Saturday, 1 December 2012

Shitty jobs – that’s how we’ll make Britain great again

‘We’re looking for outgoing, proactive people here,’ the woman in charge of recruitment said joylessly, in a tone of voice that suggested she’d missed her medication that morning. ‘Would you say you fit that description?’
I watched the drizzle hammer at the window beside a sign that said ‘Performance Targets’.
‘Er, yeah,’ I mumbled. ‘Outgoing and proactive... Yeah, that’s a pretty good description of me. Sometimes, anyway.’
I really didn’t want to be here.
This isn’t just because I don’t like wet, miserable business parks. It’s because I don’t believe in this. In any of it.
 ‘We need to get Britain working by creating jobs,’ ran the Conservative manifesto in 2010. ‘Millions are living the misery of unemployment.’ Left or right, the consensus is that the panacea to our limping, staggering economy is jobs. Jobs provide income, income provides growth, growth provides jobs. Jobs are a Good Thing. Everyone thinks so. Jobs jobs jobs jobs jobs...
            Well I don’t. I think a lot of jobs are pretty awful, quite frankly. And unnecessary. Sit in rush hour traffic and you could self-harm your way through an entire Heart FM breakfast show before you saw one fulfilled looking face; alright, maybe you wouldn’t expect to, but are these jobs really all that useful for society? Builders and dinner ladies and teachers are useful. But management consultants? PR wonks? Ambulance chasers? How is it of benefit to society to have a load of people sitting in a business park cold-calling people at home who haven’t asked, aren’t interested, and would be better off without it? All those call centre slaves peddling junk loans or no-win-no-fee claims – how does that make a better, more trusting society?
I’m not trying to undermine just how horrible unemployment is. But does that really mean we get to justify any kind of job whatsoever on the basis that it provides ‘growth’? As far as I can see, drug dealing adds to GDP and employs people (and also contributes to at least one kind of ‘growth’, to judge by the number of students visiting garden centres to buy industrial numbers of window boxes) – does that mean we should encourage that too? How about jobs that involved mis-selling PPI, or ruining businesses, or bankrupting the state from the offices of a City skyscraper? Are they a good thing too? How about the jobs created by clearing up the financial wreckage of the biggest recession in half a century, created by people whose jobs were supposed to be good for growth? Is that good for growth?
I’m confused.
‘Look at the noble savage whom the missionaries of trade and the traders of religion have not yet corrupted with Christianity, syphilis and the dogma of work,’ says the nineteenth century revolutionary Paul Lefargue, in a book rather attractively entitled The Right to be Lazy, ‘and then look at our miserable slaves of machines.Well, I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but I did happen to see some ‘miserable slaves of machines’ with my own eyes recently when by some bizarre chance an agency picked up my dishevelled joke of a C.V. and got me an interview for a call centre position in a business park three and a half thousand miles outside of Manchester.

Or at least it felt like it as I rode there in the rain. The road began as a friendly, curvy little thing, like a partner making pleasant chit-chat on a date – and then suddenly without any warning tipped me unceremoniously into a ditch and announced that it was now a motorway, Thank you very much. I had to drag my bike through the mud another half mile just to get off it; finally, spattered and fume-choked, I escaped onto a slip-road, doubled back, doubled up, squinted at a bus stop, nearly went as far as the airport, thought about leaving Manchester via the airport, before I finally chanced on a building that looked like an oversized Kodak camera and staggered up towards the entrance lobby.
I have to admit it wasn’t exactly a great start. I was already appallingly late, and by now looked as if I’d slept in the field of one of the local farms, possibly cuddling up with a family of pigs to get me through the night. A woman standing at reception watched me in horror as I neared the entrance. For a minute I thought she was about to press the alarm button and have me manhandled to the floor by security, but perhaps they were used to people coming in to beg for change, because with a wary look she buzzed me inside.
‘Did the agency tell you the wrong time?’ my future employer said hesitantly, glancing at my dogshit trousers, my rain-spattered face.
‘Er... Yeah,’ I muttered, turning red. ‘Probably. The fucking road turned into this motorway...’
I tailed off. 
‘Yeah, they told me the wrong time,’ I muttered.
There was a silence.
‘I... guess you’d better come upstairs.’
I was led past a hive of call centre drones, all gabbling and babbling into headsets in long, regimented rows. It reminded me a bit of that scene where Neo wakes up in The Matrix, except the embryonic humans in the film weren’t attempting to get someone to sue their local swimming pool. Also, the ones in the film at least had the chance of suddenly waking up somewhere in a better reality. A beefy bloke on the end stared at me in amazement, as if I were the first outsider he’d seen for months. I suspected they might have kept him chained to his seat.
My interviewer walked quickly, like she was worried I might be about to pocket some of the electrical wiring, and promptly seated me in a little interview room where she cross-examined me with a checklist.
‘Are you working at the moment, Dale?’  
I cleared my throat.
‘Er, I’m sort of freelancing,’ I said, in what I hoped was an outgoing, proactive kind of voice. ‘Trying to get a writing career together.’
She glanced at me with the same kind of warmth you might regard a tricky carpet stain.
‘Writing career?’
‘Yeah.’ I felt myself wilting a little. ‘Er, I’m sort of putting a few feelers out there right now.’ 
A long silence.
She looked at me with a sort of vague sympathy for someone out of work. I looked at her with a sort of vague sympathy for someone working here.
‘Right,’ she said.  
The rest of the interview took about as long as it takes the average person to blow their nose. As I stumbled back out of there (rather unceremoniously shown the exit, I noticed, without much in the way of further contact mentioned), I gazed around at the drizzle, the voided landscape, the acres of asphalt, the gigantic motorway, and wished – just for a moment – that I could believe in all this: that I could readily spring out of bed each morning and burn a cloud of hydrocarbons along a massive motorway in order to sit in a cramped booth for nine hours ringing up people I didn’t know, making the world an even shittier place than it already is, and be glad I had a job. But I couldn’t. I just wanted to go home. They might call it growth, but quite frankly I think it's just an enormous waste of time.