Monday, June 25, 2012

Looking Back On Unemployment (Punk Rock Style)


And now and then when I'm in the mood
I might get up at the crack of noon
Then take a wander down to the arcade
Might as well clock up a great high score

For better or worse, Americans have long defined themselves through their jobs.  As that guy on "The Honeymooners" can attest, our identities come from being known as the providers, whether it's as the head of a household, or the "better half" of a couple. To entertain other notions gets you in trouble; during my college days,  my father would get irritable, because I'd never ask what my friends did...or planned on doing...with their lives.  "But, Dad," I'd say, "that's like asking somebody, 'What's your sign?'  There's more to life than work..." 

Naturally, Dear Old Dad would roll his eyes, and scoff, having worked for much of his life.  As we all know, however, a lot of folks are getting more time on their hands lately -- like it, or not. According to a June 21 article in the Washington Post, unemplyoment applications are holding steady, at around 387,000 altogether (give or take). The nation's unemployment rate hovers stubbornly at around 8.2 percent, but might dip to 8.0 percent, according to the minds at the Fed.

If you don't mind, I've decided to live my life
Well, it's always something to do
My girl comes round and all we do is talk
For hours on end, or we don't talk at all
While we more, or less, as we please

Mind you, that's the best case scneario.  If that's the best, who wants to stick around for the worst?  The Washington Post's article also mentions another interesting statistic: consumer spending fuels roughly 70 percent of the economy.  While the recent gas price dips may help people feel a bit less pinched -- within the last three weeks, our area has seen a decline from roughly $3.75 to $3.46 -- it's safe to say that nobody's banging the pom poms just yet.

Given this current downward spiral, does it even make sense anymore for people define themselves by what they do for a living?  Having lost three jobs in the last decade, I know the drill. Though I never defined myself through a job (too punk rock for that, sorry!), each swing of the layoff scythe made me wonder what the point had been.

What meaning could the latest job have, I'd ask myself, if my livelihood could be destroyed so easily -- to be crushed and tossed aside like a $2 paperweight from your friendly neighborhood airport gift shop? In that split-second gut-kick, I could feel myself go from Provider to Nonperson overnight.  No more fripperies like health insurance and low copays, let alone steady income (which is always welcome, no matter how crappily you're paid -- don't let anybody tell you different!).

Some of you have got it in for me
I don't need that or your sympathy
So I have no job, welcome to the whole week

I'm not rerunning the movie in my head as much nowadays, but that nagging feeling of being sold a bill of goods (What...Was...The...Point...Of It All?) has never completely gone away, either.  That's why I like this song, "Welcome To The Whole Week," from Stiff Little Fingers.  When this song came out in 1983, there were roughly three million Brits out of work as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pursued her single-minded monetarist vision...the populace be damned, if they didn't happen to agree.

This lyric -- of which I've quoted portions above -- is brilliant, for two reasons. First, it turns the whole idea of feeling guilty about being jobless on its head. As the narrator who gets up "at the crack of nation" makes clear, he's not going to waste time feeling that way, when he can finally do things that make his life tolerable (his girlfriend, his LPs and the local pub).

By implication, he also deson't feel any stake in a system bent on denying his humanity, let alone his existence ("I never said that this was my ideal/But still I'm gonna feel and make it real/So I have no job, welcome to the whole week")...but that's OK, because he's decided that he should be as happy as anybody else.  In a society stuck on test-driving the hoary conceit of trickle-down economics...that's pretty powerful stuff.

Ironically, I never actually heard this song until recently -- as it's tucked away on Now Then (1983), which remains largely unheralded...presumably because the band called it quits shortly after its release (that is, until the first of many reformations kicked off in 1987).  The kitschy early Mac-style computer graphic cover doesn't hhelp matters, either. 

Hearing these sentiments when I lost the latest job would definitely have bought some comfort, if not a smile...because the absurdity of investing your identity around your career would become apparent in a heartbeat.  You'd realize that you were trapped on some eternal midway, where the carnies run thicker than flies, and there's always a gangling six-foot-tall goon with meth mouth to point out the marks, and hit on their weaknesses with all the subtlety of a flying mallet.


Maybe someone will convince Stiff Little Fingers to reissue "Welcome To The Whole Week" for the U.S, where there's 12.7 million people living in enforced idleness right now...at least there's plenty of company, right? The more things change...the more they stay the same.

I never promised you I'd go away
You can't ignore me cos I'm here to stay
So it's too bad, let me at the whole week-

-The Reckoner