From unenjoyment to employ-a-Bill: My eight months on the dole

It’s never easy to lose your job. Actually, strike that – it’s incredibly easy to lose your job. It’s finding another one that’s the hard part. I had been with the Evening Echo from 2003 to 2014 and had seen the massive changes the digital age had brought. Gone were the days when sitting in the Mutton Lane Inn supping pints of Beamish and musing about life were considered a career in journalism worthy of 80k a year. Declining print sales and a fall in advertising revenue meant that newspapers simply couldn’t afford to pay the old salaries anymore. Most organisations in Ireland have hit that Year Zero reformation already – lay-offs, early retirements, and a massive shift in production systems; they got rid of the old-school hacks and brought in digital natives who can navigate the zeitgeist with ease (and require less remuneration for doing so).

The pattern was the same in almost all papers – before all others, the sub-editors were the first to go.  The subs belonged to that bygone age, when the permanence of print meant that things needed to be checked and rechecked, house style needed to be adhered to as part of the brand, and journalists needed to be held to account – because sooner or later, everyone fucks up.

These days, with diminished reserves in the average paper’s war chest, the old adage of ‘print and be damned’ means exactly that – if somebody does fuck up and you get hit with a massive lawsuit, it will quite possibly end your publication. So print outlets have become even more selective about what they cover, journalists have become more cautious, and subs are a thing of the past.

In the design of print editions, templates were the new world order. They are a great idea – they bring a uniformity to the product which can be lacking if the creative fingerprints of the individual page-drawers are on every page. But from my own personal point of view, design in print is more important now than ever. If you expect people to buy your publication, you can’t simply sell it on content alone – it needs to look like a product worth investing in.

I loved being a sub – I excelled at art and English in school, and am naturally a curmudgeonly old goat, so it suited me perfectly. I spent ten years wearily sighing as I eviscerated press releases, came up with witty headlines that never made it to print (like the terrible one in this post title), and worked on features pages during my lunch simply because I loved the free rein I was given with them. There were many aspects of the media that didn’t sit comfortably with me – nobody should be operating under the illusion that the Fourth Estate is anything other than a business – but on the whole, I had a blast. I worked with some great, whip-smart people, I learned a lot, and I made some great friends. But I knew the end was coming – I can’t remember the last time I actually bought a paper, or delved any deeper than skimming the headlines on Google News.

I was the youngest of those to go, with the shortest tenure. Many had lived much of their lives with the paper. Their fathers and grandfathers were there before them, and they had built much of their lives around the place. For them it was difficult. For me, it was very easy. I applied for redundancy well in advance, got accepted, and picked up my cheque and P45 on New Year’s Eve 2014. I got the bus home to my heavily pregnant wife and three kids, stopped and wondered ‘WTF am I doing with my life?’ This was probably the point where it started to feel like the closing scene from The Graduate, that ‘what now?’ look on their faces as the dream has been fulfilled and now reality comes crashing in.

And if you want a massive dose of reality, try ringing in the new year with a visit to your local dole office. They still had dusty Christmas decorations up, and the clock in the waiting room was broken, meaning the second hand clicked forward, then back, then forward. I’m not sure if the local office has an ironic name policy, but the fact the girl who dealt with me was named Eden would suggest they might.

I had heard so many horror stories about dole claims and how long you would be waiting that I was somewhat surprised to hear that it would only take a week or so for my claim to be processed.  But how would I survive on the dole? How would I pay the bills? For years all I had seen in the paper was stories about how the dole was not enough to live on, endless tragic stories about people feeding their kids cardboard boxes for breakfast. What would we do? We’d do fine, apparently.

I was assessed by the dole office, and despite the fact that I have no mortgage, pay no rent, and received 25k redundancy, I was entitled to a 432 a week. So basically I was down about 100 a week on my wages, but with 25k in the bank. Somehow it’s hard to buy into the ‘poor mouth’ when those are the figures. I had spent more than a decade in the newspaper reading hard-luck stories about unemployment and poverty, so it was hard to reconcile that with what I was experiencing. But being on the dole isn’t just about money. The same goes for work itself: It’s about a sense of self worth, a sense of purpose, structure, value. Work is an important part of being human – it isn’t just where the money comes from, it is what distracts us from ourselves. Without it, we only have the insides of our own heads, or watching Jeremy Kyle and those insidious ads for payday loans. Since the dawn of time, we had to do things to survive, be it foraging for berries or working in a newspaper. I tend to sound like a Soviet era propaganda film when I talk about work, extolling the virtue of toil, but I believe that work is good for the soul. During my time on the dole I found myself slowly succumbing to a depressed stupor; I could feel my brain slowing down. The first example of this came when I turned up to a talk on ‘employment activation’ 30 minutes late. I firmly believed i had the time right, but had got it completely wrong. For 11 years i had worked to tight deadlines, and yet somehow I was now the dullard who can’t show up on time for a meeting despite having nothing else to do.

I just waited for the next meeting and imagine my joy when I realized that the jobs liaison officer and I went to school together. Oh, the chagrin. In the meeting myself and a group of other job seekers were told about the supports available to us – from courses, to back to work support, to just about everything you could want to turn your professional misfortune into a golden opportunity.

As the meeting went on a few more late comers drifted in, slumped into their chairs and started playing with their phones. Suddenly I wasn’t particularly envious of my old school friend and her plum job with the Department Of Social Protection.  Because there clearly are people in this country who are utterly unwilling to work. They are a tiny minority, but they are there, just as they are throughout life; it’s just as easy to find the indignant workphobic slob in the workplace as it is on the dole queue. But most people on the dole don’t want to be there, because it fucking sucks. And it’s not just your mental state that suffers – your prospects do too. As the time drags on, you have to aim lower – your expectations need to be reset, as the longer you spend out of work, the less appealing you are to employers, the more desperate you become, and the more blank space there is on your CV. Thankfully I worked in an industry where you are never ‘unemployed’, merely ‘freelance’. I did a few pieces for the paper, so at least I had that point to if somebody said ‘what have you been doing with your time?’

And time is something you suddenly become aware of – you go from working and never having the time to do the things you want, to suddenly having nothing but time. Without the defining parameters of work, time is not something to be cherished, but to be put down. Your week is just a random series of days and nights, occasionally punctuated by trips to the dole office to sign on, or to the post office to pick up a wad of cash that other people earned.  Reading excited tweets on a Friday or depressed ones on a Monday you feel up like the dowager countess in Downton Abbey, asking ‘what’s a weekend?’ They mean nothing to you because you don’t have the spare cash or inclination to go anywhere or do anything – the weekend, like the money in your pocket, is something you didn’t earn.

Adjusting to the income on the dole wasn’t hard for us – my salary wasn’t far off what I was given by the Irish social welfare system, but we still made adjustments. The most satisfying of these was getting rid of Sky TV. It’s hard to fathom how anyone talks about struggling to survive while paying for the pure bilge that satellite TV supplies your home with. We cancelled Sky, and the boxes kept working as free view sets, saving ourselves about 400 a year in the process. We also shopped around for the best deals in utilities, and in health insurance – despite the fact that we were now entitled to a medical card. We didn’t apply as we didn’t need one, and besides, healthcare is one thing worth spending your money on. We made a few more tweaks here and there, nothing drastic, and carried on. With four kids, we were never bored. And that was one of the positives of losing my job. I got to spend eight months at home with my family, something most men never get to do. With zero statutory paternal leave in my former workplace, i wonder how much time I would have been able to get – a week at best.  

Obviously my months on the dole were often depressing, and difficult for both my wife and our kids, but I have no regrets. I got out of an industry that is facing a difficult future, and I see my departure as part of a process of creative destruction that needed to happen. At some point in their history, newspapers started to believe they were the source of information, rather than simply a conduit for it – and when another conduit came along – a free, open, democratic one – they struggled to cope. Newspapers still have something that blogs don’t – accountability. Because they will get sued over just about anything. I once drew a page with a photo on it of Gerry Adams visiting Shandon Street in Cork. He was shaking hands with a man, who was not named in the caption, but was described as a supporter. The man sued, claiming the caption suggested he supported the IRA. He lost his case, because clearly Sinn Fein has nothing to do with the IRA, but he did win some minimal amount because he had been affiliated with a different political party in the past. So that is what you are up against. People will sue anyone over anything. So when there is an outcry over papers being disinclined to take on litigious moguls, whilst blogs have no problem doing so, you need to consider what each side has to lose – a newspaper could be hit for millions, meaning massive job losses or the end of the title, whilst a blog can say what it wants – because who would bother suing a blog? And a faceless blogger is altogether less trustworthy than even the most scurrilous hack. So newspapers are still important – whether the next generation feels the same way remains to be seen.

In the end, I got a job. Early in the year I took the public sector exams online. The results placed me 143rd. I thought I would hear nothing else, but then a call came to attend a screening interview in Dublin. It was very informal, just ten minutes of chatting about my career, such as it is. The person also told me not to feel crestfallen about coming 143rd, as that was out of the 20,000 people who sat the exams. So not too bad really. I was placed on a panel for temp posts in the public sector in Cork, and began the long wait. Eventually I made it to the top of the queue, and for the last four months I have been an admin worker in one of the busiest emergency departments in the country. The work is exhilarating, challenging, humbling, and incredibly difficult, but I love it. The period I spent on the dole seems like a world away, but I can still remember the malaise that had started to set in. I stopped getting up at 5am and going running, started sleeping later, finding more comfort in food than normal, and just being fed up. 

The experience taught me that the pleasures and sorrows of work have a lot less to do with money than we think. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about success and how we measure it. He makes this point – if you were offered a job as an architect for 75k a year or a job in a tollbooth for 100k a year, which would you take? You’d most likely take the first, because even though it offers less money, it has autonomy, creativity, and challenge. I had spent ten years doing the same job – after two years, I excelled at it, after another few, I could do it in my sleep, and for the last couple of years, I just wanted out. People need challenges, stimulation, and though we might resist it, we need change. One year ago today my fourth child was born, I was on the dole and facing an uncertain future. Now, I do a job that has a level of meaning that few jobs do: It is actual life and death. Change is good, and money is one of the least important aspects of being human.

Early on in my time on the dole I had an interview with a jobs specialist who works with the Department of Social Protection. She told me that many men cry in that first interview with her, as they have been pretending to everyone else that everything is going to be fine, but they are terrified about the future, about not being able to provide for their families. She also told me about a talk she attended earlier in the week, given by a mental health expert. He talked about his family, how his parent were doctors, he became a psychologist and he expected his children to excel professionally. His eldest son was slacking off in school and he was really trying to push him to do well in the upcoming Leaving Cert. One morning a neighbour arrived at their door to tell them their son was hanging from a tree across the road. They raced to him, cut him down and he survived. He did the Leaving, just about passed, but that was enough – because he was alive and they were together. The man talked about his own childhood, growing up with a bipolar mother and the troubles they faced – all privately – and he made the point that the poor have problems, while the rich have secrets. His experience with his son taught him that professional success isn’t necessarily the most important thing in life, and nobody has the perfect life.

A few years back there was one of many suicides in my home town. At the funeral, the father of the deceased said to a friend of mine ‘I just don’t understand it – he pulled in 60k last year’. It’s hard to know what to say to that. Money isn’t happiness. What I do now drives this home to me on a daily basis – if you have your health, a loving family, and a job that fulfills you, you are one of the lucky ones.

I didn’t think that I would spend so long looking for work (a period extended by my extreme aversion to nepotism) but it made me a better person. I saw that Ireland is a great place to live, to raise a family, to work, or even to lose your job. I’m not sure I would want to repeat the experience, the frustrations, the grimness of it all, but I certainly don’t live in mortal fear of it ever happening again. This is all just my experience, my circumstances – there are many unemployed people out there who are slowly being crushed by debt and poverty. But I just wanted to say that, for me, it was an eye-opener; not just about Ireland and how it supports people, but about myself, and my own need for work.  To quote Dicky Fox in Jerry Maguire, ‘I don’t have all the answers. In life, to be honest, I failed as much as I have succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you my kind of success.’

4 responses to “From unenjoyment to employ-a-Bill: My eight months on the dole”

  1. Very brave piece. Touches on many issues all of us have experienced at some time. I’ll raise a glass for your refreshing openness and honesty – as well as wishing you good luck for the future.

  2. Great piece. I’d choose the tollbooth because I’m bad at understanding angles and wielding a T-Square. Plus you could duck dramatically sometimes to make people think things were going all Godfather.

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