I researched my family history once for a feature. It has been the trend for some time, after all. I went back as far as the 1840s and found a family struggling to keep it together by taking handouts and playing the system as best it could.
How times change. 167 years later, after signing on and visiting employment agencies (so having jumped through the obligatory Job Centre Plus hoops) I met a friend for lunch. My friend is a self-defined rich German industrialist and I ate heartily at her expense. I now wonder if Karl Marx had a cat.
Before I met my friend I sat for a while in a city centre square where no doubt my ancestors had also once enjoyed the sun – and I decided to people-watch. It made a change from completing job applications in front of the computer, or lying on the settee with Chaplin.
I also appreciated the rest, having schlepped around the employment agencies like an extra in a 2011 re-make of Boys from the Blackstuff.
As I sat, passing time and managing my self-loathing, I spotted a poster which read, “if your child misses school who knows what they will miss out on?”, and I admit to laughing bitterly at the hint of a meritocracy.
I looked back to the crowds and wondered how the lives of these people compared or differed to their ancestors.
Many rushed by chatting into their mobile phones, of course. Others fled past, folders and newspapers firmly under their arms. Others ran for buses and taxis. The winner of this imaginary race would be the big blonde woman who sped past with a bulging Louis Vuitton paper bag and a determined look.
Others wandered, perhaps aimlessly, some pulling suitcases, others passing by with pushchairs, there were couples connected by hand or mouth and some people stopped to sit for a while, people-watching with me.
Then there was the stumbling toddler with his Elmo backpack, the crocodile of children and the three young girls, in identical yellow dresses, dancing by the fountain.
It was easy to spot some workers, rushing, pushing, shoving a sandwich down before returning to the office. On the whole, though, it wasn’t easy to tell if these people, or the adults escorting the children, were employed or not.
I wondered if they knew I wasn’t; if they could tell – even with Blu-Tack temporarily replacing the toilet roll across the bridge of my nose – that I had not worked for 16 weeks. I looked through my diary and found myself automatically covering up the reminder to “sign on” with my thumb; further proof of my instinctive shame at my situation.
I haven’t judged the unemployed harshly in the past, understanding how and why economies create joblessness. I recognise a lack of equality of opportunity and always have – equally now as when my great-great-grandarents were working in factories then dying in workhouses. But I’m not showing myself the same consideration, it seems.
Perhaps it is the comfort of having enjoyed fairly sustainable work and income for two decades. Toby Young argued earlier this year that there is no downward social mobility, saying, “The reason there’s no room at the top – or in the middle – is because no one’s going anywhere. There’s no upward social mobility because there’s no downward social mobility.” I fear he spoke too soon – I fear I am walking proof that there is.
Unlike my ancestors, I hadn’t just been turned away from factory gates not chosen to work that day, I had walked into plush city-centre offices where people in suits smiled politely as they told me they couldn’t see my CV “suiting their clients”.
Money I have: £20 to last five days, which is more than I have had in months
What I will buy: Nothing because another friend is taking me out for a Bank Holiday treat
What will happen to this extra £20: It will go into the National Express ticket fund for my own Travel to Interview Scheme