x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

As downturn digs in, jobless feel cornered by debt

The View from Here: In this dark economic climate, the unemployed struggle to keep their spirits up as they make difficult financial choices.

A while ago, I attended a dinner with an industrial psychologist who helped to hunt scalps for blue-chip listed companies. A question always given to candidates, he said, was "is family life important to you?"

The correct answer was no.

"Clients don't want to hire a guy who will run home every time his kid has a runny nose," he said, wiping away soup from his fleshy lips. "They must be ready to work weekends and long days."

I found it hard to believe anyone would say anything but yes. But, apparently, there were many who indeed answered "no".

"These are the candidates who know how the game is played," he explained. "They might be lying. Maybe their families are the most important thing in their lives. But that's not the point. If they are smart enough to figure out the correct answer, then they are smart enough for the position."

This was pre-recession, and he was talking about the bloodless elite who run the corporations that run our lives. But I suspect his sentiments are now widespread in a job market that has far, far more seekers than those doing the seeking.

A casual troll through the blogosphere reveals just how desperate the situation is out there. "Out of full-time work since July 2009, can't even tell you how many resumes I have submitted and all I receive back is spam or scammers," wrote an anonymous forum poster this week.

"I have called, e-mailed and sent in resumes to over 50 companies," wrote another. "Not a single reply. I honestly am trying to get a part-time job at a grocery store. They don't hire full time. No one is hiring full time."

Blue-collar workers and much of the middle class are bearing the brunt of this. What's becoming depressingly clear is that a great many of the lost jobs are never coming back.

We know who to blame for this - or at least we think we do: those Asians who will toil in sweatshops for very little. And employers who blackmail, with the threat of downsizing, employees into doing the work of five people for the wage of an elderly tea lady.

These are easy targets and perhaps they do explain some of what has happened. Still, I can't help thinking there's another, deeper issue at play here. For years, we were told the path to middle-class security was a good education, such as a university degree. For the sacrifice of three or four years, during which we did the obligatory hours in the library, we came away desirable to employers.

And for a long time, it worked. Professionals trudged to work each day, overpriced coffee in hand, ready to embrace their hours in the cubicle.

But what the professional training ground did not prepare us for was the Black Swan event - the catastrophic changing of everything.

There was a time when "waiter" was synonymous with being an out-of-work actor. Today, the long-haired guy with a surly attitude who leaves a thumbprint on your steak could just as well be a journalist or engineer.

It used to be that we would gather up policies - pension and life assurance. But as the many newly unemployed know, these are the first to lapse once the paycheque stops.

There are a few survival strategies we can put in place. The first is to get rid of all unnecessary debt. Especially credit-card debt. This is the most expensive form of credit and, therefore, the least useful.

Mortgage debt is harder to dispose of, but the cheapest over the long term, and at least is payment against a fixed asset.

Live below your means. This means spending less of your salary than you think you need to. It means putting off upgrading cars, TVs and other expensive household equipment. Vacations become staycations.

Anyone who is newly unemployed will tell you that their single biggest burden is staring up at the mountain of debt and knowing there's no way to make payments.

All indications are that interest rates are poised to rise, globally, so the cost of debt is only going to get worse.

There's no disgrace in being jobless in the current environment. But with a little foresight, it is possible to make the pain of becoming a reluctant couch surfer less painful that it could be.


Gavin du Venage is a business writer and entrepreneur based in South Africa.