulate the human experience or how much you can do with your life. Where do things like play come into it? Video games? Socializing with friends? Having solitary time to yours through music, reading and making art? There’s so much more to life than work.

Recently, I saw a job on Indeed that was a “greeter” for a local restaurant chain. It said something about giving every customer a unique and enthused response or something. I was out of there as soon as I saw that. What an emotionally draining position to be in! It just sounds like one of the worst kinds of jobs to me.

As it is, I have to pretend I’m happy with customers at my job.

And as it is, I’d rather that not be the central focus of my job.

There’s lots more to this article to love (or be depressed by?) but I’ll stop there, lest I depress you.

Reality can be depressing enough as it is, right?

Ah, shit.

That was depressing, sorry.


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