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Job Hunting
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Thinking About Quitting

Choose not to Work

Most of the time, people quit their jobs and jump straight into another one. But sometimes, there are good reasons why you might choose not to work. Tim Snaith examines some of them.

"I have a friend called Darren. He used to work in Burger King. He worked there for two years full time, but during that time saved up some money (don't ask me how!) to buy a sampler. Music was his hobby at the time.

"He left his job and went on the dole.that was where he stayed for a few years, but during that time he spent every waking moment making tunes and learning his craft. He was eventually rewarded with a record contract and spent a couple of years in a vaguely successful dance band. They eventually split up and Darren got himself a job as a lecturer in music technology due to his now relatively great understanding of said subject.

"He is therefore, even in the eyes of society as a whole, a useful and worthwhile member of it. He pays taxes, imbues young people with knowledge and so on."

Stories like Darren's are rarely reported in the mainstream media. The unemployed have long since been written off as a sort of pariah underclass. Not much is expected of them. They're supposed to lounge around at home, cynically avoiding work while living comfortably thanks to ludicrously generous benefits. If they do manage to snap out of their trance and turn off the TV, then it's only to break into the house of a neighbour who's out earning an honest living; or maybe they're shoplifting. Any loot will be used to pay for their next fix of hard drugs.

Get the job you really want

The truth is that many people choose to quit their jobs, i.e. become voluntarily unemployed, for nobler reasons other than catching an easy ride through life. Only a minority would qualify as criminally minded scroungers; the rest are adults who are actively engaged in looking for work or developing skills that will get them the job they really want. Unfortunately for the majority of unemployed it's the feckless, greedy minority that fleshes out the public's consciousness of the jobless. Tabloid television and newspapers are happy to demonise and demoralise so-called scroungers. Certain rabble-rousing politicians legitimise the contempt culture through their policies and divisive rhetoric. Only asylum seekers are a more maligned group, unlucky enough to be both unemployed and foreign at the same time.

The stigma

In the UK, employment is at its highest level for a generation. The stigma attached to being unemployed is even greater than usual when an economy is going through good times. There's a feeling that if you cannot find gainful employment when the economy is perceived to be in such a vigorous state, it follows that you're one of society's abject failures. Your lack of a job probably reflects a deeper flaw. You are a bad person and should be punished and made to feel worthless, rather than assisted. Benefits should be squeezed until layabouts like you are forced to take a job, any job so long as you're working and paying tax like the rest of us. In fact, it should be illegal to be out of work. If your parents are unable to afford university tuition fees, tough, higher education is avenue you should forget. Ideally, the prison population, swelled by the ranks of illegally unemployed, including you, should be used as a pool of cheap labour; goodbye balance of trade deficit and the need for public spending to keep the hopelessly unskilled above the starvation line. A social order reminiscent of Victorian Britain would be gloriously reinstated and flags would flutter on every spotlessly clean street corner.

Taking a long-term view

For many, the lure of unemployment is about abandoning a dead-end McJob , one's assumed role in the economic pecking order, for something that offers a little more hope and self-respect. Darren wanted to make music, which in turn delivered a career teaching music to people who share his original ambition. There could be incalculable long-term benefits for the country's entertainment industry if talented people are allowed to develop their innate creativity. I myself spent several months on income support as I put together a business plan - I needed the freedom to travel back and forth between where I lived and where the investment was available. A full-time job would have taken up all of my time, immobilising me; a part-time job would have meant no benefits at all and even less money. I, like thousands of people, wanted to develop a career that promised long-term, wealth-creating potential. Few vacancies displayed in the nation's Job Centres can promise anything like this. Indeed, wasting one's time in a bad job is likely to cause resentment, desperation, loss of one's direction. It's arguable that a reluctant, resentful worker is worse than no worker at all - efficiency, quality of service, punctuality and workplace relations are likely to suffer.

So, the choice to slum it while building a reputation, portfolio, audience, business, family or whatever is still made despite the obvious financial hardships. Believe it or not, income support payments won't leave you wanting for nothing - they cover the bare minimum of sustenance and little else. Job-hunting itself requires a certain minimum of resources, which may not be available to the chronically unemployed. Add to these difficulties the feelings of depression, hopelessness and wasted time that accompany joblessness. Some people, even whole communities, sink into a mire of despair and never return. This is a permanent loss of human potential that pockmarks society with permanent scars, it threatens to render the entire structure unstable.

In France, the 35-hour week was introduced last year as a measure to alleviate unemployment. One side effect of this measure, proposed in 1997 by Lionel Jospin's Socialist government, has been a massive boost to the leisure industry. An article in The Observer of 27 May 2001 reports that since it's introduction, the 35-hour week has proved 'positive or very positive' for 80% of workers affected by the measure. More money has been spent on travel, books, eating out and home improvement. The economy has in short been boosted and the unemployment rate has fallen to new lows. France is not perfect, there are a great many problems in the suburbs that surround many cities and towns, but the decision to treat workers and those looking for work with respect has proved beneficial in both economically and socially.

Benefits to the Economy

If the government of this country decided to trust and respect the governed a little more, even the lowest of the low who refuse to take badly paid, no-hope jobs, there may be long-term net benefits to the economy as a whole. These benefits would more than compensate for the extra expense of supporting those who can demonstrate their determination to cut a respectable niche for themselves. As Darren's friend so succinctly puts it:

"Had he not been able to spend those 4 years 'scrounging' on the dole he might still be in Burger King and not fulfilling anything like his potential. There has, and will presumably continue to be, a net benefit to society by providing the dole even to people who, shock of shocks, don't actually want to take a shitty job on offer and aren't 'actively seeking work'"

There is actually reason to believe that the stigma of unemployment may soon be less of a mark on one's character. Since the hype- and silly money-inflated dotcom bubble deflated in a chorus of raspberries, thousands of relatively well-spoken, well-educated, Wallpaper* reading, bright young things have found themselves on the dole. These people are often the offspring of well spoken, well educated, Daily Mail reading parents. They're not the scrounging scum begat of blobby, TV dinner munching, Sun reading plebs polite society finds it so easy to write off. Unemployment, in its new media 'career development' or 'gone travelling' forms may have become respectable after all. Hopefully, a new realism that permits the unemployed to contribute to society in any way they wish, even through the pursuit of so-called alternative lifestyles, will emerge. Only realism can take the place of contemptuous, small-minded dismissal you'll find in benefit offices and policy making minds across the land.