Friday 6 December 2019

Not statistics, but tens of thousands of stories of hopelessness and helplessness

Getting a job changes a person's life. It provides purpose, financial independence, and the opportunity to provide for family and to contribute to the community.
Getting a job changes a person's life. It provides purpose, financial independence, and the opportunity to provide for family and to contribute to the community.

She was a cook in a school kitchen and enjoyed the work, not least because the hours were compatible with family life – when her children finished their lessons, she could be at home with them.

But when her husband lost his job as a result of the recession, the sums no longer made sense. They totted up their incomings and outgoings, and discovered that her salary left them just €6 a week better off because what they gained in income they lost in social welfare and other benefits.

Reluctantly, she took the decision to give up work, although she feels it was forced upon her by the recession – by her husband's job loss. She would have become one of the working poor, she says, if she had remained in the school kitchen.

Unemployment has been one of the hammer blows of this recession, but we have grown inured to its devastating impact. Those of us who managed to stay in work are mummified by worries about property tax, water charges and other bills, and blank out our jobless neighbours. But the figures remain unacceptably high: yesterday's Live Register showed unemployment at 11.6pc. At its peak in December 2011 the rate was 15pc. The drop is happening at an excruciatingly slow pace.

That 11.6pc is so much more than a statistic: it represents tens of thousands of stories of helplessness and hopelessness. Particularly in the case of the long-term unemployed, fast becoming an invisible presence among us. And let's not forget how emigration has skewed the true picture.

The longer a person is without a job, the more difficult their situation becomes. Studies show that for many, self-worth and identity are closely linked with working, so that joblessness generates a sense of being powerless, and damages an individual's confidence.

The day can yawn ahead endlessly, and routines have to be invented. Unhelpful habits of staying up late and rising late are easy to acquire, leaving unemployed people even further out of step with the rest of society.

Yesterday's figures tell us that those in the short-term unemployed category are getting back to work faster – in jobs again almost three times quicker than their long-term counterparts. (Long-term unemployed is defined as out of work for more than a year.)

Some 99,972 claimants were on the Live Register for three years or more in the first half of 2014, a rise of almost 4pc on the corresponding period last year. This accounts for just over one-quarter of those on the Live Register and 56pc of the long-term unemployed.

Perhaps it's hard for people to relate to figures which don't affect them. But it's not hard to understand how joblessness is destructive to an individual's sense of wellbeing. There is more to any of us than the work we do to put bread on the table, but in reality we are defined largely by our career. One of the first questions asked when two people are introduced is: what do you do for a living?

When someone loses their job an enormous adjustment is required – not just financially, but in terms of self-esteem. People need to be encouraged to upskill, to learn to market their skills, to be adaptable within the job market, and to continue with lifelong education. But they also need help from the State, which includes training opportunities and incentivising employers.

Recently, I spoke to a man doing a six-month JobBridge internship in an office. Perhaps it won't lead to a job. He's philosophical. But he says at least the cycle of sitting at home without focus is broken, plus he is learning computer skills and how to deal with the public. His mood has perked up, for which his family is grateful – and that improvement has nothing to do with the extra €50 a week from JobBridge, and everything to do with his restored dignity.

Without a job, some people don't want to get out of bed in the morning. US research shows unemployed adults, and those who would like to work more hours, are twice as likely to be depressed as those in jobs.

Subconsciously, when we work we feel we are making a contribution to society. There are also supports at work: many of us have friends there, and it helps to foster a sense of belonging. Ireland has a relatively generous social welfare system, and we ought to be proud of it.

However, questions arise regarding its sustainability if ongoing high levels of household unemployment are not addressed, according to the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) in a new Jobless Households report.

Among its findings are that jobless households are most likely to have no educational qualifications, to be unskilled, or to have never worked. It notes a sharp increase in jobless households following the 2008 crash.

The report defines jobless households as those in which no adult is working, or where less than 20pc of their working time is spent in a job. Using that low work intensity definition, Ireland has double the European average, at 23pc of households compared with 11pc.

One of the distinguishing features of Irish households, according to the report, is that 56pc of them contain children.

So questions of child poverty and intergenerational unemployment arise here.

On the day when Ruairi Quinn stepped down as Minister for Education and Skills, our slow-to-improve unemployment figures present a challenge for his successor, who will need to focus on a range of initiatives to combat them.

On a final note, I'd like to pay tribute to the working poor, the heroes of the labour force: people who would be better off financially on the dole, but choose to continue grafting.

Martina Devlin

Irish Independent

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