After a year of being unemployed I have a new job. I received the good news this morning and although I should feel elated, the whole thing feels quite unreal because the job is almost too good to be true.
I will be working with an internet bookseller, setting up a project to ensure that charities are not losing revenue from failing to identify rare and collectible titles that have been donated to their shops. In other words, I will be selling books for an ethical, carbon neutral company and raising money for charity.
There must be a catch somewhere.
After a year of being unemployed, this is a huge relief. When I walked out of Waterstone's I always hoped that I would find a better job reasonably quickly, but there was the nagging doubt that I might never find a decent job again. Suppose I was just crap? Maybe I'd never work again.
The financial hardships of being unemployed shouldn't be underestimated, but I agree with some recent research that was discussed on Radio Four a few weeks ago, which concluded that 80% of the stress of losing a job stemmed from the loss of status and sense of purpose. No matter what you have achieved in your working life, unless you have inexhaustible reserves of self-esteem, unemployment is an extremely demoralising experience. It is remarkable how quickly you can lose your confidence.
I tried to keep busy. In addition to having two young sons to preoccupy me, I did voluntary work as a magistrate and enrolled on a web-design course. These things helped, but none of them provided me with an answer to the dreaded question: 'What do you do?'. I felt a latent sense of guilt and shame, even though I knew it was irrational. I had paid taxes for years and was entitled to a state benefits, but I still felt uncomfortable about being one of the people who was taking.
Being unemployed was better than working for Waterstone's, but it was a Faustian pact that would have eventually ended in tears. If you are unemployed, the Government give you just about enough money to pay the bills and feed yourself, but no more. It is the death of hope.
Unfortunately, some people are so traumatised by their experiences of work that they would rather live in poverty than risk endangering their mental health. During the last year I met several who were intelligent and capable, but had been broken by their experiences. The Daily Mail would have labelled them 'dole scroungers', but they were courageous individuals who had been through the most awful experiences.
I met one young woman who had lived more in her 22 years than most people had in their entire lives. At the age of 14 she suffered from brain encephalitis and lost most of her motor functions. She had to relearn speech and at the age of 16, had the IQ of a ten-year-old. In spite of this she was sent to a tertiary college where she entered into a relationship with a man who abused her repeatedly. She eventually developed a pyschotic illness and was hospitalised for a long time.
I met her at a course that was designed to help people find work and was struck by her intelligence, humour and lack of self-pity. I have no doubt that she will find a job, but I met others who were, frankly, no-hopers. One woman was even sacked from an unpaid, voluntary job. I could see why, but on closer acquaintance she emerged as an unusual, interesting person. I couldn't help feeling that her inability to find work was an indictment of modern society which, for all its equal rights legislation and inclusivity, is less tolerant in some ways.
I have learned many things during the past year and feel richer for it, but I am extremely relieved to be back in work. More importantly, it is a job with huge potential and I think I will really enjoy it. It will be hard work, but exhilarating. Imagine: I'll spend every day rumaging through thousands of books looking for gold. Paradise.