Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Paradise - if you can earn it.

Further discussion of work, unwork, and lying on CVs.

The official documentation of job hunting - the Jobcentre advice, the ‘pious self-help books’ - says one thing (dedication, hard work, and above all, honesty always pay off in the end) - but the rules of the real job hunting world are the opposite (with the right mixture of entitlement and bullish confidence, you can blag your way into anything.) I’m sure an analogy can be drawn with modern aspiration and social conditions in general - of course you’ll be rewarded if you stick to the rules and keep plugging away - never mind that most of the people with money, fame, and influence have done nothing of the sort (Russell - “those who preach the dignity of hard labour take care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.”). Today’s government ministers, plutocrats, and celebrities are not individuals who have benefited from meritocratic career advancement.

Mark’s correspondent Phil suggests Piers Morgan as the spirit of the age, and I think that’s an excellent observation. Sure, he was born into wealth and parachuted into responsible jobs early, but that’s not the secret of his success. He’s a hustler - pushing boundaries all the time, without worrying about integrity, law, or any higher editorial ambition. He virtually invented the invasive prurience of the modern celebrity gossip page, cheerfully used his position as a finance journalist to increase the value of his own holdings, and pandered to the lowest common denominator as an editor. The ability to have this kind of career requires a certain unassailable confidence, but doesn’t necessarily require any particular skills, bar combativeness and self-promotion. His ubiquity irritates people (there’s always another radio or TV appearance, always another cash-in celeb biography, and when all else fails, another memoir) but this really goes to illustrate how little he has to contribute in any particular field. He’s made a successful and lucrative broadcast and print career out of a few saloon bar opinions and a string of celebrity anecdotes. Morgan hasn’t led a charmed life, even by his own standards - his assorted ventures and vehicles fail surprisingly often - but he never lets it get to him. He’s unshakeable. His life is a triumph of self-selling - if Morgan didn’t have all of those commitments already occupying his time, he would be the perfect jobseeker.

Piers Morgan, in fact, has succeeded where a favourite blogger of mine has never quite made the leap. Dickon Edwards has always maintained that he deserves a modest living just for Being Dickon Edwards, but is hopelessly uncomfortable with promoting himself and putting himself forward for things. Dickon has achievements on his CV too - a fleeting, half-successful pop career, various bits and pieces of excellent writing, a new venture as a club impresario - but his failures have had far more of an effect on him than his successes. Unable (possibly unwilling, but the distinction is blurred - ’incapacity as refusal,’ as Mark says) to attract steady work, he subsists on benefits, and wrestles with feelings of inadequacy while successive generations of friends grow up and acquire the trappings of adult life around him. In a cosmically farcical turn of events, he was recently convicted of benefit fraud and electronically tagged (presumably for doing a little freelance writing on the side, although he doesn’t specify). A diary entry of a few years ago, written backstage at a festival, is revealing - Dickon hears two music biz clipboards trying to remember the name of the band who released a particular single. Slightly aghast at their lack of pop knowledge, he feels compelled to contribute, but receives only puzzled looks. ’Surely,’ he writes later, ’there must be some way for me to make a living by knowing these things?’ Of course, he’s on a hiding to nothing. Knowledge isn’t power. In this day and age, painstakingly acquiring knowledge of something is a shirking of one’s social responsibilities to sell, sell, sell - merely creating is of no use, unless you can persuade people to buy.

Self-doubt, self-analysis (at least for those whose analysis actually bites and isn’t just a vacant exercise in ‘finding yourself’) and a realistic assessment of one’s capabilities are also liabilities. In an age when speculative, hopefully self-fulfilling overstatements are not only ubiquitous but necessary, absolutely fundamental to the global economic system, cold-headed realism (perhaps reason itself?) has no worth. What can you do except apply for every single job, tell the interviewers that you could do it with your eyes closed and just hope that things work out? Anything else practically amounts to self-sabotage. There may be some residual fear of being ‘found out’, but in an age when relatively few jobs have specialised/learned skills attached, when communication and emotional labour rule, being able to ‘sell yourself‘ into the job also proves your ability to do the job. Neither of my parents ever had to write CVs or go through formal selection processes until their plant closed down in 2001- the interviews before then essentially amounted to ‘so, do you know how to run one of these? Great. Canteen’s over there.’ Now even applicants for manufacturing jobs need to know the language. In his upcoming book, Ivor Southwood talks about this essential quality, once limited only to sales or theatrical work, now compulsory across the board, as ‘stagecraft’.

I’ve always loitered on the edge of the realisation that it’s all bullshit and I’m tormenting myself for no reason - as Phil says, the years of wasteful self-doubt - but actually making the step over, treating it as a game, has so far been beyond me. I feel it’s a little too glib just to say ‘don’t take things so seriously, it’s just a performance, learn to play the game’. To play the game is to accept its terms. We exist in a system in which one type of personality, one set of skills, has been inflated to hold influence beyond all reasonable proportion, and tough luck for those who are any different. What with the mildly terrifying A4E ‘Wellness Centres‘ on the horizon (who will be able to refer you to treatment for conditions like depression against your will, on pain of cutting your benefits) - we talk a lot about ‘compulsory positivity‘, because positivity is a near-indispensable quality nowadays, but it could soon become literally compulsory. I have the feeling that CBT-based treatments are going to be a key part of the attack on ‘malingering‘. The slanted working/jobseeking environment we live in has other real personal consequences - earlier this year we had the story of Vicky Harrison, a young jobseeker (with an unfortunately resonant name - what would Emma have made of her?) who gave up and committed suicide after her 200th rejection letter. That something like this can happen at the same time as government and media vilification of ‘benefit scroungers’ is the sickest of jokes. When you genuinely believe that there is a direct correlation between hard work and success - and after untold efforts, you still don’t achieve success - you turn blame on yourself. There are real, pressing reasons for the mythology around unemployment to be overturned, for the truth (that it’s about the aforementioned hustle, local economic circumstances, and sheer blind chance) to be exposed - not in an unspoken ‘everyone knows’ sense, but in the sense of being dragged out in the open light of day, waved in front of the Big Other’s eyes, and dumped in front of anyone who finds it politically useful to propagate the myths over the reality.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Writing Fiction


‘Redevelop the product, redesign the package, you still refuse to reach in your pocket…’

My perennial underemployment is probably one of the first qualities people associate with me, so I’m used to getting well-meaning advice on the matter (usually on about the same level as Hayley Taylor’s ‘always brush your teeth before an interview’, but never mind). Last week, a second-hand acquaintance of mine (who works as a recruitment consultant) suggested a reason why my CV might not be getting me interviews - because it contains gaps, and you can’t have unexplained time on a CV, so I should lie and make up jobs to fill them.

Like most CV writers, I do a little stretching and warping to suit my purposes - small gaps of a month or two can be covered by pulling the dates of the surrounding jobs together, while intermittent work with an employer over a period of time can be quickly and harmlessly made solid. One of my workplaces has closed down and left no forwarding address (I went through agonies trying to track down somebody there to act as a referee), so I can blithely alter my length of service there. But these techniques are of no help for a work history that contains gaps of six months plus - to cover those, I’d have to completely fabricate periods of work with an employer. That’s the kind of heavy production work that I’m really not used to.

I’ve had similar advice before, from a tutor on a government jobseeker training scheme - she even offered to give me a false reference for the two years I was going to have worked as her personal administrative assistant in London. I did send out a few of these fictional CVs, but reverted to the old version as soon as was decently possible - I felt it would have been difficult to explain in interviews why, as someone who’d been earning 18k in a steady job for the last two years, I was applying for minimum wage retail jobs…

Because plausibility is the problem here. If I’ve been in continuous employment from the age of twelve, as my newly manicured CV will suggest, why haven’t I had promotions, got my feet securely onto some kind of career ladder? Whatever series of jobs I put down, I’ll come across as, at best, chronically indecisive and completely lacking in ambition. But if the lies aren’t plausible, neither is the truth. To borrow Ivor Southwood’s lovely phrase, my real-life work history has left me with a ‘botched CV which tails off like the limp narrative of an unrealistic novel’. With such an unconvincing script, there’s no way for me to construct a plausible story about myself.

Interviews are the same - even when I’m telling the truth, I habitually adopt the body language of the liar (covering my face, crossing my arms, averting my eyes). Even when answering the questions about my hobbies and interests (supposedly the easy/relaxing part of the interview) I feel like I’m wasting the interviewer’s time. ‘Let me see - I’ve been living hand-to-mouth, on and off the dole for years and haven’t had real disposable income since 2007 - what do you think my life outside work is like? Right now, my idea of a having a good time is catching the bus into town and getting out a few library books. Can’t do it too often, obviously (those fares soon mount up), but it’s a nice treat…’

My academic qualifications, which I’m sincerely proud of, have become a double-edged sword. Basic McJob-type employers don’t want to know about which Philosophy modules I studied, so I currently have two separate CV templates (I think of them as the white- and blue-collar versions), one with the academic section stripped down to basics. For ‘serious’ jobs, my education isn’t a liability, but my lack of subsequent work in my field (my failure to even enter any serious field) is the problem.

The irony of my difficulty in this area is that, though sheer repetition, I’ve actually become very good at composing CVs - I still write them for friends, and used to write them for clients at one of my voluntary jobs. I’m fluent in the language of employers. (In some parallel universe I’m working for A4E, being invited to ‘Tea with Emma’ and beaming the pride at the thought of the all the good I’m responsible for.) It’s just that the raw materials of my own CV are too far gone to make anything of - beyond the point of polishing or rearrangement. Bombed-out shops don’t need visual merchandisers.


In a job interview, no negativity is allowed to enter the discourse. Boundless enthusiasm must be maintained for even the most uninspiring work. I need to have a positive answer ready for every conceivable question and situation. I have to - somehow - turn unemployment and stagnation into tales of triumph, like Soviet propagandists explaining how agricultural quotas were over-fulfilled by several hundred per cent, for the twentieth successive year. Yet, for a situation where modesty, self-deprecation, and ruefulness are instantly fatal, where nothing but positive communication is permitted, it seems openly sadistic that the interviewers deliberately place you in a situation where nothing but a negative response is possible - the ‘greatest weakness’ question.

For the interviewers, it’s doubtless a chance to see whether the candidate can think on his or her feet, and cope with the unexpected (even though it‘s such an obvious and ubiquitous question). For the despairing jobseeker, it just adds to the bewilderment and frustration of the process. In an interview last week, I did as the self-help books suggest, and answered the question with a carefully rehearsed improvement story: ‘well, I used to have a problem with x, but over the course of my recent work, I’ve made great strides in that area’. My interviewer nodded slowly and repeated the question - ‘but what would you say is your greatest current weakness?’ The process of symbolic self-denigration cannot be escaped! I corpsed.

In this and in other ways the whole routine is experienced as a headache-inducing perceptual dissonance. On the one hand, the bar for every job seems to be set impossibly high - to have lived a flawless career, blessedly free of interruptions or difficulties, with no weak spots or gaps for interviewers to seize upon. But then we look across the desk and see the mediocre individuals opposite us, and think of our friends and relatives who have managed to establish themselves on the ladder without possessing this seraphic perfection. For my entire life I’ve been asking myself: Why can everyone else do it and not me?

I think that what I lack, as compared to the employed people in my life, is hustle. If I had that unreflecting ability to cheerfully, believingly, pass off shit as shinola, in such a convincing way that the buyer wouldn’t bother inspecting the product before reaching for his pocket, I wouldn’t be in this situation. The latest advice - to lie, lie, and lie again, contradicting the pious self-help book advice that one should never so much as embellish the truth on a CV - is just another variation on this theme.

I can’t quite make up my mind whether this missing quality is a ruling-class privilege (for which see the discussions collected here a few years back), or more of a stereotypical working class thing - hustle, graft, with its suggestions of not-entirely-legitimate activity. Perhaps it’s something possessed by people at both ends, but lost by those inbetween? Rather like the ridiculous etiquette books of early Victorian times - real aristocrats didn’t worry about that type of thing, they just did what the hell they pleased (knowing that they were immovably established and that being seen using the wrong kind of spoon wasn‘t going to affect them at all). Only the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie cooked up these arcane rules and customs to try and monopolise the road up and discreetly kick the bulk of the population off the ladder.