‘Like the nice gestures we so often think of and so often forget to do, many a question that would have led to great discoveries has died as quickly as it was born; the man was too busy to pause for it’ – William H Whyte, The Organization Man
In the world of finance there is a debit for every credit; the pleasure in offsetting the two is something I would never have known if I didn’t have to pay rent. My brain didn’t use to approach life in this pecuniary way, but you adapt quickly when you are desperate not to rely on government assistance ever again.
Being a writer outside my day job, I often find myself passive-aggressively resisting the urge to write when I get home, putting the task off to scroll Twitter and play Solitaire on my iPhone, only to have bizarre and violent dreams. In a recent one I was reading Donald Trump’s tweets, except they were not real but rather poetry forced from my unconscious.
The skills of a writer are applicable to any workplace, but matters involving money have a way of being so temperamental that even if you wanted to apply any kind of critical thinking to a situation, logic will quickly be forgone in favour of who has approved what, and how urgent that what is. Stress from these moments pass and leave you blinking wearily at the sun as you leave the office, wondering if anything is ever actually as urgent as it seems in the workplace.
The stereotype of being unemployed is that you are a ‘leaner’, someone suckling at the teat of tax-payers. The truth is that even when employed you will often feel guilty for using sick leave (or for not using your annual leave when you are sick). Your productivity will be monitored, as will your work relationships (discreetly), which count more than you would like as far as job security goes. If, like me, you can fake enthusiasm for menial work to an extent, you can even have genuine affection for your co-workers, but you will always be aware that these pleasantries are to a certain degree fraudulent, and soon that thought will hinder your ability to work. Soon it may seem like every sigh from your boss is directed at you, that you say yes to too much and then can’t ask for help because that will mark you as incompetent. There is also a strong chance that you will fall into that cycle that a third of Australians are trapped in – unpaid overtime.
In many obvious ways the pros of being employed outweigh the negatives, though employment in the form of two or more casual jobs brings no greater feeling of security than the dole. Neither does being employed in a job you aren’t all that great at. The depression eases when the bills are being paid, but the relief is only temporary. For me, all the standing in line, all the being spoken down to all amounted to nothing more than the freedom to not have to report my income.
Depression following a period of unemployment is more traumatising than the ‘imposter syndrome’ I am told other millennials feel; I think of it as closer to something like survivor’s guilt. If it weren’t for the casual job I had during my last months on Centrelink, which involved speaking to people at differing stages of relying on government assistance, I might have ventured towards self-pity as a means to cope. But between speaking to people who were homeless and a lot of people who were caring for sick loved ones, I guess you could say my heart broke. A lot is said about growing ‘stronger’ as a person because of hardships experienced but I have only carried these intimate details of despair like a dead weight – unable to relate to the circumstances precisely enough and unable to articulate to others the effect the quaver in these voices had on me. (I allowed myself to be interviewed twice during 2013 about what being on Newstart was like, but I might as well have continued crying into my pillow for all the good my story added to the cultural conversation.)
The last contact I had with Centrelink was … not great. It’s a few years back now but I still remember the call asking me to come in to the office of my job service provider and fill out some paperwork that would ‘close’ my file (I was making a quick exit to a permanent part-time job). I said I was on my way but went to the movies instead. What I remember most about that phone conversation was that I was so happy afterwards about having lied to them. They had not helped me in any way to find work, and in fact more than once I had to take time from paid work to attend a workshop about resume writing. Did I call to complain though? No. I started my new job, one that I did not get because I was an employer’s dream, but because my limited admin experience was still more desirable than continuing to pay the three people who previously performed my role. Practically a fairytale ending for anyone on the Newstart allowance when you think about it – and I often find myself thinking about Centrelink.
Last month I was waiting to cross the road outside Flagstaff station and saw a man walk out onto La Trobe Street right as a truck was coming. I called out for him to stop but he paid me no mind and walked as far out into the street as he could without getting hit. This is something I often see in the Melbourne CBD; the action is often accompanied by clenched fists and angry mutterings. How many times had I imagined walking into Centrelink with the same demeanour – out for blood; instead, I always sat stony-faced in the waiting area, watching daytime TV. I was not the kind of person the signs warning against displays of aggression were aimed at. Now, when I think about those times, I think about what I wish I had said – like that if retail staff were as dismissive as Centrelink staff of people who walked through the door fifteen minutes before closing time they would be fired.
Why hold on to such angry feelings? Or more importantly, how do you ever let go of them? Sometimes an experience is so unhelpful, so seemingly purposefully mean, and an atmosphere so bureaucratic, that to participate in it can damage us. While people do leave Centrelink’s queues for gainful employment, they may not go onto approach work with the same hope that they once had: those humiliating experiences can even make it hard to remember how or why we’re supposed to be a productive member of society.
Image: ‘Despair’ / Quinn Dombrowski