Stories from the unemployed

December 28, 2014 - 06:14

Some unemployed people alternate between complaining about their situations and claiming that they choose not to work.

Some Norwegians consider unemployment as an opportunity rather than a problem. (Photo: NTB Scanpix)

“I’m not going to work just to work. I can get a job tomorrow if I want to.”

That is a quote from a research project on how it feels to be unemployed. It’s also how we have come to know a certain type of unemployed person. A few of them have been in the media, claiming that they prefer taking unemployment benefits from the state to getting a job. This has provoked a lot of people.

A new study tries to uncover the views unemployed people really have of their own situations. In an article in Sosiologisk tidsskrift (The Norwegian Sociological Journal), based on a master’s thesis, we meet 16 of them.

Contradictory stories

“In several stories, unemployment benefits are presented as an opportunity rather than a last resort,” explains Sofie Tanum, who interviewed the unemployed for her thesis in sociology at the University of Oslo. Currently, she is hard at work getting unemployed people new jobs through the company Follo Futura, in cooperation with the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV).

Although they are not necessarily representative, she believes the stories reflect how we as a society talk about unemployment. The unemployed, in fact, have quite conflicting views on their situations.

The stories are far more complex than what we find in the media. The people Tanum interviewed are very ambivalent in their descriptions of everyday life as unemployed people. Although they talk about days with a lot of freedom and leisure, the negative aspects of the situation lurk under the surface. Fifteen of sixteen interviews contain both positive and negative experiences, revealing both a sense of individualization and a collective belief in the value of work.

Embarrassing and humiliating

Some of the subjects claim they do very well without work – working is not central to who they are. They are concerned with independence and choice, freedom and leisure. Hobbies and friends are important to them.

“People waste their lives working. It's important to have time to enjoy the fine weather,” one subject said during the summer.

At the same time, the interviewees do find it meaningful to have a job. A work ethic and society’s expectations are evident in the narratives.

“The norm of work as something important is clearly present in the interviews,” says Tanum.

“We’re going to have a class reunion in August. Being unemployed then would suck. I think I’m going to have to come up with better story than that,” one subject recounts.

“It’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating, degrading,” says another.

“This discomfort in the face of others suggests that it’s not widely accepted to be unemployed. But in some circles and in some situations it may be okay to emphasize the positive aspects of the situation,” says Tanum.

Not any job

The subjects, all unemployed persons from Oslo and Tønsberg, were interviewed in 2012. Not all of them received financial support from the state.

Some were waiting for the right job. They felt that it was beneath their dignity to take jobs that they are overqualified for.

“I want a job where I can use my head,” said one of the subjects.

It is not only the highly educated subjects who are picky about their choices. A lot of the subjects stress that they will not take any job.

“We live in an individualized society where we expect a job to lead to self-realization,” Tanum explains.

Unemployment may not be a choice
Sofie Tanum. (Photo: Private)

“We are all full of contradictions when we tell stories about ourselves. The interviews show that being unemployed is a complex situation. People have different perspectives on it at different times and in different situations,” says Tanum.

An unemployed person who at one moment talks about freedom may also describe difficult days. Their involuntary unemployment may be the result of It may be illnesses or other difficulties that cause involuntary unemployment.

“When I look at the big picture in the interviews, it seems like an uncomfortable situation. I’m not convinced that it is voluntary, although the subjects sometimes claim that it is,” says Tanum.

Taking responsibility

There may be advantages and disadvantages to presenting oneself as a victim of circumstances.

“When you claim that your unemployment is not your fault, you are in line with society’s values. At the same time, you accept the role of a victim, being powerless to change your situation,” Tanum posits.

“If you claim that your unemployment is voluntary, you take greater responsibility for your situation. That may make it easier to do something about it,” she says.

She has not asked the subjects about this.

Gaming the system

“Of course, there are some people who feel they can exploit the welfare system,” says Anne Krogstad, a professor of sociology at the University of Oslo and co-author of the research article.

She believes that the stories that the unemployed tell about voluntarily being jobless are attempts to avoid the role of a puppet in the large welfare system.

“When they claim that they use the system strategically, they take on a role as a resourceful person,” she says. Krogstad and Tanum believe that this is a strategy subjects use to take control of their own lives.

Bjorn Gudbjørgsrud, Service Director at NAV, agrees.

“There may be many reasons to present unemployment as a choice. It can be a way to regain self-esteem and respect,” he says.

Obligations for the unemployed

Every one of the 16 subjects says that he or she would try harder to gain employment if it weren’t for the financial support provided by the state. Tanum feels that NAV should consider extending the programme of obligatory activities.

Today, the unemployed only have to prove that they are actively seeking jobs, submit a notification card every fortnight and keep their CV updated. Some unemployed individuals are sent to obligatory training or internships.

The purpose is motivation, according to the NAV director.

“Is it motivating to have to accept offers that are unrelated to your education or training? No. But it’s a smart move. Moreover, receiving benefits from the state leads to obligations. Do your duty and demand your rights,” says Gudbjørgsrud.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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Translated by
Lars Nygaard