“… trying to find a job. You can’t tell me that I’m not…”

There was a news article around recently that caused immaterial me to chuckle with guttural glee. It was about a university applicant called Elly Nowell, who sent Oxford University a letter rejecting a place to study there (before it had even been offered), as she had been utterly disappointed by the interview process at her chosen college, and as a result repelled by the prospect of studying there. Though the university has denied many of her accusations, the best thing about this story is the element of guts and gall the young girl appeared to be showing in a ‘market’ for education that does nothing but expect students to get what they are given, and only pay for what they can afford. Everyone loves a story of innocent resistance, especially when the protagonist is only doing what they have the right to do. The surprise about Elly’s choice was that she made it, and as she says herself that people were “unable to comprehend that I’d sent such an email to this bastion of prestige and privilege”. 

I was reminded of this story today when, drowning in the misery of joblessness: CV writing, covering letters, online application forms, telephone interviews, face to face interviews, Skype interviews, and recruitment agency bookings, I found myself being belittled and humiliated by a recruiter – the people who are meant to be assisting job seekers to find something appropriate to their skills and qualifications. Astonished, I sat in that office – apparition of a tortured prisoner in the Spanish inquisition – defending my CV and explaining every minutia of my experience to a response that varied from stark incomprehension to sheer disdain and denigration.  I imagine that it is this exact situation that has jobseekers rippling with frustration and dejection – the notion that one’s ability to find a job remotely related to expertise depends on whatever you can fit into a manageable sentence for a pea brained agent to understand. Essentially I have been reduced to two sides of A4 paper and the results in black ink are rubbing red raw on my dignity.

The difference I have found, for someone in their inexperienced twenties, is the impression that anything anyone throws me now is a favour, a lifeline, and something to devotedly grovel on the floor for. My refusal to fall to my knees in eternal gratitude when a job was suggested to me that involved skills I had gained after I finished my GCSEs ten years ago, in a sector completely unrelated to my prior employment and education history, at a salary much lower than I can afford to live on, and located in an unattractive area, incited a large degree of scorn from both agents interviewing me. The manager’s attitude verged on bullying and both colleagues proceeded to tear my CV to shreds. I left without bothering to hide my horror at their behaviour, in an effort to conserve some of my tattered pride.

Marching off steam through the central London financial district, I thought of all those young people who do not have even the small luxury, as I felt I did, to turn down a job they are over-qualified for and would be undervalued in. The unemployment crisis is forcing twenty-somethings to feel they ‘have no choice’ but to accept any job – railroaded into careers that will potentially suck the life and soul out of them and halt the positive development of their work experience. I know that a job is a job, and at a time when youth unemployment continues to increase, passing record figures in recent history, being offered anything should indeed incite some relief and gratitude in us all. However, just as Elly Nowell realised in applying to Oxford, gratitude for acceptance into an institution comes only with recognition of your worth and value from the other side.  

My experience at the recruitment agency made me fear that we  are now seeing the rise of super-hyper-inflated- arrogant employers (beyond the usual ratio) who are so sure of one’s jobless desperation that they can behave as if the vast favour they are doing you is more than you really deserve and reflect this in their ugly demeanours and unfair salary and benefits packages. Employers and government policy-makers shouldn’t forget that young people may be desperate but we are also impulsive and inclined to exercise our right to choice at any given moment. What better place to look for proof than the 1980s, our cousin in economic woe, welfare cuts, massive youth unemployment, and sickening financial service arse-licking– when Wham’s ‘Wham Rap!’ incited youths to forget about finding a job if it wasn’t worth it and claim benefit instead, saying: “make the most of everyday, don’t let hard times stand in your way, give a wham give a bam but don’t give a damn, cos the benefit gang are gonna pay”.

Loath to suggest that we should all claim JSA instead of finding useful, meaningful jobs: I am only pointing out that unemployment does not equate to worthlessness (“you got soul on the dole”), and that those in charge might wish to remind themselves of that, else the psychological effect on a whole generation of tax-payers will otherwise be severely damaged. As a starting point, I wrote this email to the recruitment agents who had been so rude to me:

Dear …,

Thank you for meeting me today for an interview on my suitability to the roles that you recruit for at …

I sincerely apologise for altering my original appointment time and arriving early, I do understand that this was inconvenient to you and I can only express my regret for causing you difficulties.

However, I must say that the way I was spoken to towards the end of my interview was extremely rude, and extremely humiliating. Though I may not have had long periods of employment in one company, I have had a large amount of useful, diverse, and transferable work experience. Moreover, my education itself makes me a credible employee. I might add that I always behave in the most courteous and appropriate manner, and that I show respect to everyone I meet. As a result, I can only expect to be treated with some respect and good manners by others.

Unfortunately, I did not feel I was treated well in your office, and I would appreciate it if you delete my CV and scanned image of my passport from your records as I do not want to have employment advice from you in the future.

I hope that you understand this request and it does not cause too much offence.

Kind regards,

Immaterial Me

I might just as well have ended with: “a million people switching off for work, well listen mr. average you’re a jerk… not me. You can’t hold me down…not me. I’m gonna fool around.”

 

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Putting on a brave face

I frequently find myself disappointed by my personal attachment to mascara, foundation, and eyeliner; preferring to imagine how liberated I would feel if I had the confidence to never wear make-up, never need make-up to complete what has now become my ‘normal’, ‘everyday’ look. I am not, by any length the only girl who would say she feels naked without make-up on. I try to visualise the freedom I would feel un-mascaraed and on public transport, but all I can think about is that I would look like a mole, with tiny eyes and a squinting, lash-less, fearful stare. It frustrates me that I can’t even envisage emancipation without superficial trepidation. And herein lays the issue: no matter how much I like the idea of my make-up being unwillingly removed from me, or the time I spend on make-up being taken away for use on something more useful, I would in reality become untethered, exposed, and vulnerable by such a change. No matter how artificial I know make-up can be, it is also, to fulfil the cliché, a suit of armour and a hobby that is at once habitual, exotic and exciting. I have grown up in a society where make-up is readily available from the moment a girl has money readily available to spend on it. However much we may want to use it less or look more natural, it will never be for lack of obtainable purchases that we end up doing so.  Whatever the fancy or occasion, there is a product to suit my needs. Even the words I use to describe making-up – ‘imperfection’, ‘enhance’, ‘feature’, ‘natural’, leave me sounding like a seasoned department store beautician. I am an avid subscriber to this make-up culture.

The women of Tohoku, a vast area of northern Japan levelled by the earthquake and tsunami, now named ‘March 11’, also subscribers to this make-up culture, have been stripped bare in every sense, by this catastrophe. Of course, the circumstances of every family differ depending on the will of the enormous wave and what was swept up in its path. What is certain is that thousands of families continue to live in temporary housing with little or nothing left of their own homes remaining, and either donated or newly purchased clothing, household goods and furniture. Though clean-up operations are at maximum activity, and though many are attempting to get back to a semblance of normality as soon as possible through work and school, many only have to look across the road to be reminded by mountains of collected rubbish – large enough to contain whole cars, walls of peeling paint, uprooted cement curbs, dangling telephone lines, and so on, of the enormous task of reconstruction to come in the following years. It is a situation in which words like ‘endurance’, ‘resilience’ and ‘perseverance’ simultaneously play out their real meanings, and fail to capture the tortured attitude of the people who live there.

I was the last person to believe that make-up could play a useful and productive role in the healing process occurring in these areas. I was more than sceptical when I heard about a charity that visits temporary housing (grim prefab-esque sheds that match the sombre mood with grey sheeted monotony), doing community work with women from Tohoku by collecting groups of hair and make-up professionals together in Tokyo, taking them to Tohoku, and giving makeovers, massages, manicures and a blow dry to locals. I scoffed at what I felt was a shallow attempt at re-building women’s lives from the most gender-stereotyped position conceivable, at least the women’s groups who were up there sewing and crocheting handkerchiefs were selling them and creating a local economy, I sneered. I can only attempt to appease for these rash conclusions, by describing the real benefits and happiness that this charity, Tokyo de Volunteer, brings to the women of Tohoku who participate in makeover days.

As we arrived on our coach from Tokyo (supplied for free by a chartered bus company), and pulled up in grey, icy rain to the pre-fab car park, that was about to fill with a stretch of rain water to rival an inland sea, I saw that the first users of the charity services were already queuing up at the community room’s locked doors. Hunched old ladies chatted gaily, arms folded, aprons on, pleased to have got themselves first on the list for treatments. The charity leader told me that the event had been advertised for a week, and that everyone would have been waiting for our arrival – nothing like this ever happened here. Within minutes, while we set up the tables and arranged make-up stations, the room filled with cacophonous voices, young and old, children, mothers, wives and girlfriends.

They were women who were unlikely to have had time to mix as much as they would like with one another, looking after the family in Japan is full-time employment; and looking after the family while you inhabit a plastic shed, try to encourage your children to play normally from a room that looks on to a gravel hillside, get your husband back into work without a car to drive to work in, and magic an inspiring dinner out of limited and dubious quality ingredients; is a recipe for isolation from friends and neighbours for these women. Every visitor in the room took the load off their feet, closed their eyes, and allowed themselves to direct a conversation in whichever way they wanted. They could talk about their beauty regime, the shapes of their faces, the things they had to do that day, the things they were doing the day that the tsunami struck. Above all, I was struck by the power of touch, although it is too much of a generalisation to say that Japanese people touch each other less than we do in Europe, there is a clear difference in the way that they physically interact. Yet, the nature of what TdV does, allows women, strangers to one another to touch in a comforting, healing way.

Knowing that beauty in Japan is a multi-million yen industry with a strong hold on both men and women – many finding comfort and at least a routine in make-up and styling, I can only imagine that being exposed materially by the events of March 2011 and deprived of private time, means that women are struggling to screen their strife behind completely naked faces. For most people a modicum of maintaining ‘appearances’, and looking a little like one’s house is in order is what gets us through hard times. The days that TdV puts on in Tohoku are not only fun, communal, and an alternative to the other charity projects in operation, they also reinvigorate the women visited with self-confidence and renewed self-worth. Whether it is right or not that we live in societies where make-up gives us strength and makes us feel better in our own skin, I felt on these visits that it at least gave these women an opportunity to put on a brave face at a time of extreme despair.