Get On Your Bike

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Random street scene, Henley-on-Thames

Job Centres were government-operated employment agencies intended to help people find gainful work instead of spending their days watching telly while sponging off the dole. At least, such was the image of their unemployed compatriots entertained by many supporters of Margaret Thatcher, prime minister at the time. Her cabinet ministers (well, some of them) were less dismissive regarding the plight of their jobless constituents. There were jobs out there, they insisted; you just had to put some effort into finding one. “Get on your bike” became an oft-heard exhortation after Norman Tebbit, Secretary of State for Employment, told attendees at the Conservative Party Conference in 1981 that he’d grown up in the 1930s with an unemployed father. “He didn’t riot,” Tebbit said; “he got on his bike and looked for work and he kept looking ‘til he found it.”

The Job Centre certainly made it more convenient to find employment. But I would have found a job with or without it. I was raised by parents who, despite the haziness of their hippie years, impressed on me the importance of hard work and self-reliance. At the same time, they also supported the provision of social services and safety nets, knowing that things can go wrong for anyone, despite diligent work and the best-laid plans.

My friend Beatrice, on the other hand, had graduated from Cambridge with a degree in drama. Finding herself unable to secure paid employment in her field, she didn’t hesitate to sign up for the dole. “But surely you could get a job at a sandwich shop, or cleaning houses?” I offered, shocked that this bright, resourceful, relatively well-off friend had sought government assistance.

“If I take a job unrelated to my area of expertise it will count against me the next time I apply at a theatre,” she explained over Lapsang Souchong in her cozy London flat. Seeing my stunned expression, she added that taking just any job “would suggest that I’m not serious about my profession.”–Excerpted from Making Things Work by Nancy Hiller

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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11 Responses to Get On Your Bike

  1. jfthomas70 says:

    Sounds like a bunch of people I have met.

    It is okay for them to sit on their duff while work and pay for their lifestyle.

    Maybe they should volunteer to work for free in their field an get experiance while not working!

    • I’m a laid off apprentice cabinetmaker. If I take a job outside my industry, I lose the apprenticeship. It’s better for me to wait out the two months till the shop starts up again. Free labor won’t count towards my apprenticeship hours, and I still have tool expenses. Free labor also plays havoc with WCB and insurance.

      • nrhiller says:

        I feel for you, Patrick. That’s a challenging spot to be in. I can’t imagine anyone not empathizing. (Forgive the US spelling.) Here’s hoping your shop will start up again very soon.

  2. Don Knott says:

    I simply MUST know whatever became of the tea-sipping Beatrice. Please!

  3. Iain Perkin says:

    Beatrice likely thinks she was the cream of the unemployed when it appears she was the dregs. Healthy able people who choose not to work and still collect give the unemployed a bad reputation.

  4. Don Schwartz says:

    If you can’t find work in your area of expertise, and here’s no related job you could take while you continue looking, it would be better to avoid accepting anything that comes along because, in the eyes of a future employer, you aren’t good enough, and you’re a quitter, who gave up the search and accepted failure. Better to keep looking for an appropriate position – if you can afford to!

  5. charlie says:

    Good on Beatrice.

  6. POster says:

    So as an employer would you hire Beatrice or her fellow graduate that hustled her butt working at any paying job”

  7. It is NOT true as categorically stated in this bigoted, right wing piece that the unemployed are just lazy. There are not enough jobs here despite Government crowing. The figures just look good because so many are on zero hours, part time work or unprofitably self employed.

    Much seasonal immigrant labour is living in disgusting conditions because they expect to return home within the year. They soak up many jobs particularly in the countryside.

    The British economy is NOT in a healthy state. Virtualy zero growth for years and a lot of “wealth” built on house price inflation so money for no work – a very sick economy. The work force have been blamed for being inefficient. The real reason is that labour is so cheap that money can invest in low added value enterprises and still make money from it. Mrs. Handbag and her cronies destroyed much of Britains hi tech industry with its hugely larger profits when she devastated our Universities in the early 1980s. Now there are university lecturers who are not allowed to carry out research!!!!!! – just teach. The prime purpose of universities is research the secondary is teaching.

    I didn’t expect to find Mr.Trump on these pages and I hope we do not return as wood smoothing is my hobby that I would prefer not to be mixed with politics particularly with the ill informed prejudices of sandy haired wig wearers. I can handle C.S’s anarchy because it is an interesting idea but not this claptrap.

    • nrhiller says:

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comment. This excerpt is part of the introduction to a (true) story in my book, Making Things Work. It’s not intended as political commentary, but as ironic and self-deprecating social observation by an outsider who was 27 at the time. The events alluded to in this excerpt took place in 1987.

      Were the piece intended to be read as you have read it, I could not have posted it on the Lost Art Press site, because Chris explicitly prohibits political discussion here, and I have great respect for his perspective on the matter. I imagine you and I both grasp that when you get right down to it, nothing in the realm of human activity is entirely free from political import, and I have dipped my toes deep enough into the writings of Paul Ricoeur to understand that my intention as the author of this piece is ultimately irrelevant to how the piece may be interpreted by readers. Your comment and several others on this post, all of which I appreciate, corroborate Ricoeur’s position on authorial intention (at least, insofar as I can claim to have understood him; reading him is, for me, a slog). There is more nuance in the story and the book as a whole than may be apparent in a cursory reading.

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