‘Izzy, nothing is impossible…’ he tells me reassuringly, he starts to read one of the many motivational quotations that are stuck all over the walls and on the desk around which the group is seated. I stare back at him blankly, horrified. Then the man next to me starts reading out loud the Oprah Winfrey that is in front of him.
This was one of many surreal moments of an A4e training course ‘finding and getting a job’ that I was coerced into attending by my job centre advisor. She had told me that it would help me with my CV, however, it seemed that the trainer of the course had much grander ideas – he was determined to change my ‘being’ which was apparently what is preventing me from getting a job – rather than, say, an economy that is heading back into recession and a saturated job market. And so, for two days I sat with ten other unemployed people being told that we needed to ‘talk, breath, eat, shit belief in yourself’ and being compared to iPhones. The experience was like being in some sort of strange comedy sketch that just went on and on and at times bordered on feeling like a cult. Even the toilet signs were plain weird – the sign for disabled has a man with a broken leg that appears to be bandaged up with toilet roll.
Barbara Ehrenreich charts the rise of positive thinking in the US in her book Smile and Die – it seems that this is yet another US import, like workfare, that is being used to punish the poor. Does the government honestly think that sending unemployed people to these courses, where we are bombarded with pseudo psychology about positive thinking, will actually make any difference at all to unemployment? I would argue that they are actively harmful to unemployed people who spend the time being blamed for the situation that we find ourselves in and being offered ‘solutions’ that will make no difference whatsoever, and may even reduce one’s job prospects – for example we were told ‘no need to be nice and fluffy about it, tell them straight up. ‘I am the one you’re looking for.’ Like the Matrix – ‘I am the one’ – it was only when he believed he was the one that he became the one’. As well as being at best a waste of our time and at worst mentally distressing and incredibly manipulative, is this really good use of tax payers’ money who are paying A4e for this nonsense?
The entire course was simply one long motivational talk with very little actual real content. (Of course, even if it had been a course that was well structured with decent advice, this will make no difference when the problem is lack of jobs). The main point which was hammered home time and again was that if we believed we could get a job, then it would happen. It was simply our mindset that was the barrier and he seemed intent on us all having mini epiphanies there and then.
James had found himself unemployed for the first time in his life at the age of 60. He had worked in retail but despite his experience he could not find work now because of his age. The employers only want young people. His agent had confirmed to him that it was his age that meant he wasn’t getting past an interview and had suggested to him that he start lying about his age. But our trainer did not accept that it was age discrimination and a saturated job market that were the issues here, rather it was the barrier that James had created in his mind about his age. ‘We are a product…if we’re not talking and bigging up that product, then we can’t expect anyone to buy that product.’ ‘Age is not a barrier, the only barrier is here [pointing to his head] we create it’. He kept on ‘working’ on James as he said it ‘takes a bit of breaking down’ to create an ‘opening’.
I was getting really frustrated by this point with this focus on the individual so I said that it wasn’t James that was the problem, it was age discrimination, and that there was very little he could do about it, that it was an issue that we needed to address as a society. That young black men have an unemployment rate that is 50% so the issues here were discrimination and that however positively they thought, this would not change the reality. That we need to look at the bigger picture and not focus on the individual. He laughed at my idea that we should deal with this issue as a society and then he turned it all back onto me – ‘you’ve got all these hooks on you…it’s your way of being…you need to shift the way you look at it. You’ve got all this anger and frustration and that’s stopping you from getting a job. It comes across in your CV’. I’d just like to point out that he has never seen my CV. He later told me, in a personality assessment that he did for all of us at the end, that he liked my fire and passion and that he wanted to help me channel my fire so that it could shine brightly.
His attempts to modify our individual ‘beings’ in order for us to ‘create’ jobs through our new attitudes bordered on ludicrous at times. He picked up a pen and asked ‘what is this?’ ‘a pen’ I responded rather stonily. He then went around the class – whilst a couple of others stated that it was a pen, others caught on that maybe it wasn’t a pen… ‘it’s a tool’, ‘a writing implement’. He put us out of our misery ‘it’s a long piece of plastic with a small bit of plastic on top, and when you open it up, it’s a pen’. I honestly missed the point of this. He then stated a little later – ‘a pen is a pen, a cup is a cup’ much to my confusion and bemusement.
In an attempt to show us how it’s really done, he told us of his own experience getting his job at A4e. ‘When they said, ‘why do you want to work here?’ I said [pause for dramatic effect] Because I believe in human beings’’ There was genuinely a hushed silence. That explains why I don’t have a job yet, because at my last interview I told them I believed in unicorns. And he continued, ‘because I am part of the human race’. The man next to me was so impressed – ‘you out-foxed them there’.
Whilst at times, there were very funny moments, which I was able to tweet about which helped pass the time, the seriousness of what we were sitting through was brought home to me when he told us of another course that he had just started running called ‘Launch Pad’ for single parents, mostly mothers. The course involves 4 weeks in the classroom, 4 weeks in the workplace. In his first group of 7 – all of them got a job apparently. In the second group of 7 he said that they all went onto work placements. I am greatly concerned that the work placements sound like workfare. And I am horrified at the idea of this man ‘training’ single parents for 4 weeks. My mother was a single parent when she brought me up – she received pitiful benefits for the incredible amount of work that looking after me involved. She suffered from severe depression as well. The idea that she would be told the mantra of choice and responsibility and forced into work terrifies me.
Disabled people too may be forced onto these training courses. Will they be told that their disability is in their head and can be overcome by changing their attitude?
I spent two days being told to sell myself like an iPhone. I tried to point out that however many apps I had, or however many megapixels the inbuilt camera had, the market wasn’t interested. Instead of blaming the individual we must look at the wider picture at the structural causes that have caused unemployment, and act collectively to bring about real change. These programmes are incredibly manipulative and judgemental and a distraction from the real problems. They could cause real harm to vulnerable people. The trainer told me that anger was not productive, but we have every right to be furious at our treatment by this government and A4e.
I took notes so that job seekers could perhaps skip the course and get the main points here – maybe the government could just give us the money that would have been spent on the course...
‘I call it – what we know what we know (sic) – we’re just taught what we know’. To try and explain this a little more, basically, we are told these things, such as you’re too old, and then we believe them and don’t challenge them and that explains our position in life, rather than there being any systemic inequalities…I think that’s what he was saying.
‘but if you believe in yourself and believe in what you have to offer…then you create it’
‘you have to change the programme a bit…the way we talk about the product is the way we should be talking about ourselves…there’s nothing broken, there’s nothing to fix’.
Responding to my pleas to look at the reality of the situation using job statistics – ‘all those things in the way – they’re real, if we’re going out there to get a job, then we need to be the best…you have to think the best’.
His impersonation of an unemployed person’s day ‘You wake up, maybe a bit late, you have some breakfast, a cigarette, by the time you get round to job searching, it’s 11 o’clock, you do half an hour, then you think, oooh, I’ll make lunch and do it in the afternoon.’
‘one of our biggest enemies is ourselves’
To one member of the class ‘stop wasting your life…for you its responsibility…you’re lacking responsibility. Your life right now is a choice. You choose it to be that way, you can make it another way.’
‘how we use our words, how we language it, really matters’.
‘Each of you are professionals in your own domain. If you speak of yourself as a professional, your attitude changes…why not be a professional all of the time –it resonates…’
‘body language is real – it’s part of communication – it’s key’
‘The whole game is a conversation, [say to an employer] ‘this is who I am…If you want to be with the best, I’m the best’
how many of you guys look at a woman and think ‘ooooohhhh’ and then when they open their mouths and speak to you, you’re completely put off’.
On your CV ‘instead of writing excellent communication skills, write ability to communicate at all levels’.
‘you are the product – you either believe it or you don’t’.
Don’t use boxes on your CV ‘If I took you and put you in a box, what am I doing to you, how will you feel in the box?…They have their judgements – if you start to put boxes on it shows we’re restricted, we’re not explosive and out there’.
‘It’s like a date, you go out, you flirt…either you want to continue it or not. Your cover letter and CV is like your first date. You don’t tell them everything on a first date’.
And, finally, in our ‘Stay Positive During Your Job Search’ leaflet it informs us that whilst it is ‘unrealistic to think you will be 100% positive each moment of the day’ you should only allow yourself ‘thirty minutes, one day a week, to lament your situation and then get back to the search’.
*Cross-posted with thanks from Izzy Koksal's blog.*