What to do now you’re unemployed; advice from someone who’s been long-term unemployed.

Photo by Matt Noble on Unsplash

The Corona Virus is shaping up to be one of the most defining events of the 21st century. Besides spooking the stock market, overwhelming health services, and so far seems to have been an alchemist’s wet dream by turning toilet paper into gold, the employment numbers have taken a major hit. With many countries ordering the closure of non-essential businesses and services, anything that isn’t for food, medicine, household items, and some miscellaneous services, thousands have been let go, either on a temporary basis for as long as the business is to close or just straight up terminations due to the belief that these businesses will never recover. Even if they weren’t, few services have fallen in demand due to low attendance and the public advised to self-isolate and practice social distancing. The result is the same either way; whether it’s temporary or permanent, many have just been stranded.

This quasi-recession has led to many signing up for some form of unemployment relief. This can prove to be a harsh wake-up call for many; that a job that they may have worked at for years and paid well is non-essential and will discard them at a moment’s notice. At the risk of something harsh or even cruel… now you know how the unemployed have felt for years.

I won’t go on like this. I won’t berate anyone with talks of how ineffective “job activation schemes” are, nor how unfounded myths of people being “work shy” only serve to create class divisions among workers. Rather, I wish to use my years of experience as someone who has struggled to find steady employment to give you some advice on how to process this change, how to make the most out of it, and how to come out the other end better.

THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT.

In the early days on this crisis, I went to the Doctor for feelings of depression, anxiety, and some suicidal thoughts. I am 30 years old and have always struggled to find steady employment. Apart from the odd part-time job, I have been unemployed since college. The Social Welfare office has never been particularly kind. Indeed it does seem that they took delight in constantly reminding me how long I’ve been unemployed for, even going so far as to not count the odd jobs I’ve done, or the times I left the country on work visas for the US (I’m writing from Ireland, but I will try to make the advice as broad as possible).

Perhaps you’re worried about something similar. As time goes on and on, you’ll feel as though it’s all your fault. If only you had been a doctor or an undertaker, or a grocery shop owner, you’d be kept busy right now. Or maybe a job you could have done from home, like graphic design or copywriter or coding.

You will come up with so many what-ifs and should-haves, as I have all these years, but you need to understand something really important.

THIS-IS-NOT-YOUR-FAULT.

The scary but necessary fact you have to accept is that you are at the whims of things you can’t control. Disasters, death, recessions, crimes, wars; humanity has been rocked for thousands of years by forces they can barely comprehend let alone even have a hope of effecting. Civilizations have sprung up and disappeared practically overnight due to unforeseeable events. Whether you’re African, European, Asian, or whatever else, there’s a good chance the country you’re living in could have once been a bastion of knowledge and wealth, renowned around the world, only to falter into an unacknowledged dark age. Maybe even vice-versa. The United States, China, India, Brazil and many other countries were once colonies of far away empires; now they are economic power houses. These things ebb and flow, like the waves on a shore. The boats of prosperity rise and fall with the tides of change.

It may seem existentially horrific, to realise how life really doesn’t care for your mortgage or your sense of self-worth. But just as fortunes change, so do misfortunes.

THIS WILL PASS.

On my left wrist I have the words “this too shall pass” tattooed. A cliché, I know, but it is true. Nothing is permanent. That is both a curse and a blessing. A curse in that it’s a reminder that life is fleeting and random, but a blessing in that at any moment your misfortune can be turned into a positive, if you choice to. Now of course this philosophy has limits. Being crippled in a car accident doesn’t mean you now have the time to train for the Olympics. But ending up at home for the foreseeable future does mean you now have time to catch up on that long-list of movies, shows, books, and games you’ve been dying to get into. It means you now have time to focus on your life and to question what’s important to you and how you should go about getting those aspirations. But more importantly, you now have time to yourself and to those around you (assuming you’re self-isolating with your family or partner).

YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN A GIFT.

It’s often been said that we spend a third of our lives sleeping. By that same logic we can also deduce that we spend a third of our adult lives in work, with the remaining third for leisure. Doesn’t sound bad, does it? But really break down your time further and you’ll realise just how much of your time you don’t actually get to enjoy. If your commute is an hour, then that’s two hours of commuting. But don’t forget the hour before you have to leave in the mornings where you’re just trying to get yourself ready (shower, shave, breakfast, traffic reports, school runs, etc). Now that eight hour job technically requires eleven hours, three of which you aren’t being paid. If you manage to sleep eight hours, you then have only five hours. But wait, what about picking up the kids, making dinner, helping with homework, andhousehold chores. Let’s be generous and say that’s another hour. Four hours. That’s what you’ve been getting to yourself. Four. Hours.

It may seem daunting to suddenly have sixteen hours to yourself now. And at first, as I mentioned, the books, games, films, and shows come as a welcome distraction. But soon you’ll realise it’s not enough. Your mind will wander. You’ll be bored. You may even start to question what’s the point. These aren’t bad things. There are signs of just how much of your life you’ve sacrificed.

While unemployed, I’ve kept busy. I write (mainly screenplays). I’ve been working on 3D modelling using Blender. I’ve taken up cooking and learning Irish. I’ve been keeping an eye on the news and ensuring that family and friends are okay. And in that time I’ve been lucky enough to get to a stage where I can get invitations to writer groups hosted at Smock Alley and a scholarship to attend the Irish Film School, instructed by Oscar nominee John Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur, Point Blank).

If I can implore you to do anything with the time that you have now and the seclusion you will experience, please, find a hobby or a long-put off passion. It’s amazing how many people will openly admit that they used to enjoy painting or writing or playing music before they got a job. Despite my passion for writing I must admit I am just as guilty of committing this sin; there’s a ruby red bass guitar I named “Anne” sitting in my closet. I was quite proud of knowing Seven Nation Army, Alternative Ulster, and Teenage Kick off by heart.

Either way, the point is that this could very well be the most free and undisturbed you will ever be in your entire life. Try to recall a passion or interest you previously had earlier in your life. Or maybe even one you never had but had always wished you could start on, like drawing. Now is the second best time to start something; the first being yesterday.

You really don’t have an excuse; you’re boss isn’t watching (at least not for now). Many countries are putting in place payment plans similar to the concept of basic-income to help alleviate financial worries, not to mention many ongoing talks with banks and landlords to ease the strain. As if that wasn’t enough, we have a little thing can’t THE INTERNET! In case you’ve forgotten, passed all the pornography, memes, and click bait, we have an infinite sea of education and teachers who have dedicated themselves to showing you how to play the guitar, the basics of pencil sketches, animation using free software (I’m not sponsored by them, but I’d like to mention Blender again), and cooking. Give Youtubing a go. Why not try your hand are streaming your gameplay? Sit and listen to a guided meditation session. Download an app and make a promise to be fluent in a language within three months. Just because many schools are out doesn’t mean you should stop learning.

MENTAL HEALTH AND ROUTINE.

The biggest complaint I’ve been hearing from people who are now not working is “what do I do with myself?”

We’ve already briefly seen how much of your day is centered around work. I won’t go into any political talk about why this is already a messed up proposition to find ourselves in, but I will empathise with this feeling of loss people suddenly have. You get up, go to work, come home, go to bed. Many are happily content with this, and that is fine. The idea that you can wake up whenever and do whatever may seem frightening and overwhelming. Even trying to preoccupy your time with projects may seem fleeting. Maybe Monday you decided to try to learn origami, only to be bored of it already on Tuesday, leading to a late start on Wednesday and a sleepless night on Thursday. Friday you created a massive feast, only for your Saturday to be filled with chocolate and pop-tarts. And Sunday was just a blur.

Routines and habits are our modern day sacred rituals. Like Aztecs cutting out hearts and Egyptians pulling out organs during mummification, we too practice our own silly little offerings to the gods. We drink the elixar of coffee for the god of Waking-Up. We scrub with the holy tooth-brush to ward off the demons of tooth decay. And we eat deeply from the bowl of cereal to appease the fearsome Tiger god of hunger who only goes by the ancient name “Tony the Tiger”.

Without the looming time-limit of getting to work on time, of beating the commute, of deadlines, it’s easy to question what is the point in doing anything, especially when it can be done later. But for your own mental health it is important to keep up with these things, not just to preoccupy you but to remind you that these activities are for you, not your work. You are a human being deserving of your own time and effort to be clean, healthy, fed, and entertained. You are not a robot that is to be maintained cheaply for your boss. You are your own person with your own life.

A handy trick is this. You have sixteen hours to be awake. List out what needs to be done. Coffee, shower, shit, shave, breakfast, laundry, dinner, etc. Now list things you’d like to do. Meditate, shows, learn to code, etc. Now try to categorise these two lists amongst the 16 hours, ensuring no one action takes up more than one hour. Now realistically think how long things actually take. Coffee is five minutes. Shower is maybe fifteen. Breakfast is ten. Laundry is maybe ten. Try to clump as many short (or low demand things) into a single hour. Lets say you fill your first hour with the morning routine, laundry, and quick shower. Now for the next hour pursue one of your leisurely activities. A show (especially an hour long episodic drama series) will fit neatly into this. In the third hour, return to another hour of chores, or maybe even move on to another leisure.

No one is saying you can’t do two or three hours of a game or a book, but what’s important are the two major effects of this style of routine. Firstly, it passes the time while ensuring you have a balance of necessarily work (chores, food, cleaning) and personal wants (aspiration, relaxation, entertainment). Secondly it keeps your mind active and healthy by ensuring a mix of passive activities (meditation, watching a film, reading) and active activities (chores, cooking, learning, writing). These two benefits ensure that not only will things get done but that you’re never bored or mentally drained, as you know that you’ll be able to switch it up.

You may find this style difficult to manage at first, as work and schools have trained us to concentrate on a sole task for long period and have taught us to deem our own relaxation or ease as being “lazy”. Try it for yourself. Do any activity for an hour and then switch. Even if you’re in the middle of one activity, switch, you can always return to it once the hour is up. Even right now, I’m practicing this method, as my hour for writing is about to be up… excuse me…

ONE HOUR LATER…

See, it’s now half ten. I read for a little while. After this I may go and make a sandwich before getting ready for bed. It’s that simple.

THERE ARE WORSE OFF.

I understand that it’s normal to be preoccupied with ourselves and our problems, especially when it comes to unemployment. It almost seems cruel how much of a full time job being unemployed is. If you’re a teacher or a mechanic or office cleaner or a manager, you are those things between certain times and certain days (in the case of a teacher, even between certain months). But when you’re unemployed, you’re unemployed 24/7. Just watch how many people will have no problem putting pressure on you to find a job on a Saturday afternoon, or eight in the evening on a Tuesday.

If you are struggling at the moment, you are well deserving in feeling under pressure and worried for the future. No one is disputing that. But just as my problems don’t negate yours, your problem don’t minimise the equal problems (or even worse problems) of others.

A lot has been said around the world about relieving the stress of people renting or people with debt and mortgages. Yet nothing has been said about what is being done with homeless shelters, which regularly are filled over capacity. Prisons are notorious for overcrowding. Homeless families are being forced to scour cities for the last few hotels that are still open, let alone will accept them. Even the most vulnerable to this virus, the elderly and immuno-compromised, are effectively locked in their own homes, knowing that they could go months without seeing their grandchildren.

Hell, even the people who were unemployed before this are in worse positions. We’ve experienced essentially a pauper’s prisons with parole for years. We get “invited” on schemes that serve to force us into effectively slave labour. Yes, we’re offered the chance to say no, but with the reminder that it “could/may” affect our payments (which it always does). As selfish as it sounds to say this, this virus was probably the best thing for my mental health. I feel so relaxed and at ease. I don’t feel like I have somebody breathing down my neck criticizing every application I send out. Even the other day, I received a text message alerting me that my monthly sign on date (to re-confirm that I am still looking for work) has been cancelled until further notice. I’ve spent the last two weeks worried about having to expose myself, all because my government doesn’t trust me when I say “hey, I need help”.

I don’t believe it’s ever helpful to respond to “I have problems” with “well I’ve got bigger problems”, but understanding that you are not alone in this is important for your mental health, for you sense community, and most importantly your sense of empathy. This virus has really shown who people are. The people who sing on balconies, who check on elderly neighbours, who share memes online; they’re the good ones. But the people who we’ve seen fighting over toilet paper, the people who sell hand-sanitizers online for extortionate prices, and the people who’ve complained about having holidays put on hold or have sneered at having to sign on for unemployment; they’re the bad ones. Those are the people who have been revealed as their true selves. It’s been equal parts enlightening, disturbing, and redeeming.

I don’t want you to think you can’t change. Again, I’m not saying it’s not shitty for you, but if it is shitty for you, why wouldn’t you want to help alleviate how shitty it is for other people?

Many charities and centres are still open; why not donate money or clothes while you can? Why not pay for a subscription, at least for as long as this lasts?

SO… WHAT NOW?

We are living through one of the most defining moments of human existence. Not just because of it’s scale but because of the fact that this is the first pandemic where not only are we united in our pursuit to eradicate it but also in our ability to manage it. We’ve never had the medical and scientific understanding that we have now.

The last time something on this magnitude happened, (think the Black Plague) we reasoned that it was caused by evil spirits, or God smiting us. Many women were accused of being witches involved with this. Many minorities were believed to have conspired to create the plague. And even the more reasonable assumption, that the plague was spread by rats, was later found to also be false when it was discovered that ticks on the rats to be the most likely cause, using the rats merely as a means to spread. It doesn’t help to see the same level of hysteria and misconceptions happening once more in the modern day, whether it’s “the Chinese virus”, conspiracies about it being man-made by the Chinese government, or even the now questioned belief that it started from the consumption of a bat (with all three beliefs have been propagated by one major political leader and their party).

But despite all this, we are still making great strides in combating this virus. The spread is beginning to slow, with the initial epicentre of the virus, China, reporting that they are going full days without new cases. There’s even a joke going around about my home country; the day after pubs were announced to be closed, Irish scientists invented a Corona Virus testing kit that can give results in under fifteen minutes. Of course this is coincidental, and yet the humour in it does illustrate something very core about humanity.

We want to get back to normal. And we will. Londoners often forget that they walk streets that would have been rumble to their grandparents because of the Blitz. Citizens of Horishima barely think twice about how their homes could very well have been built on a crater. And indeed I’m just as guilty, as I get the luas in Dublin and pass the Trinity college or the GPO (General Post Office) and forget that they were the scenes of bloody battles.

I just made tea in between these lines for my partner’s mother. And she noted my tattoo and simply agreed, thinking allowed “it will”. It’s still a cliché, I’ll admit, but being long-term unemployed has hardened me, made me patient, made me more resilient to the whims of how life can sway us one way or another, and has constantly reminded me to make the most of bad situation.

And I wish to say the same to you. To give you the same strength and encouragement. This is not your fault. This will pass. And it’s up to you how you use your time. You can either come out of this better or worse. You only have control over that much (for now anyway). Do what you can, be kind, be considerate, wash your hands, and look after yourself.

You will get through this. We all will.

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Writer. Opinions are my own. https://ko-fi.com/conormatthews

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