Rethinking unemployment and reassessing work

Rather than just wishing unemployment would go away, we should use the current crisis to rethink employment and unemployment completely. By Tom Boland.

Unemployment peaked at around 17% in the 1980s, and including the numbers currently on schemes, the current figure is also that high. But with the current debt burdens on households and the State, it may take longer for Ireland to recover. One consistent part of our thinking is that the solution to unemployment is a job. Sure enough, but only from an individual point of view. Unemployment in double figures will be back again. There is no reason to imagine the future will be a utopia of comfortable stability. So beyond just wishing that unemployment would go away, like a disease to which a cure might be found, it is better to use the current crisis to rethink unemployment as a whole.

How unemployment is dealt with changes historically. Sometimes it is treated more kindly, like Roosevelt’s New Deal, sometimes less so, like in Work to Welfare schemes in America, which are unpalatable but hardly unthinkable in Ireland. How we deal with unemployment reflects how we think about society as a whole: Is it an extended family in which we help each other out, or a club in which those who don’t pull their weight suffer the consequences? Generally, we are ambivalent – believing a bit of both, despite the contradictions.

In an effort to understand these issues I co-ordinated a research project with my colleagues at WIT, Ray Griffin, John O’ Brien and Jennifer Yeager. In this work we were ably supported by a dozen graduates who volunteered their time and effort. The project comprised life-history narratives with the recently unemployed, focus groups with younger and older cohorts, social geography of unemployment black-spots, ethnographic studies of rural and urban ‘dole offices’, and an analysis of print media reporting on unemployment from 2002-2012. The whole focus of this project was the experience of unemployment; its real human and social consequences - behind the statistics and economics

Historically, unemployment is relatively new – a product of the Agrarian and Industrial revolutions which emerged in England. Previously, the vast majority of people worked within their family network and avoiding work was impossible. Christianity, in principle, cared for all believers, including the poor. Many early markets, especially Muslim ones, sold cheap to the poor and dear to the rich.

So how does unemployment happen? Markets were for luxuries, but eventually emerge for basic foodstuffs in late Medieval England. This makes it possible to turn agriculture from a subsistence activity with the surplus given in tribute to feudal lords into a business where profits can be increased by upping production and cutting costs. This results in land enclosures, not just the physical creation of hedges around fields, but converting nature and the peasants into a factory and workers. With efficiency fewer workers are necessary, and these ‘masterless men’ become criminalised as vagrants. Beggars could be assaulted and whipped to the parish boundary. These displaced peoples swell the ranks of the navy and army and eventually become cheap labour for early industries.

Of course, these industries, whether agricultural, textile or mining, are unstable and subject to market forces which frequently bankrupt them. Then the workers, even those lured from the land by higher wages, are the unemployed; and who is to care for them? Of course, it is the state that provides for their welfare. The poor house and work house from the inglorious annals of Irish and English history and the pages of Dickens novels is the predecessor of the welfare state.

Despite all the complexities of the euro, the banks, the developers and the politicians, this is the story of the Celtic Tiger. A construction enterprise distorts the existing pattern of the economy, particularly in the participation of women and the balance between sectors. Living standards increase, debts are accrued, a bubble grows then implodes. We cannot rewind.

Let us consider what would be the consequences of removing the welfare state. Firstly, many of the unemployed would go hungry and be forced to steal. Secondly, the unemployed would work for a pittance, bringing down wages overall. This would lead to lower incomes, making basic goods unaffordable, which would lead to more businesses going bust, and further unemployment. Thus, giving money to the unemployed is in everyone’s interest, including those in employment and those running businesses. But how unemployment is experienced can certainly change.


The experience of unemployment has both acute and chronic forms. Firstly, there is the experience of losing a job, which can be sudden, bewildering, numbing, or a slow catastrophe of work drying up and bills piling up. Many people we spoke to described losing their job as a traumatic event. Redundancy can entail a perceived loss of status, a severe drop in self-esteem and often a problem with identity. Without your career, job or profession, who are you, after all? Nothing but a ‘jobseeker’; a person defined by what they lack. Yet, we also encountered extraordinarily optimistic and resilient attitudes. However, there is no small human cost to job loss, particularly amongst older men with families to support, who sometimes fall into isolation, depression, problem drinking and worse.

After losing a job, some initially retreat, but eventually must get about the business of job-seeking, which in the current climate is a Sisyphean task. Most posts advertised receive hundreds or even thousands of applications, and the unsuccessful are not necessarily even acknowledged. Consistently doing the same thing, without any results, is not only frustrating, but produces a debilitating mix of anxiety and apathy. Many people we interviewed expressed frustration with job agencies and retraining, which often prepared them for jobs which don’t exist. Meanwhile, each month there are thousands of redundancies.

So, job-seeking becomes a frantic but dull experience, something of a limbo or even a purgatory, in which it is impossible to succeed. Many people find their new found free time a burden, which is strange; surely free time is what everyone works for? But many people find themselves without any structure or purpose to their day, week and life. Pursuing an apparently pointless task casts a pall upon the whole of their existence. One interviewee described how he scarcely enjoyed the increased time he spent with his children since he lost his job; of course he loves them, but somehow unemployment casts a shadow over parenthood.

Another paradox of unemployment is that free time does not always lead to increased socialising or community engagement. Losing a job often leads to a loss of social networks, and the neglect of old activities. Technically, unemployment might end tomorrow; ideally it is a short break in an exciting and varied career. But it often becomes an interminable transition, something like Waiting for Godot.

The dole office is the primary institution framing the experience of unemployment. Although this is the site where the welfare state cares for its citizens, it is also the descendent of the poor-house. Despite the sterling human qualities of most of its workers, this is still the site where our ambivalence about social welfare is expressed. We wish to care, but only for the deserving, for a nationwide problem focused on individuals, who each must be assessed according to impersonal criteria. Explicitly, it is the site of social protection but implicitly it is also the site of suspicion, supervision and incitement to work.

Curiously, most unemployed people report feeling out of place at the dole office. Everybody else is meant to be there, but you and I are just passing through. We are not ‘those sort of people’. Yet, how can we be surprised that few take on ‘unemployed’ as an identity, since it is a transitional state. Hence, there is little solidarity amongst the unemployed, except perhaps against ‘the system’. One interviewee suggested that high-frequency sounds were played at his local office close to lunch time to clear the queue. It doesn’t really matter if the story is true; what it represents is how the dole queue is experienced as something close to parole.


One of the most important things to realise is that people want to work. Many people strike such a Faustian pact with employment that they cannot enjoy retirement or any other form of life without work. During the boom times, only a fraction of the 4% unemployed were long-term unemployed - the vast majority were people moving between jobs. The ‘scroungers’ are numbered in hundreds. What really fascinated me were those who got involved in charity or voluntary work; beyond helping others, they found that doing things for others helped them. It makes you feel greater to give than receive. To receive the dole without reciprocating feels bad, and it is wasteful to restrict people’s desire to give something back to the limbo of job-seeking.

So, the unemployed is 1% those who won’t work and 99% those who want to work. It doesn’t make sense to pressure either group to produce evidence of attempts to seek work. Instead, the position of job-seeker should be replaced by the designation ‘available for work’. If a position becomes available, a central recruitment agency lets suitable candidates know. Meanwhile, those who are out of paid employment should be free to do as they choose. No-one can stop people playing computer games all day, but at present many capable and creative people are forced to pursue jobs which simply aren’t there. Enforced job-seeking wastes time, and blames the individual for their joblessness, doubtlessly fuelling negative health outcomes and family discord.

What else could the unemployed do instead of job-seeking? Those with artistic interests can pursue their muse, those with sporting interests can play or coach. Education, of whatever sort, should be facilitated, without a year’s wait for the Back to Education allowance, or fees or progression from one level to another. If there is no compunction to retrain, people will only choose courses which genuinely interest them. Those who are entrepreneurial should be supported in pursuing their own projects. They could engage in local issues, politics and contribute to public debate. Most importantly, those with ‘free time’ should be allowed to re-build social life, minding children, caring for the elderly, being friends, forming clubs, associations and networks, contemplating the world.

Perhaps that sounds idealistic, but consider; how would you prefer to be treated if you were unemployed? Jobs alone are not the solution; consider the worlds’ seven billion people living and working like Celtic Tiger cubs; unsustainable is putting it lightly. Yet this is the promise of progress touted as the solution. Work is a juggernaut consuming ever more resources, even in the leisure industry. Meanwhile, social life, especially community organisation and the care of the young and the old, is taken on by the market.

Just as we need to rethink unemployment, we need to reassess work, so that people work less, spend less but have more time. Gradually reducing the working week, facilitating job-sharing and flexible arrangements like career breaks is another way of reducing the dole queue. Spreading the existing work around is preferable to increasing the tempo of business to fuel another boom and bust. If it takes two incomes to support a household we are poorer not richer than pre-Tiger days.

Rather than returning to single bread-winner families, imagine households where both parents work three days each, then spend the remaining time on parenting, community life and their real interests. These workers would be individually healthier and sustain a more vibrant community. They would have time to cook, exercise, care for their elders, their children and their neighbours. In the face of the economic, environmental and health crises, the relationship between life and work will have to change. Ireland should become the ‘best small country in the world’ in which to job-share or be unemployed.

Tom Boland lectures in Sociology at Waterford Institute of Technology.