Don’t call them unemployed, please. The charity’s management invited me to East London to talk about their employability programmes. Don’t call them unemployed, repeats one of the managers. I have only recently taken over my position as a lecturer in London, having previously lived and worked elsewhere in Europe. I am not accustomed with the local discourses on youth unemployment. So I when I’m having my initial conversations with the charity about their work I keep slipping up – using the unspeakable word in every sentence. What are the social and professional backgrounds of the unemployed people registered in this programme? How do you usually recruit these unemployed young people? What do these unemployed young people expect from the training programme? What are the possibilities for these unemployed youngsters to be integrated in the job market? The managers had to tell me again: avoid the term unemployed when addressing training participants, especially when they are present.
I feel really embarrassed and apologise. One of the most important ethical principles of every researcher is ‘do not harm’. By using the term ‘unemployed’, it seemed that I had broken an institutional norm, a shared way of speaking and thinking about young people. Sigh, a deep breath from another manager sitting next to me brings me back to the meeting room. She must have realised my embarrassment and explains. Some of them have a low level of self-esteem and lack self-confidence. Many of them feel frustrated and are depressed, another informed me – some are even on medication. Exactly, the original manager continued, the term “unemployed” has negative connotations and could build harmful mindsets. Many feel betrayed by society and tend to victimise themselves. Before I left she added, our job is to work on their emotions and motivation. We need to reset their minds.
I leave the room with a sense of dissatisfaction. I had heard from friends and colleagues that this charity‘s employability programmes are among the best in the country. David Cameron, the former Prime Minster even noted the charity’s programmes as one of Britain’s most inspiring examples of how to get people into work. But at the same time, there is something cynical about the way the charity talk about the young people they work with; the way all the suffering is situated in their own minds. They suggest these individuals “victimise themselves” – but they do not just act as victims of the current capitalist systems. They are the victims of current capitalism. They are that group of individuals who are losing out from the economic transformations that London has been experiencing since the 1980s. Whilst these employability programmes claim to be about helping individuals overcome their situation of unemployment, it focuses not on finding people jobs, but rather teaching young people how to be happy in spite of their situation of poverty and professional precarity.
A couple of weeks later I am sitting in the first session of the employability programme. I want to understand what it means, concretely, to help people gain “emotional resilience”. The instructor presents the programme. ‘Qualities’, ‘Dreams’, ‘Goals’, ‘Facing Barriers’, ‘Teamwork’, ‘Valuing Ethics and Diversity’. Just as they had spoken about in our initial meeting, people’s emotions and motivation are at the core of the training activities. The classical activities that I was expecting, such as CV Writing and Interview Techniques, were only a minor part of the course. For the first activity, Natasha, the instructor, asks participants to fill in a questionnaire, explaining that it will help them reflect on their current situation, including their feelings, anxieties and expectations. Managing one’s emotions and becoming mentally resilient is a key component for preparing oneself for employment, she emphasises. This exercise will be carried out every other week, she continues, so that participants can become conscious about their progress and emotional development. I observe how participants engage with the questionnaire and answer the questions from my chair in the corner of the room. Some hesitate and ask for clarifications. Others ask Natasha to help them evaluate the results of the quiz or wait in silence after having completed the activity. But others question the utility of this activity for finding a job and think aloud about leaving the programme. Jason stands up, takes his bag, and leaves without saying a word. When I phoned him a few days later he explained that he was told he would be offered employment opportunities, not an opportunity to talk about his self-esteem. Along with Jason, three other participants did not come back after the very first session.
I talk to Natasha about these diverging expectations. Participants leaving the programme are considered to be a problem by the charity as the funding is dependent on the number of participants involved. She also suggests that Jason and the others’ dismissive attitude towards the programme is a sign of their lack of maturity, and an incapacity to acknowledge the reality of their personal situation. Natasha emphasises that before these individuals can even start thinking of applying for jobs they need to start learning who they are, being able to control their anxieties, and behaving socially and emotionally as expected in a professional setting. Most of the following sessions start with motivational videos which tell stories of men and women who have been successful in their lives. You need to start believing in yourself, Natasha insists. I am trying hard to understand the logic behind the training programme, and to make sense of the perspectives offered by the instructors. But the more I get to know the participants, the less my own understanding of them corresponds to the understanding portrayed by the instructors. They all seem to me quite smart and emotionally stable young individuals, in need of a job that gives them stability and security as well as a purpose in life. But instead they are being given a brain-wash of strategies to deal with the difficult emotions that come with being unemployed.
One week Natasha invited two coaches to conduct a two-day conflict management course where participants have to learn to manage their aggression. Participants simulate conflict situations and learn to talk about their anxieties. Being a good worker, explains one of the instructors, means to be able to deal with emotions, and manage ones’ frustrations and aggressions. I ask myself where this idea comes from, that people should remove their legitimate anxieties and fears and learn to be happy and ‘zen’. Natasha does not share my perplexities and in one of the following training sessions asks the participants to think about the qualities of a good worker, not just about professional skills, she explains, but also personal traits that are considered to be particularly desirable by employers. She mentions empathy, passion, happiness, commitment. In particular, the participants are asked to control their stress and anxiety when preparing for job interviews. Be confident and polite, confidence can play a big part in your success. Always give a firm hand shake, keep good eye contact and smile. Be enthusiastic, enthusiasm can go a long way. You may not have all of the skills or experience they are looking for but if you show you are keen this will go in your favour and may make you stand out from the crowd. Whichever way you look at it, what all these training activities have in common is the idea that being a good job candidate (and a good person more generally?) means being able to be happy, even if one is angry, and to look confident and enthusiastic even if you don’t know where to sleep the next night.
In spite of my persisting irritation, the course turns around participants’ feelings and emotions over the ten-week period. Introspection, reflexivity and self-analysis, replaces more hands-on (and perhaps old-fashioned) gate-keeping activities. Now for sure, some of the participating individuals are going through some hard times. Many of them live in impoverished situations and the difficulties they encounter to enter the job market makes them struggle with themselves and society around them – and engaging with these emotions has helped many of them. But at the same time, this training programme is emblematic for getting young people to learn to be happy, motivated and resilient despite unstable work conditions; to show passion and commitment even if the salaries are low; and to be adaptable and flexible to fit the short-term contracts offered by employers. More than contributing to inclusion and equality, these trainings produce a type of happy individual who is accepting of flexibility and precarity as principles governing their own lives. If participants fail to embody this role, they are considered to be mentally ill and a problem for themselves and for society at large. In other words, employability trainings, such as this one, are part of a larger attempt to produce the type of worker that the current economic order needs. What remains unclear is of course whether being happy effectively enable young people to find employment and get access to social inclusion. I will keep you posted about this.