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.

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