Aicha Marhfour: “Don’t call me ‘aspiring'”

This week in The Vent Corner, Australian journalist Aicha Marhfour talks about the words people use to make her lack of employment seem “noble”.

Don’t call me aspiring.

I’m not emerging, either. The only thing that threatens to emerge is my fist, on its way to your face.

These words are my bugbears, and are a completely transparent way to make my unemployed state seem politically correct. An “aspiring” journalist sounds kind of noble, like a Boy Scout with a notebook and good observational skills. An “emerging” journalist is verbing his or her way out of the cocoon. They’re going somewhere.

But I’m not. I’m a jobless journalist. I exist in that caste where you can insult me by using words like “emerging” and “aspiring” to signpost that I’ve yet to be legitimised by a full-time job.

You may as well label me an amateur and get on with it. Call me unemployable. At this point, I’d prefer to be laughed at openly. I want to wear a large scarlet A (A for Aspiring, naturally) to reclaim the word for myself.

To be fair, I am a freelancer. Oh, that word. I used to dream about calling myself a freelancer and meaning it.

Early on, I did the rounds of unpaid internships. They were constructive but sometimes humiliating. There was no coffee making but most were marked by debriefs with some salaried superior, who would sit back on their subsidized beanbag and try to explain post-GFC economics to me.

I would be told how things were so dire that staples were being reused, office plants now worked reception and how truly sorry they were (not usually meeting my eyes at this point) that they couldn’t offer me a job. It was like crunch time on a TV singing contest, except that I didn’t cry and redo takes to make it more heart-wrenching. Any devastated feelings had to remain inside.

I’ve stuffed my CVs with internships, yet I still imagined the day when I could really be a freelancer. That moment came (with a lovely pay cheque to prove it), but the novelty wore off as I realised that nobody took me any more seriously.

I remember interviewing for a job the week before I finished university and being grilled by one editor who was flummoxed by my dubious online clips. “So are you freelancing?” he asked. I didn’t want to call the occasional free movie review and dry news write-up “freelancing,” so I sidestepped the question and felt ashamed.

Needless to say, I didn’t get the job and it was filled by a crashing bore with an obsessive love of the subject matter that particular outlet wrote about. Onwards!

Young journalists (and older parties trying to get on the game) are made to feel ashamed of themselves for wanting things. Anything, be it a free notebook or that unimaginable pipe-dream, job security. Jobs seem to be replacing Chanel bags, Hermès scarves and spa weekends as the new luxuries for the rich.

I can count on fingers and toes the number of  advice-dispensing elders who have chided me in a roundabout way for having ambition. At my age! With two university degrees! You must be joking, they say to me, in coded words. They’re clever and evasive about it, as old codgers so hard-boiled that they scatter shell everywhere when they sit down tend to be.

They look careworn, because after years of boozy lunches and beach trips “sponsored” by companies, they have over-tanned skin and now have to work even harder to keep their senior positions. They know we’re coming, the younger people, ready to hound them into their graves, once we demolish capitalism and end the working week. Well, I hope so.

At least they realise, as they huff and puff onto Twitter and fumble with smartphones, that there is a smart and literate generation approaching, hungry after years of surviving on occasional praise and mie goreng.

So they try, in their devious ways, picked up as they were being dandled on Sir Keith Murdoch’s knee, to pull us down. They pump out stories about the selfish selfie generation, or rather the #shamelesselfiesexcrazedgeneration, as they’ve put on their specs and now know what hashtags are (no longer just a number on the phone keypad! Oho).

They have collective amnesia about baby boomer greed, or the Swinging Sixties and what it all stood for. They’ve forgotten about the feckless 80s, when they were in their working prime and wore shoulder pads and had perms. They talk a lot about advertising and the old “rivers of gold,” faithfully glossing over how it was they who adapted to the Internet too late. I hope we eat them alive.

Back to my point, which is that these dusty old crocodiles rarely tell young people off in an obvious way. I’ve been told things like: “Well, you can’t expect to get (basic entry level position) straight out of university!” There’s an upward inflection that tells me that it’s a joke, and I should laugh. But I don’t laugh. I seethe, and sometimes when I’m at my desk alone, and even occasionally during a phone call, I cry. I’ve been crying quite a lot, actually. Unemployment does a number on your general wellbeing.

I always want to yell: “No? I can’t expect a minimum wage and some kind of validation of the hours of toil, email refreshing and rejection? Just like you did, all those years ago? Sorry for being so obtuse.”

And then I play a fun game using LinkedIn. I don’t have LinkedIn, as without a proper job I’d feel like an idiot filling in my internships and advertising just how long I was gormless enough to work for free. I also don’t really care about the LinkedIns of my friends and acquaintances. It’s a bit of a dry social media platform, with no incriminating photos or banter to be found.

But I do look at the profiles of some of the journalists and editors around, and see the exact opposite of what I’m being told. They worked as copyboys (and copygirls), entry level positions they started right after high school. They shimmied up the corporate ladder, flitting between companies like bees with their pick of the flowers. Younger writers leveraged blogs into paying jobs, or wrote about music for major publications while they were in their teens. Before the global financial crisis (or what baby boomers should be required by law to refer to as: ‘Our Bloody Fault’), they were herded into trainee programs.

It is a big serving of sour grapes, and helps me feel even more ashamed and bitter about myself. I can’t begrudge everyone their success. But it tests my patience when another person snaps: “Well, it was hard for me (20/30/40/100) years ago.”

It may have been difficult for that particular person, but it sure as hell couldn’t have been for journalists at large. The LinkedIn game proves this.

I remember reading a post-war novel where one character walked past the offices of the New Statesman, and resolved to get a job there because he was having a rough time working as a lawyer:

“I am not going near the Law now. I’m going to be a journalist. A left-wing journalist. The New Statesman offices are up at the end here, up the alley. I’ll walk in now. I’ll demand a job. And I’ll be given one. I feel it in the wind.”

I take this to be a proper historical document. A qualified lawyer who is a little frustrated by his profession could, in those heady days, walk in off the street and get a newspaper job. Or as Jonny Sweet’s character in his radio comedy Hard to Tell explains to his parents, who are confused by his desire to become “Paxman-meets-Fry”:

“It’s a generational curse. There was a time when it would’ve been easily doable. In the seventies, it was basically: graduate, become Paxman. Now it’s graduate; guess what? Paxman already exists. It’s Hell.”

It is Hell, where we are completely self-aware and marinate in our frustrations. Yet I stick with it, because churning out pronoun-heavy thinkpieces is what I want to do for a living. Right now, this desire feels like pissing in the wind, without the surprise splashes. My dreams are humble, my jokes are relentless and I have yet to find a way off the no-experience treadmill.

Please don’t call me aspiring, but I am very much perspiring (see: joke + rhyme = I’m basically Buzzfeed). Add a funny gif and I’m either a click-bait content farm or a sleep-deprived jobless journalist. Get at me.

Aicha Marhfour is a freelance journalist in Melbourne. A real one, who writes for money. Please send commissions to her on Twitter: @aichamarhfour

Emails from the jobless trenches

Joblessness has somewhat fallen off the news agenda, have you noticed? That’s what happens when things don’t really improve. After a while, they can’t keep going with the same story. So, just as a reminder that there’s still plenty of talent going to waste, I thought I’d share with you an email I got from one Jake Brown, who emailed  me requesting to contribute to How to Be Jobless.

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Dear not quite so jobless anymore but hopefully still sympathetic Madam,

I’m a recent convert to the school of joblessness (read: newly graduated), hoping to tease out some of my unemployed anguish onto the pages of your scarily close to the mark website.

My experience includes an inbox entirely devoid of responses to my job applications, expert skill in day-dreaming of the sad old regulars in my local pub actually being big-wigs who’ll one day give me a media job, and a slowly fading but ever present optimism that all my education might actually, hopefully, just possibly have been worth it.

So what do I want to write about? Good question. I know I’m not the only one to have faced the bloody awful move from a lively big city back to the countryside and its all too familiar stench of boredom and parental disappointment. I think I’m pretty talented – but so does everyone else, right? Well, I’d like to write about my current struggle, to put it bluntly. The part-time job, the well practised “no everything’s going really well!” lie, the un-worn interview outfit and of course not forgetting the stomach churningly large overdraft.

Eagerly awaiting your response (refreshing Gmail a hundred times an hour),

Jacob

Josh Adcock: What it’s like working at Costa

Josh Adcock is back with another peep into the world of the overqualified graduate working at Costa, as per Esther McVey’s totally non-patronising instructions.

baristaWorking at a Costa is akin to going to the dentist. You ache afterwards and you get covered in powders and fluids you can guess at but can’t identify. Or, it’s like opening the first page of a book that you don’t want to have to read: you wont enjoy slogging through, but you know that, in the end, it will be rewarding. It will be rewarding. Because the government says so. And we can’t doubt the honest intentions of the political elite now, can we?

Last post I talked about how I got my job at Costa. This week I’m going to talk in a bit more detail about the nature of working at such a fine representation of the capitalist system. The store at which I work is situated in a small town in the Home Counties, and is part of an open-air shopping precinct; we open at 7 in the morning, and close at 7 in the evening, catching the going-to-work trade in the early hours, often serving breakfast to our fellow retail-drones, and mostly spend the last few hours of the day plodding along, cleaning and preparing for the next day’s trade. Sometimes this can be a challenge, involving the unclogging of toilets, mopping of floors, and clearing the shopping bags, old shoes, soiled underwear, MacDonald’s Happy Meal bags and other foreign detritus from the holy sanctity and sacred temple of Costa. This is, I’ve come to feel, a rightly difficult and challenging time, because there’s no greater incentive to the repressed masses to work harder, and scale the coffee career ladder, than mind and body-numbing hard work.

In between those points we have the real meat of the day, show-time. We grill food, make drinks, clean the store, wash the dishes, serve food and clear away the drinks leftover once customers have decided that they don’t really like what they’ve ordered. In between we deal with customers asking for non-existent products, clean up bodily fluids, unclog toilets, and generally wipe up the sodden entrails of disposable products, lives lived in the shadow of the church of consumerism. Sorry for the purple prose, got carried away for a moment and lapsed into intellectual tendencies. Never again.

We term the sudden appearance of a long queue a ‘rush’, with lines forming out the door, and this surge happens in regular patterns each day. Mornings, lunch, and the end of school day are the usuals. There are three Costas in this small town, but people just can’t get enough, flooding in for our delicious treats; we can be at the coffee machines for hours in a row, never looking back for fear of seeing the length of the queue; at times like this I tell myself these words of wisdom: “Shut up and make coffee!”

In accordance with damned EU law, we are legally permitted 20 minutes of rest in a shift of 6 hours or more, though Costa generously gives us 30 minutes. Shifts often last 8, 9, or 10 hours, however, so Costa are admirably getting the most to of their ‘human resources’. We use this time to eat, drink, soothe our wounds and aching feet, or occasionally leave the store for fresh air, free to ponder the great joys of being employed.

Weekends, I must admit, have ceased to be ‘week-ends’, and have instead become ‘I’d-really-rather-work-in-the-week…..days’. Why? Well, after a long week at work, the employed and unemployed people of the area alike want to spend their hard-earned wads of cash/undeserved benefits on some retail therapy. On Saturdays, out in the provinces, Costa isn’t a fast-service coffee shop. To the masses it becomes an all-purpose cafeteria, restaurant and creche. People queue for literally minutes to get their caramel lattes, our most poplar beverage by far, and rightfully complain when we fail deliver a near instant service. The place is packed to the rafters with young mothers, excitable little children and older customers expecting table service. We also look at weekly feedback, including ‘Listen and Learn’, wherein we beggar ourselves for knowledge, debase our selves at the knee of the general public, in the earnest hope that we may learn better how to meet their needs and learn how Costa might manage to squeeze out an even bigger profit margin next year.

The final Fridays and Saturdays of the month are particularly busy, as most people get paid on the last Friday of a month, and these days can prove the greatest test of patience, endurance and stiff upper-lippedness, even for the most self-defacing employed tax-payer. Apparently many customers haven’t heard of overdrafts! The banks need to be kept in business you know! Although, I suppose that enough people pay for their £20 orders at Costa on credit card to give the banks and credit companies their due. The wheels of consumerism must be greased. I mean, what else are people going to do with their money? Or, rather, their bank’s money? Save it up for old age? Pay into a pension? Invest? Pay off their mortgages and wonga loans? What a ridiculous thought! Or pay into the tax system? God forbid! Spend it! And pay Costa their rightfully earned profits! Oh, and my wages, I suppose, although that’s a much, much lower priority, of course.

Nevertheless, despite the trials of these bumper weekends and difficult Fridays, I soldier on, never complaining that this is not what I signed up for when I got my UCAS application in, four years ago: I serve the besuited businessmen with fewer qualifications than I, as my dead-eyed stare meets theirs at 8am, passing them their sugar-laden lattes, secure in the knowledge that ahead of me is a fulfilling day of preparing refreshments for the well-heeled mercantile classes, OAPs who have no idea what an americano or a flat white might be, and the window washers and labourers who pronounce “latte” with no t’s. Clearing up the coffee grounds, cardboard refuse and endless quantities of empty sugar sachets, I can’t help but somehow feel a sense of satisfaction. All those books at university, all those all-nighters killing myself to get a good degree, and all that unpaid and voluntary work has led to this: preparing skinny-decaf-half-shot-suger-free-caramel-lattes, processing payments through the till standing stock still for hours at a time, carrying bags of rubbish and emptying plastic bin-liners while strange and unidentifiable liquids seep onto my shoes.

It’s good to be employed.

 

How to get a job at Costa, by Josh Adcock


esther mcvey costaJosh Adcock is an obedient chap, so when Esther McVey told him and other graduates to “get a job at Costa“, he obliged. So Josh is now one of the overqualified Costa  baristas, taking an unskilled job from the unskilled while the job he wants is done by an overworked and understaffed team somewhere. Josh has agreed to share with us how he managed to land the fantastic opportunity.

By Josh Adcock

The news is in. The economy is in recovery. The economy officially grew by 0.8% in the first quarter of 2014 (huzzah! All hail George Osborne!). The government has confirmed that it will withhold JSA from anyone who has been unemployed for more then two years who does not attend a jobseekers’ meeting every single day, the ungrateful sods. This seems perfectly reasonable, if you consider how much revenue all the privatised bus and train companies have lost, up until now, in the potential ticket sales lost from jobless, feckless, scroungers going in to the job centre only once every two weeks.

Jobseekers will also be obliged to take job offers with zero-hours contracts, lest they feel the righteous fury of the taxpayer, the treasury, and the employed, and thereby lose their precious £56 per week. The solution? Get a job, scum. And why not get a job with a company which can soak up all of you benefits-subsisting jobseekers: Costa.

The caffeine giant now opens three new stores every week, and there are now so many that surely the only reason anyone could possibly have for not being employed is their own inherent laziness, or an inexplicable aversion to lattes. Even you, proud graduates, rather than holding out for a graduate-level job which would make use of the skills and knowledge you gained in those three booze and lecture-filled years, should find a low-paid caffeine distribution function, instead of blaming the government for your dire predicament.

Unlike all the jobseekers with their heads in the clouds, I have submitted to the call of the coalition, and have forsaken all hopes of a quick ascension on the graduate career ladder. I am a graduate, and I am a Costa Coffee Barista. I am here to guide you through the world of under-employment, in the hopes that you shall answer the call of Employment Minister Esther McVey, and follow in my footsteps.

My journey began with the Job Centre. As a self-respecting individual, I wanted to get off the JSA. Not because I found the £56 per week insufficient. Not because I found the fortnightly meetings demeaning. No. Not that, at all. I was ashamed to be subsisting on the tax-payer, an evil visited on us by socialists and beard-stroking intellectuals. I heard that vacancies would soon be opening up at one of the Costas in town, so I spoke to the manager, and my journey began. First I undertook a trial shift. It seemed to go well. Then, I waited for the phone call, which came two days later.

It went something like this:

“Hello? Yes, this is the manager, we thought you did very well on your trial shift, and we’d like to give you the job.”

“Woohoo! When do I start?”

“The end of the week.”

The next day:

“Hello? This is the manager at Costa. I’m afraid we made a mistake. We already hired someone else for the position I called you about yesterday. Very sorry. Go away and live your miserable little life somewhere far from my sight, you puny worm.”

The last part may have been distorted in my memory: I can’t imagine any benevolent employer saying something like that, so I must have imagined it in my jobseeker mindset. I was, needless to say, disappointed that I had not proven myself worthy to leave the benefits system. But, undeterred, I left a message with the manager, begging to know if something came up. The manager called again a week later, to say that a third person was now required. So I had a job. An honest-to-God job, three years after starting university, in a privately owned, highly profitable business, on an hourly wage just a smidgen over the legal minimum, but one which pays about as much in one shift as JSA pays in a week. Why did I not tell them to stuff their job up their metaphorical coffee grinder? I wanted to get off JSA, I wanted to pay off my student overdraft and I wanted to learn to drive, and to do that I had to swallow my pride. So I started the following Friday.

Anyone who wants a low-paid job with Costa or similar need only swallow any pride they still have and be willing to beg for a job. And there are plenty of jobs going with Costa. At least, plenty going for those with the right experience: I must admit that we often get inadequate individuals coming into our store asking about vacancies, handing in their grubby little CVs. Sadly, most of them sit on a shelf for several months before being forgotten about and eventually buried in paperwork or, I would presume, eventually being thrown out. Most of these people are woefully under-qualified for a job pouring liquids from one container to another, heating liquids and moving chairs, tables, and boxes of solids-soon-to-become-liquids: degrees in art, business, finance, tourism, hospitality, work experience at TV production studios, restaurants, fashion retailers and so on, all turn up sooner or later. Yet none of these people seem to understand, for some reason, that if you don’t have several years of experience in a public-facing role in a shop, restaurant, pub or cafe involving interacting with customers and working shop, then you’re just not worthy of earning just above minimum wage.

Still, none of that should be a barrier to getting a job: I got a job with Costa, so I can only conclude that people choose to not have the right experience. Although it actually wasn’t that easy for me; but that’s obviously down to bad luck and my own incompetence, and is not due to any systematic flaw in the jobs market or professional incompetency on the part of employers, anywhere, ever. It’s all the jobseekers fault. Forever. Praise Cameron that I’m no longer one of them.

 

Jobless? Here’s what you’re missing: meaningless titles

“I’m team leader”. A classic argument between Tim and Gareth in The Office over whether or not titles like this – often with tedious extra responsibilities yet no pay rise or perks – actually mean anything. (Spoiler: no. No they don’t. “It’s a title someone’s given you to get you to do something they don’t want to do – for free.”)

Grad Scheming (13): Labour’s Big Idea for JSA – a translation

Grad Scheming

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Grad Scheming (12): “They want your jobs”

Grad Scheming

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