Having spent several years working in retail management, last year I found myself at a crossroads. Wanting to move back to London from Bristol, I accepted a role in a Surrey based branch. Without going into loads of detail, three months in I had reached my limits. I knew I had to quit, but with nothing lined up, I was taking a risk.
Sometimes, for your own mental wellbeing you have to take a step back and re evaluate. Our jobs play such a massive part in our lives, that it’s important to acknowledge the overwhelming impact they can have on us. Taking all things into account, I fully stand by my decision to leave. I could barely make it through a day there, let alone another few months! So what was next?
I began applying for jobs having no clue of what it was I actually wanted to do or be. This meant my search was vast and unfocused. **We’ll skip past the 3 month internship as that’s a story in itself!!** I plan on writing a post on job hunting in the next week or so if that’s of interest to you. At the end of my internship, I was left back where I started except this time I had no savings to fall back on. I will say that I am lucky to have a supportive family with whom I lived during this time. I can only imagine the struggle for those without a network to rely on. So, it was off to the job centre!
Now the main reason I was keen to write this post is this, I realise now how completely naive I was to the system. I still am in many ways, but this was for sure an eye opening experience. I can’t refer back to Jobseekers Allowance as I never received this so I’ll only be talking you through my time on Universal Credit.
After signing up online, I received confirmation of my first appointment time which was roughly one week after originally expressing an interest. For reference, this was in a Yorkshire location, I’m not sure what the wait time would be like in other parts of the UK.
**I know this post is a lot longer than my usual, but i think it’s important to cover all bases and provide a bit of context for you so bare with!**
Walking into the job centre, I felt totally out of my comfort zone. I took a seat and made eye contact with the security guard, a sight I was taken a back by. It was a few minutes before I could fully process the fact that this centre would have a need for a full time security person but let’s be real, when the work they’re doing involves peoples ability to live, you can see why things might get heated at times. I sat down and waited to be called. As I looked around I listened in on a man being told he’d need his account details in order to access his Universal Credit. This confused me. He told the woman it was written in his other notebook, one which he’d left at home. It was also clear that this man was under the influence of drugs. I mention this with no judgement of him but of the system. How can they expect a man who writes things down by hand and is not communicating coherently to login to a website regularly, searching for work and completing the accompanying forms? It felt sad to watch him leave, knowing he’d potentially be missing out on a payment simply because of a reliance on technology.
Meeting with my work coach Sam gave me the boost that I needed to really get back into job hunting. It’s so easy to lose ambition after the umpteenth application form. We talked a little about my CV, previous experience and future wants. I was then sent away with some helpful tips and the instruction to return once weekly until I had found myself a job. Sam made it clear that this was about getting me back into work as oppose to finding my dream job. I really respected this outlook and took his advice on board. One thing I was suprised by was the lack of pressure, I’d gone in thinking I’d be told to apply for a set amount of roles per day, report back on outcomes and take anything that was offered. This was not the case.
In my opinion there are two trains of thought to this that most people will fall into. Firstly, it’s a trusting approach which works well for someone like myself who was genuinely trying to get back into employment quickly. The work coach is providing positive reinforcement and a brighter outlook to job hunting. On the other hand, if you are to look at the wider, much debated issue of unemployment in our country, you could see why this might cause upset. Essentially, I realised right away that, had I wanted to, I could’ve very easily spent the next few months, maybe even years playing the system. One 15 minute session per week and a handful of second rate job applications is all it would take to keep the money coming in. I understand now why for some, it’s a more viable option to stay on benefits than it is to take on a minimum wage role. Not only do you get payments, there is potential for help with rent, medical care and transport amongst other things.
For me, I think that the ‘Nanny State’ debate is far more complex than just job seeking. It’s a deep rooted issue that comes from years of ill treatment, class divisons and government cuts. If we really want to solve it, we have to provide equal opportunities to every citizen from birth. If that means giving a little extra help to those with less, surely that’s what we should all be willing to do? I was lucky enough to find a job pretty quickly after signing on and now view my taxes in a different way. I’m more than happy to pay these as a working member of society and yes, there are those who cheat the system but I think it’s more important to give the benefit of the doubt to the system in order to ensure that those who do need support have access to it.
I realise that this is probably a little more sensitive of a conversation than my usual content, but it’s important for me to not shy away from life events and if my experience can somehow influence or help others, I’m more than happy to share it. I also think it’s important to share this because there seems to be a stigma attached to being on benefits, so much so in fact that they’ve been renamed ‘Universal Credit’. As someone who has been to university, worked in various roles and never dreamt I would’ve ended up in a job centre, it is perhaps okay to admit that we all go through ups and downs in life and sometimes we need a little extra help to get us back on our feet.
Like always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and views @sophieaiken.