Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Staying Worthy While Jobless

The question of employability has become something of a hot button issue with Singapore’s formidable army of keyboard warriors, thanks to a member of the ruling party referring to Dr. Chee Soon Juan, one of the more prominent members of the political opposition as being “worthless” because he was “jobless.”

You could say I am either the best or worst person to write something about this because I’ve been jobless and worthless for a long time. I spent the better part of a decade being in and out of formal employment. I remember PN Balji, the founding editor of the Today newspaper, advising me to stop wasting time looking for a formal job as I had reached my early thirties and been able to sit in a job for anything more than a year.

A decade later, I’ve now managed to overcome that big gap in my CV by holding down not one but two jobs for more than two-years. Ironically, while I was unable to hold down a job in PR, the industry that I’m best qualified and even described as a little talented in, my two jobs are in fields where I am either overqualified for (waiter) and not qualified at all (insolvency). 

The steady career that everyone thought I’d have has been (based on the fact that I went to school in “England”) never quite materialized but somehow it has been put me in the unique position of being able to talk about all sorts of topics that everyone wants to talk about but no one actually wants to be.

Let’s go back to the comments about Dr Chee. I’m not a fan of the man but I do acknowledge that he has been unfairly treated and in this day and age of a more restless electorate, he may actually get into power one of these days.

I also look at the comment that “he is worthless because he is jobless.” The surface level, the meaning of the comments are obvious – Dr. Chee is officially a worthless shit because he’s not held a steady job for I don’t know how long. It’s implied that Dr. Chee is has just mooched off everyone else and now wants to mooch of the State aka you and me the tax payer.

I’m going to leave Dr. Chee’s situation to my fellow bloggers, but I will say that being jobless can make someone feel useless. For anyone who has been jobless for more than a year and known to be jobless, you find that people look at you differently and sooner or later you start to think of yourself in the same way that everyone sees you – useless and helpless.

A job, as they say, is more than just a means of making a living. As well as being the thing that brings in your monthly pay cheque, a job reflects you as a person and where you’re supposed to stand in society. This is especially true in status conscious Asia (not that Westerners are immune from status consciousness but the disease is especially strong amongst Asians). Universities and other educational institutions adore Asians because Asians as a rule will throw money at educational institutions and ensure their kids don’t cause problems all in the hope of the kid getting a “respectable” job and therefore becoming respectable people in society.

The social nature of having a job is such that my jobless friends have invented themselves as “life coaches.” In return for buying them dinner or a pack of smokes, they will gladly advise you on how to handle your career but selling stories from the careers that they had or in some cases, thought they had. It’s what they call the great social trade off. If the rest of us are trying to sell time for money, the jobless, especially the long term jobless sell stories for food, drink and top ups for all of life’s other basic necessities.

When they can’t sell you stories about their past, the long term jobless will then hide and disappear from the scene. – Why does anyone want to be seen in places where one is not particularly well thought off?

So how does one get out of this feeling of worthlessness? I guess the key here is to define who exactly are you worthless to? I know a friend who has taken his time out to be with his wife and kids. Another one takes time out to be with his elderly parents. In that sense these two have found people they can be worth something to.

Then, the next step is being able to find an income of sorts. While nobody expects you to be a millionaire, it’s generally expected that you have the ability to pick up a round of drinks once in a while. If you’re jobless and not making money, you avoid situations where you have to pull out your wallet. Having an income, even if it’s a miniscule one, helps you to stay in circulation by putting you in a position where you actually can afford to pick up a round or two.

For me, I kept myself in circulation by inventing myself as a freelancer. I tried to pick up a bit of work here and a bit of work there. Didn’t make much money at first but I could afford to travel around by MRT and I could afford to have a beer or two.

Later on, I was lucky enough to find a way of attracting some high profile clients like the Saudi Embassy and GE Commercial Finance. GE refused to write a cheque to an individual and so I had to set up a business with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) and therefore could claim that I was a consultant (Dad calls it’s the fancy way of saying no one will offer you a job) with my own consultancy.

The only downside with freelancing is that it is next to impossible to save money because when you make money, it tends to go quickly because you got to tide over for the periods when you don’t have any jobs coming in. I only really got to keep money when I started working the night job at the restaurant and had a small income that paid my running expenses while I fished for bigger income from PR projects.

The key here is staying in circulation. Having a job gives one self-worth and an income. However, in this day and age where job security doesn’t really exists, you got to find ways of staying relevant, especially during the periods when you are likely to be out of a job.

Never go into hibernation for example. Hibernation only works if you are a bear and if you have the reputation of a superstar.  Most of us need to stay in circulation. The late Lee Kuan Yew described man as being a social animal that needs to be surrounded by his fellow man. Staying in circulation creates circumstances where we get find our next meal.

Being jobless can make you worthless but it’s not the end of the world unless you want it to be. There are ways of staying alive and one merely has to open ones’ imagination.  I was jobless when I tried to get into the area that everyone thought I could be a star. I stopped being jobless when I crossed industries, taking the skills I learnt from the industry I thought I was meant for and doing elsewhere.

It’s not that I’m special; I merely refused to believe I was worthless because the alternative was worse. Just because you don’t have a steady job, you don’t have to be worthless unless you chose to be. 

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