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Unemployment is no fun at the best of times, but it's particularly strange during a pandemic

The Guardian logo The Guardian 30/06/2020 Deirdre Fidge
a woman sitting at a table in front of a building: Photograph: Alamy © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Alamy

One morning recently, my day began like every other: I pulled back the curtains, made a strong cup of coffee, and looked for work. This has been my ritual since March. I logged on to the government Jobactive website and saw the following jobs suggested for me: Portuguese-speaking chef, experienced steel fabricator, and tennis coach.

I’ve now been out of work for over three months after my workplace shut down due to restrictions – freelance work, too, has dried up due to budget constraints or publications closing.

By now, I’m considering everything. After seeing these jobs, that curious part of my brain wondered if I could bluff my way into any of them. I’ve been to Portugal! I played tennis in high school! And I … know what steel is!

Related: Covid-19 recession causing job losses in older workers and housing stress in young

A friend suggested a Mrs Doubtfire situation, with me running between jobs and hastily changing outfits. I imagined backhanding Portuguese tarts in a steel factory. Although this did appeal to me, especially as I could work in a Benny Hill-style nudie run at the end, it seemed that the right thing to do was not waste anybody’s time. (Besides, who wants to be around a tennis club when a rogue Novak Djokovic could start a covid conga line at any given moment?)

Unemployment is no fun at the best of times, but it’s a particularly strange experience during a pandemic. In April, I searched every job site online to cross-reference, and despite my degrees and work experience in several different industries, only fit the bill for three jobs. I’ve joined Facebook groups for local job listings and witnessed posts less than 30 minutes old have their comments turned off because they received hundreds of messages from applicants.

My anxiety has even taken me to the deepest, darkest, most disturbing corner of the internet … LinkedIn. A place where businessmen named Chad smile at me with their unnervingly white teeth and soulless eyes, urging me to buy their eBook titled Sharks Never Sleep: 8 Hacks For Business And Success We Can Learn From Great Whites.

As restrictions ease, more jobs are being advertised, but even formerly entry-level gigs like casual hospitality or data entry roles require 3+ years of experience. I’m just one of thousands of applicants constantly rereading cover letters in the same way one would reread a post-date text message ... hoping I don’t sound too desperate.

I’m anxious most days, and expect to be; I believe this ever-present dread of uncertainty is normal. But what has been surprising is the level to which I’ve internalised the “get back to work, you lazy idiot” subtext I hear during commentary of unemployment. Despite knowing the complexities of unemployment and related issues, and belief that a person’s worth is not dependent on a job, the messaging that ‘self-worth = productivity’ is so bloody powerful that most days I feel worthless.

Related: Federal government believes jobseeker rate could be putting people off work

It really shouldn’t have surprised me. I’ve worked in the community with people applying for jobs after a sleepless night at a boarding house. Or people accessing treatment for mental illness or substance use issues only to be labelled a “bludger”. Young people fleeing violence applying for private rentals knowing the real estate agent isn’t going to grant a lease to a teenager on youth allowance. I’ve seen these attitudes and systems destroy hope in people who desperately need support.

Today, I am just another person feeling useless and guilty for … what, exactly? Existing in a world where even prior to Covid-19, underemployment and increased casualisation of workplaces were a concern? For benefiting from the coronavirus supplement in an admission that the typical jobseeker rate is not enough to live off? Despite knowing this intellectually, it remains an ongoing challenge to resist feeling like a failure. But I’m not – and neither is anyone who was unemployed prior to March 2020.

a woman sitting at a table in front of a building: ‘Despite my degrees and work experience in several different industries, I only fit the bill for three jobs,’ writes Deirdre Fidge on looking for work in a pandemic. © Photograph: Alamy ‘Despite my degrees and work experience in several different industries, I only fit the bill for three jobs,’ writes Deirdre Fidge on looking for work in a pandemic.

As numbers increase and related issues arise, I wonder if any good will come from this (it’s still early days for 2020, I know) – strength in numbers could be key. We can hope for more empathy. We can aspire for equity. We can advocate for meaningful, inclusive and long-lasting change.

And as for me? Perhaps I’ll look up what a steel fabricator actually does … or maybe I’ll take the afternoon off.

• Deirdre Fidge is a writer whose work has appeared on ABC News, SBS, the Sydney Morning Herald, Frankie magazine and television’s Get Krackin

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