I TOOK TO to running. I ran a lot – shaved nearly five minutes off my best time over seven kilometres. There was plenty of time to stride out on Sydney's Bay Run in the long winter of 2009. It was one of the things tenuously holding my days together. Each morning I waged an internal civil war just to get up. The tabs opened out across my web browser: news and email, and then the baton relay of Seek, MyCareer, CareerOne, JobSearch, JobsNSW and artsHub. I prodded the vacancy-page recesses of the ABC and SBS. It was less like a trawler dragging its net through a lonely sea than like visiting a row of mongers who sold only a few fresh fish every week, placed strategically atop the stinking pile they had spruiked for weeks. There you were, in a crush of five hundred people, all bidding for the same gleaming meagre catch.
After sending one or two applications – if I found something I was even remotely suited to – it was time to don my paint-speckled shorts and an old T-shirt, and do my stretches. Around lunchtime I hit the tarmac in my worn Dunlop Volleys, finding my gait and settling into a rhythm, managing my breathing and my mind, holding focus, running along the water's edge at Iron Cove. The tide was out, but I was sure it would eventually come back in.
Australia's unemployment rate hit 5.8 per cent in October 2009. I'd followed it up there with my own weary eyes the previous eight months, ever since I was made redundant from my job of five years at Media Monitors. The Rate only ever registered peripherally while I was on a payroll. It was a number heard half out of earshot on a radio bulletin, a page five item in the newspaper, a screen graphic during the post-workday, pre-dinner catatonia through which I viewed the evening news. I did spare thoughts and best wishes for those suffering joblessness, but it still seemed like a trifling figure, a blip in the midst of Howardian prosperity. (If I'd been paying closer attention as recently as eight years ago, I would have realised it was not unusual for The Rate to hover around the 7 per cent mark.) I'd never struggled to land work and while, like most people, I had the peculiar mixture of resentment for my job and a lack of desire to leave it, I felt that if I needed to find something it wouldn't be too hard.
I knew the tide was turning: I'd watched the financial meltdown and concomitant jobs crisis unfold on news bulletins from my office desk. The problems of the world seemed intangible, to be reported on but not experienced. That was until the state manager asked me along for a quick chat.
It sat there on the meeting-room table, stark and crisp like the wing of a waterbird: a large white envelope, addressed to me. The manager invited me to take a seat. ‘How is everything?' he asked, closing the door.
Four weeks' notice. My body thrilled with conflicting emotions. I enjoyed the company of the people I worked with, but the work was unchallenging and had nothing in common with my life's aims. To be leaving was not the most awful thought. Perhaps I could finally pursue my writing career! Or at least shift to a new sector and meet head-on the challenges it offered. That I was servicing a mortgage on my own was perturbing: I would have to find a new job within weeks. But something would turn up. Surely.
The manager was talking, but I was in a swoon. His attempts to manage the fallout and offer me corporate counselling would have been funny if they weren't infuriating. When he showed me the payout figure, though, much of that fury evaporated. Walking out the door into the January sunshine, I was young, rich and free.
GALILEO PURPORTEDLY SAID that numbers are the language with which God has written the universe. In the months that followed, that January smile ebbing from my face, it was true that, at least in my universe, everything had devolved into numbers: a tumbling bank balance, and calculations as to how many months it could last; a credit card balance climbing in inverse proportion; mortgage repayments; bills and levies; deciding what meal to cook, based on how many servings I could wring from it; the frugal but very necessary pursuit of cleanskin wine in bulk at $2-per-bottle prices; kilometres over time; litres per kilometre. I came to know the true value of a dollar, the true length of an hour, a day, a week.
Among all these figures The Rate was the Number of the Beast. I paid it the hateful respect of an exorcist. I'd been initiated into this dark cult, and I wasn't alone. Several colleagues went out the door at the same time; since then, other friends have lost their jobs. They are all intelligent, literate people with training in such areas as computer technology, audiovisual editing and journalism. Some have picked up scraps of work, casual stints and contracts, while others have moved into new full-time roles after months of searching. One friend trained in architecture found a four-month stint as a postie; another, a writer and great wit, currently works in a factory.
I have valuable skills, qualifications and experience. But the value of something, my father told me as a child, is what somebody else is willing to pay for it. I revised my CV again and again; worked hard at cover letters I considered selling to literary journals, such was their spare lyricism. I read long hours of ‘how to improve your application' literature. What was missing? I could blame the economic climate, but perhaps the fault was mine, a fault of poor salesmanship. When it all seemed insoluble I could be found out on the running course, where everything was breath and heartbeat and the steady pounding of feet.
I never signed up for the dole. This was not a matter of pride so much as of hope, a belief that something was just around the corner. Nine months of corners later I was still jogging along with the same naive expectation.
AS WE TURNED into the home straight of 2009, the prevailing mood in Australia was of cautious optimism. Treasurer Wayne Swan spoke of the nation as an escapist of Houdini-like ability; we had ‘dodged a bullet,' in the words of almost every Australian financial reporter and subeditor, due to sound fiscal policy (and, let's face it, China's appetite for resources). Pundits and Opposition politicians were going so far as to declare the Global Financial Crisis over.
Post-mortems proclaimed the so-called worst economic crisis since the Great Depression to be nothing of the sort. ‘The economic downturn in Australia has been far less severe than in the early 1990s [and there is] evidence that the economy is already recovering,' then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull told the Menzies Lecture audience in October. The IMF concurred: Australia was on the up and up in its World Economic Outlook. Turnbull responded by calling for a reduction in government stimulus spending. The Rate hit that 5.8 per cent mark and flattened out, and there was much rejoicing in the streets – the Crisis was over!
Except that I – and many others – still could not get work. If the ‘shitstorm' had passed, everything was still covered in shit. As David Hetherington, from the independent think tank Per Capita, noted in an August 2009 interview on Radio National, while the financial crisis seemed to be passing ‘the problem is, the effects linger in the real economy for a very long time...the real danger is unemployment.'
Back in January, when news leaked around the office that my colleagues and I were dead people walking, there was much sympathy, some indignation and plenty of disbelief. We were consoled with the observation that ‘at least you can get out and enjoy the beach.' By December people were saying, ‘At least you can get out and enjoy the beach. After all, it's free.' They envied me still, these friends! They thought I had it made. A casual glance at their Facebook statuses: each Monday, they complained that it was Monday; each Wednesday, the end to this barbarism was in sight; each Friday, the celebrations began in earnest, fifty-one mini-New Year's Eves dotted across the calendar.
They didn't understand how much I envied them their moneyed and varied lives. It was too abstract for them to comprehend that days without routine and commitment are dull and fraught with worry. There is no spare money to do anything; free time is spent ridden with guilt that you're not job-hunting. This is no way to live. Their taking-for-granted got to me. ‘Would you like to swap?' I joked, my bitterness hidden. My days were cut from the same mould, with the same repertory of behaviour, the same rhythms. They were facsimile days, freighted with ennui and empty of self-belief.
I WAS FLAT-OUT landing an interview. The rejection emails slunk into my inbox several days a week: We thank you for your time in applying... We regret to inform you... Friends and family offered to take a look at my CV, or overflowed with well-meaning suggestions: ‘You should try being a lollipop man at work sites, just until things pick up'; or, ‘You can make fifty dollars a time writing those little descriptions of homes in the windows of real estate agents.' What price dreams? I had loftier aims. I was still confident that dream opportunity was around the corner.
Finally: a real, live human being on the phone wanting to schedule an interview. An interview! It was a junior writer role with a Fairfax title in Sydney. This development seemed to vindicate the latest bold revision of my CV: switching around the Education and Employment History sections. It struck me that this might well be the light at the end of the tunnel. The period of doubt and despond would all be worth it to land such a lucrative post with potential for career progression.
Despite having no formal journalism training, and having been selected as ‘wild card' on a shortlist of thirteen – from an applicant pool of 450 – I managed to progress to the final three. As strongly as I performed in the second interview, the outcome was inevitable; excitingly, though, the editors saw enough in me to offer some freelance work. I'd always wanted to work freelance, and had never had the gumption.
Let me state the obvious: freelance work can be sporadic. It's not a living, especially when you're just starting out. I knew this going in, and yet it was still a hard lesson to learn. I was determined not to let the opportunity slip, but I would have to find other work to supplement my writing.
In early December I began investigating how exactly you become a lollipop man, and worked on pitches for the lucrative real-estate-window-sales-blurbs market. At one interview, for a basic transcription role, the hirer said with genuine amazement that she just hadn't realised how bad it was out there for skilled workers. She'd received upwards of 150 expressions of interest for the two three-month typist roles she was seeking to fill. She was fielding enquiries from PhD holders, the young and the middle-aged, professionals, novelists, people with tertiary qualifications and the potential to be doing something lofty. We had come eagerly on a Saturday morning, a 40º early summer's day, in our jeans and dress shirts and long skirts, our hands slick with worry and heat. The hirer stressed to us all, caveat emptor, that it was ‘just typing' and the roles were temporary. ‘Sure, sure,' we all said, ‘that's fine.'
JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS, when I'd almost forgotten about it, I got the transcription job. It's extraordinary how nonplussed you can be at such momentous news when it's been so long coming. My overwhelming sense was of relief. The job was temporary, so perhaps it was temporary relief, but it was more than welcome. The starting date was late January, which meant a month or so more of leftovers and canned food.
Coming together with family and friends over the holiday, we were to a man and woman counting down the remaining days of a hard year. 2010 seemed to entice us all with its hopeful prospects. We projected onto it our dreams of recovery, our plans to develop our career, our yearning to travel when we had the means: unrealistic expectations, and unlikely to all be realised, but we felt we'd earned the right to have them.
Where would I have been without these people? I'm exceedingly fortunate to have their support, be it moral, emotional or financial. Yet not everyone has them. There are people I know, and others I will never meet, who are enduring the same travails right now, in the shadow of the Global Financial Crisis that commentators have consigned to history. To whom can they go, if not to people like mine?
My pride made it hard to accept assistance from my parents, but pride doesn't put food in your belly. My dearest friends, too, lit a path for me. Until The Envelope came, I don't know that I truly realised the abundance of love in my life. These friends shouted me drinks, dinners, nights out and weekends away. There was an element of shame and embarrassment when I accepted their gifts, but they spotted it and told me to stop being stupid. I can take a hint.
I keep running. Every second day I try to get out there. In winter the sun was aloof and I often ran through drizzle, but now the days are clear and I can feel the bright orb a little closer. Always, though, the winds off the water can hit hard. Run anti-clockwise around the circuit and the winds are at your back; the journey is easy. Run clockwise, though, and it's headlong into a gust, fighting all the way. It is the same as running an extra kilometre, and at your destination you feel exhausted yet fulfilled.