Thursday, 13 February 2014

In Defence of Gainful Unemployment

Sorry this one is so late folks, wasn't feeling so great yesterday. There should hopefully be a companion piece to this up later today (when I've written it).

In Defence of Gainful Unemployment

“You know what I hate about working? Bosses. That's what I fucking hate... 

'Hicks, how come you're not working.'

I'd go, 'There's nothing to do.'

'Well, you pretend like you're working.'

'Well, why don't you pretend I'm working? Yeah, you get paid more than me, you fantasise. Pretend I'm mopping. Knock yourself out. I'll pretend they're buying stuff; we can close up. I'm the boss now, you're fired. How's that?'

I don't know if I have the right attitude for the workplace.”
                                                                   Bill Hicks

As I write these words, I haven’t worked in more than a year. If you were to believe half of the newspapers in this country, including the one that historically supported Hitler and Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, this makes me a parasite, a scrounger and an enemy of the state.

There was a time when I had no trouble finding work, I could walk out of one temporary job on a Friday afternoon and start the next one the following Monday. It was easy and the jobs I did were easy. Office work is like Windows based software, once you’ve learnt the mechanics of one system, you find that the rest have all the same features and cheats. An office job is merely a series of tasks and all one needs to do in order to do that job quickly and effectively is to break it down into its individual tasks and then reassemble them into the most efficient order possible.

I have had jobs where I regularly exceeded my weekly targets by 200% or 300% and still only put in three days actual work, spending the rest of the time doing my own thing, writing or messing around on Twitter. Any organisation that employs me will need to accept a certain amount of compromise. I’ll give you the work output of two, three members of staff, but you may have to look the other way when I’ve done all my work by 3pm and spend the rest of the afternoon reading Shakespeare online.

I once had an encounter with a manager in which she berated me, saying, “Every time I turn around there’s something other than work on your screen.” Rather than argue with her, I took the afternoon to clear the team’s entire workload and her entire team had virtually nothing to do for the rest of the month.

It always amazes me how long people take to perform the simplest of tasks. I can honestly assess myself as being well above average intelligence in many areas, disinterested and thick as shit in others, but the tricks and metal acrobatics I use to get work done quickly and effectively are well within the bounds of everyone. Most offices use some kind of software based on Microsoft Office and if you know even a handful of the shortcut keys it can save hours over the course of a week. Alt + Tab are the two most important key combinations on any keyboard, as these toggle between open screens and allow you to quickly switch from the pair of shoes you are bidding for on eBay to the letter you’re supposed to be writing just as you boss happens to be walking past.

Avoid using the mouse like the plague. The mouse is the great siphon of time, there is no task that uses the mouse that can’t be done using shortcut keys in a fraction of the time. I once watched a computer programmer friend of mine trying to copy and paste a paragraph of text using the mouse and making a pig’s ear of the entire task. So here’s a quick shortcut 101 in copying a paragraph of text from one place to another:

1.    Use the Ctrl Key + Up Arrow to manoeuvre to the beginning of the paragraph you wish to copy;
2.    Hold down the Shift Key + Ctrl Key and press Down Arrow to highlight the entire paragraph;
3.    Hold down Ctrl Key and press C to copy the paragraph.
4.    Use Alt + Tab to toggle to the document where the text if going to be pasted;
5.    Hold down Ctrl Key and press V to paste the paragraph;
6.    Done.

What with his faffing about, it took my friend the best part of five minutes to do a job that should have taken about five seconds.

I apologise if the above instructions seem overly patronising, but likesay, my friend is a software programmer and even he doesn’t seem to have mastered the basics of keyboard manipulation. If more of us took the time to learn some of these basic tricks, we would find that we have far more time on our hands during the course of the work day and could get on with doing something more proactive and life affirming.

In the 1960s we were being told that eventually we would only have to work for an hour day and spent of the rest of the time engaged in leisure activities. Things haven’t quite got that far as yet, but with a little insider knowledge you can cut your work day down by a considerable amount. I have spent much of the last decade working in the public sector, auditing the complaints handling practices of the legal and medical sectors and yet even there I have been able to outperform most of my colleagues without really trying. All it takes is indentifying the tasks that you perform time and time again and putting in place further shortcuts, like documents of standard paragraphs or user defined shortcut keys.

I say I haven’t worked in more than a year, but the truth is that I haven’t put in a full day’s work in years. There is no need. Most of us could comfortably work part time, but then the point of work has never been about gainful employment, it’s about having the majority of the population in one location and under surveillance, if only in some family firm. If you’re working, you’re less likely to be opposing government subsidies of the energy companies or banking sector. You’re less like to be causing trouble for the established order. Unless you’re incredibly lucky to be doing something you love doing, then your week is spent waiting for the weekend where you can spend a great deal of time reaching the levels of intoxication required to forget about the drudgery of your job. And if you’re pissed up on the street of a Saturday night, then the only thing you’re going to smash up is your own community. Still better than taking part in a demonstration against government cuts.

Even people who go to university and train for years in their chosen profession end up doing something trivial that they hate. The system does this to us. If western society was any of things that it professes to be, free, fair, democratic, etc, then everyone would have the opportunity to pursue the thing they most desire, even if that dream was of no benefit to anyone but them. In a Capitalist system, where the only thing which counts for anything is money, shouldn’t everyone be rich?

It is often said that it is inappropriate to talk about Marxism having failed because Marxism has never really been tried, given that Communist China and Soviet Russia were anathema to the principles in which Marx believed. The same is true of Capitalism. It’s inappropriate to talk about being anti-Capitalist because Capitalism has never really been tried. Noam Chomsky notes that in financial circles economists are supposed to worship Adam Smith, but never read him, because while Smith talked about the invisible hand of the market, he was opposed to globalisation and, by the standards of today, was more of a socialist than capitalist (besides, as comedian, Andy Zaltzman, points out, if you had an invisible hand, what would you do with it?). If there are homeless people on the streets or people can’t afford to pay their rent then this is Capitalism failing to do the one thing it was set up in order to achieve.

Instead of Capitalism, we have inherited a system of corporate totalitarianism, where all of the benefits and influence have been concentrated into the hand of a select few and the rest of us are left to fight over the scraps. Both of my grandfathers fought the Nazis in the Second World War, one in the Royal Navy, the other in the RAF. One died before I was born, the other died before I was a teenager. In my most cynical moments, I want to travel back in time and tell them not to bother. Fascism won in the end. They just rebranded it.

£5billion in benefits go unclaimed in the UK every year. Unemployment benefits account for a tiny fraction of the country’s total benefit bill. The energy sector alone receives £15billion is subsidies, despite charging extortionate prices. Yet if you are unemployed and claiming benefits then you must be a scrounger. You must be demonised by the rest of society, be a scapegoat and a distraction to prevent the working population from waking up from staring dead-eyed at a computer screen or factory production line, thinking, “Hang on.” to themselves and forming a mob. Not that a mob even is required these days. Look at what happened to the News of the World in no time what’s so ever. We, the people have real power, but we are kept from realising it at all costs by the thousand and one shiny objects dangled in front of our eyes.

Like most prejudices, the demonisation of the unemployed comes down to an issue of basic jealousy. Most people would like not to have to work in the job that they have, but rather work towards their dream job. In an ideal world people would be paid by virtue of how much their profession benefits society. Bankers and politicians would be paid virtually nothing. Nurses and the Fire Brigade would be rich. Artists, musicians, writers, comedians etc would be paid a living wage just to sit around and think and create. Indeed, in some European countries, artists receive a stipend from the state to go and be artists. We deride the befits system, but then how many sitcoms or award winning plays have been written by out of work actors or writers subsisting on the state? Isn’t that worth the pitiful amount we spend on benefits? I have no figures to hand, but I’d be willing to bet that West End revenues for plays and musicals written by writers while unemployed easily outmatch the cost of the time taken to write three drafts of a play at £71 a fortnight.

Of course, my great artistic hero is the writer James Joyce. Joyce, like the unemployed, is often labelled a scrounger, including people who should know better. And yes, Joyce did live off of handouts and endowments from rich benefactors for many years. Yet he also arguably created two or three of the most important works in the entire history of world literature. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in particular are high concept novels that are beyond the skill or tolerance of most people, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have been written. Popularity is no measure of worth, in fact a graph plotted of worth verses popularity is a black body radiation curve which rises quickly from the left, but falls of towards the right (cf. Avatar, U2 and Dan Brown for examples of the popular but god awful). 

Joyce spent seven years on Ulysses, seventeen on the Wake and I, for one, am extremely grateful to his benefactors for allowing him the time and space to complete those novels, for they give me great joy. The study of imaginary numbers (the square root of -1) was for centuries nothing more than the study of a mathematically curiosity and yet thanks to the pioneering works of the likes of Joseph Fourier in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, we now use imaginary and complex numbers in everything we do from radio to the internet. If we followed the example of the economic system, where nothing is of any value unless it is profitable, then the study of imaginary numbers would have been abandoned as a waste of time long before a use had been found for them.

There was a time when I could walk into a temp job with nothing more than a phone call and be in the same role for three years, earning a decent income. These days, even the most low grade of roles requires an interview, usually a competency based interview. My brain isn’t built to deal with competency based interviews. For a start, the name itself is a misnomer. Most competency based interview questions can be broken down into two sorts, either the question is redundant, as it refers to something already covered by the applicant’s CV, making a mockery of the point of sending a CV, or the question is actually an incompetency based question of the form, ‘Tell us of a time when you have been incompetent and what you did to cover your ass’.

Interviews used to be about assessing your character and suitability for a role, but these days an interview is about how good you are at being interviewed. Interviewing itself used to be a skill, now it is likely that the person who judges your suitability isn’t even present at the interview, instead relying on notes taken at the interview. The interviewers themselves are so busy writing that they can’t possibly be concentrating enough on the candidate to form a opinion of their own. Anyone who knows me knows that in real life I am fairly quiet. I usually don’t speak unless I have something to say. I’m no good at bullshitting and these days interviews are all about bullshit. It’s not appropriate to give my honest answer to any (in)competency based question, which is this:

Because it’s just a job. It’s easy and it shouldn’t require this much horseshit to become employed. In the time you have spent asking me fatuous questions, I could have learnt the job already, that’s how simple I already know it to be. I am quietly confident that you could plonk me down at a work terminal in NASA Mission Control at Cape Canaveral and I would soon figure out what I supposed to be doing. And yes, you are right, I am extremely arrogant, but what you call arrogance I call a sense of depressing familiarity borne out by twenty years working in offices, where I have vested interest in learning the role as quickly as possible, because the quicker I learn the role the quicker I can get back to thinking about the use of synecdoche in  Finnegans Wake and do this job on autopilot and never think about it ever again, like every other job I’ve ever had. So the question you should really be asking yourselves is, do we want to employ someone who will uncomfortably struggle to merely hit their targets, or someone who will do the work of two or three people without care? Your move hotshots.

Perhaps I should memorise the above script for my next interview. Or perhaps I shouldn’t be allowed to work in offices anymore. I’d much rather someone paid me to be a writer though. Trust me, I have spent more time and effort writing this one article than I’ve ever put in at work. How much its content is worth is of course down to how much you, the reader, gets out of it. Yet like Joyce, just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it has no worth. I haven’t worked in a year, but at the same time I have done more work reading, studying, researching and writing in one year unemployed than in twenty years of work. What’s that worth?

I’m still looking for a job, but I also have an A4 page brimming full of titles for pieces to be getting on and writing. Perhaps one of them might lead to something that isn’t mind numbing and soul destroying. My advice to those of you that are stuck in a hateful role is stop taking pride in your work, treat it like the insult to your intelligence that it undoubtedly is, learn the simple tricks to get the job done in a quarter of the time and do something more soulful and life affirming. Yes, this entire article is one of breath taking arrogance, but ramping up that arrogance even further, take a minute to think about it and you’ll realise that you’re just jealous. Don’t be jealous. Do something about your situation.

Get it done.

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