TERRY PRONE: As the dole queue grows, so does the despondency and depression

GREEN shoots? I have them.

Undaunted by the snow or the fact that the soil was frozen solid for weeks, the daffodils are poking their heads up, ready for ostentatious action, if another freeze doesn’t choke the life out of them. In business, too, the signs of green shoots are timidly evident. The statistics carry a little comfort, a tiny promise.

But the dole queues are as long as ever, and may lengthen in the coming year. Some months ago, in this column, I wrote about a highly-educated, highly-qualified woman made redundant by a company in trouble. She is unique. But she’s also typical of a generation of bright sparks who never, ever imagined they would queue for welfare payments, and for whom the experience is a chronic trauma.

Responding to readers who wanted to know how she was doing, I telephoned her this week. Any luck getting a job? The silence indicated self-control: on what planet was I living? She’s still on welfare payments. Still experiencing the varied personal service delivered by the public servants who hand them out.

“Some people in social welfare are lovely, smartly dressed, professional and respectful,” she told me. “Others, less so. There is one man in particular who I always hope I’ll get but I rarely do. He doesn’t wear a tie but he’s always so polite and helpful.”

Too often, she says, she gets the woman she describes as “Miss greasy-hair-screwed-back-into-a-ponytail, with stomach-turning nailpads – no actual nails detectable with the human eye”. Miss Greasy Hair wears a multicoloured hoodie and “manky, knobbly, grey tracksuit bottoms which could do with a go on a 70 degree wash”.

It’s one of the lines of conversation in the queue, with a general yearning expressed for the introduction of a dress code within the Department of Social and Family Affairs: ties for the men, smart attire for the woman.

“It might suggest a certain level of professionalism and respect not just for their clients but for themselves. It’s hard to understand how this woman-of-the-tracksuit and vile hoodie would show up to work WORKING WITH THE PUBLIC looking like this,” the dole queuer shrieks. “But it’s something else entirely that she is allowed to do so. Plus, she has zero social skills. Therefore, some training in how to deal with people at the other side of the hatch would be good.”

The queuer, and her colleagues, have become acutely aware of how their misery is mitigated by the good days at Fás where the interviewers are professional, empathetic and eminently respectful of nothing more than the humanity they share with their customers.

The misery is profound. And growing. Some of the people in the dole queues are barely hanging on. The mortgages are paid – for now. But soon, very soon, that’s going to be too difficult.

Middle-aged, middle-class former executives who never extended their finances to include a hot tub, a Merc or a holiday home in Spain or Croatia or Orlando undoubtedly bought into the dream. But the one they bought into was not the one of vulgar display peppered with brand names. They dreamed the generational dream passed on like DNA in this country: you should always own your own home, rather than rent. Therein, it was always believed, lay self-respect, commitment to the future and security.

Now, in the dole queue, the folk who bought into that tradition share the unspoken dread of being turfed out of the house the value of which has dropped by as much as a third, but the mortgage on which stays the same.

“Will we band together to help our neighbours when the time comes for their eviction?” wonders the woman who stands among them each week. “Will it be back to the Famine and the line drawings in our old history books of the neighbours coming round to beat back the men who came to tear off the thatch and throw the pathetic belongings in the field outside? This time, it’ll be recorded on mobiles and uploaded on YouTube.”

The routine, for this woman and others, was varied in the past couple of weeks by the arrival of a letter from the department.

“I got mine last week,” she told me. “It’s a beaut. The National Action Plan for Employment is herding the ‘unemployed under-65s’ to Fás, to be given ‘guidance on how to secure employment, be offered support in order to explore opportunities such as job vacancies and training courses’ and the chance to ‘discuss the range of options open to you’.

“Now, the fact is that we are already registered with Fás, have paid for Fás through our erstwhile taxes, and that this is what the very purpose of Fás was. So what’s the purpose of the letter telling us the bleeding obvious? I believe it’s not that something needs to be done, but that something needs to be SEEN to be done. More people on training courses, fewer on the live register.”

She sees it as merely a Government face-saving gesture and is infuriated by the fact that nobody bothered to proof read it.

“The clanger ‘advice on preparation of CV’s’ [sic] is bad, but that someone higher up the public-service food chain didn’t notice or correct it, is appalling.”

The letter also – strangely – promises “access to free telephones and newspapers where available”. It doesn’t specify which Fás offices operate without telephones or lack the capacity to pick up a couple of papers.

According to this woman, dole days get worse, not better, with the regulars looking more and more despondent, beaten and worn as what they assumed would be a horrible temporary pothole in their career path turns permanent.

“I imagine their homes are like ours. Long silences. Sore eyes. No sleep. Then waking up at five, crippled, drooling in front of the telly, with euro news blaring. Dread of the arrival of the post because, inevitably, it will include a bill. Or a reminder that a bill was issued weeks ago.”

She assumes the others in the queue have the circular conversations that rattle fruitlessly around her house: “What’s ahead of us? What’ll we do with the bloody house? The furniture? The vegetable patch? The dog? The pet cemetery in the back corner? What’ll happen to the children? Should we go to another country and start over?”

10 or 15 years ago, she and her partner might have emigrated in a spirit of defiant expectation. At this point, they have an acute shortage of defiance and optimism.

“We did our bit, got our qualifications, paid our taxes. We’re weighed down with pain. And failure. And fear. And gigantic responsibilities. And grannies with or without dementia. We’re looking at extracting ourselves, without anaesthetic, from what we made and loved and cherished: a life. OUR life. A generation is being asked to commit amnesia.

“Amnesia, not just of who we are, but of who we expected, hoped to become.

“I guess we’ll have to take a leaf out of Social Welfare’s book and update our ‘CV’s’.”


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