As a freelance journalist, when my main employer of four years called to say they were dispensing with my services without any prior warning, I was shocked but exhilarated. With my skills, I reasoned, it wouldn’t be long before I found a far more attractive job with better conditions and perhaps even holiday and perhaps even sick pay.
Luckily our summer holiday in the US was all paid for; with money I’d put aside, I estimated I wouldn’t need to work full-time until September. As there was no particular rush, I spent a couple of weeks firing off CVs, not particularly expecting much of a response, but more to test the water.
When an employment agency informed me there was work at a local authority on the edge of London I was reluctant – the money wasn’t great and it was a long commute – but nevertheless I said I’d be happy to have my name put forward. The agency told me the head of comms would call me on a certain afternoon at 1pm, and not to make other plans.
On the afternoon in question I waited, and waited – and then had a call, from the agency, asking how the interview had gone. ‘She didn’t call’, I informed the agency. They apologised and contacted the authority, and I was told the head of comms had been too busy to call but would call the next day at one.
Again I waited, and waited. At three thirty, gathering there would be no call, I informed the agency who again apologised. She’d been too busy to call – and, apparently, too busy to ask someone to let me know. I explained to the agency I didn’t relish the prospect of working for someone with such appalling people skills, and to keep me informed of other posts.
In the meantime, I had an interview to be head of comms of a well-regarded think tank. The interview went pretty well (or so I thought), and so I went home and waited. And waited. After 12 days, having heard nothing, I emailed to say I was assuming I hadn’t got the job. Right first time, they said. Apparently the fact I’d made it across London as Westminster was in lockdown, waited almost an hour because they were late, then spent some time in an interview, didn’t entitle me to anything so grand as a response.
My CVs were still being fired off into the ether, to companies all over the world and across the UK, many of them jobs I didn’t particularly want but I thought I might at least get a reply. I estimate that I got responses from one in ten employers. One who DID email told me I was ‘evidently over-qualified’ for the position, which was nice of them – I’d only applied because it was a freelance role.
As someone once employed as a recruitment ad copywriter, I became something of an expert in reading between the lines of recruitment ads. ‘First jobber’ = £18,000 PA. ‘Recent graduate’ = intern. ‘Remote working’ = we can’t afford an office. ‘CMS expert’ = you know how to type into forms. ‘SEO literate’ = you know to make the subject of an article a key word.
The agency asked me to come in and register – again – which I did, and I was told they had a couple of positions that were right up my street (in one case, literally). I waited, waited – and heard nothing. The local authorities in question were notorious at getting back, explained the agency. So, that was alright then.
By now I was beginning to eat into our holiday fund, and becoming increasingly concerned. In desperation, I applied for a reporting role at a well-known news agency (which shall remain nameless). The post was in Washington but they had a vacancy at their London office – was I interested? I was. I went along, endured a tough geo-political quiz and grilling, and was offered a trial period.
Before starting the trial run, I enquired as to the daily rates. No reply was forthcoming. The trial date drew nearer – I enquired again. Finally, less than a week before I was due to start, I had an email. The trial period was unpaid, I was informed. If successful, I would then be offered regular work.
Now, I’m possibly deluded, but I’d hoped that my previous experience – four years in a similar role as a breaking news reporter, almost thirty writing features for the nationals, novels published, supplement spreads, being grilled by Eddie Mair on Radio 4 – might demonstrate I had a certain level of ability, and didn’t represent much of a risk. Apparently, I was wrong. I informed the company I refused to work for nothing, and that was that: back to firing off CVs.
Increasingly it’s dawning on me that I’m in a somewhat precarious position: I’m fifty, and to all intents and purposes unemployed. I continue to write books, but the royalties received wouldn’t cover my beer money, let alone the rent. Perhaps I’m being discriminated against because of my age; if that’s the case, I would suggest it’s not so much because I’m physically or mentally unable to do the job – more because I refuse to be treated like a mug.
We are living, it is said, in an age of unparalleled job growth, with more new positions being created than ever before. But perhaps we should be concerned about the quality of these new jobs as much as quantity. What proportion are zero hours, low-paid, part-time, insecure? Or is job security all in the past? I’m old enough to recall when at least SOME employers invested in staff, treating potential employees as human beings. Maybe that’s my problem: I’m old enough to remember when employers demonstrated a little loyalty and efficiency as well as demanding it in return.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.