It’s been three years since I lost my job at the BBC, so in the world of the redundant, I would now be a bit of a veteran. The recession is supposed to be over, but only last month, a major bank over here announced that it was going to shed another 15,000 jobs in the next couple of years. They had already cut 27,500 in 2009. I mean that’s a lot right?
It made me remember what it was like to pack up the last dedicated work desk I was ever likely to have. The future was all about hot-desking, a real shift from the time when you had a permanent, personal space to pin your post-its, postcards or photos.
On my first jobless Monday morning, I felt like I was free-falling. I suddenly had nowhere to go, no structure, no chats about the weekend with colleagues in a grubby office kitchen area while making the first cup of tea of the day. I had become institutionalised and really missed a schedule.
Time seemed to slow right down. I discovered I could stretch out my morning routine of eating toast liberally spread with Vegemite (thanks to a local supplier), drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea and having an anxiety attack as to how I am going to be able to afford future mortgage repayments until at least 11.00am. After a week of self-pity — where I wandered around my neighbourhood and sat in cafes with all the mums and other outcasts from the world of work — I decided that as my redundancy money wasn’t going to last forever, I needed to pull myself together.
I live in a tiny one bedroom garden flat in north-west London, so my dining room table would have to start functioning as a desk during the day and transform back to an eating surface at night if I had company. I decided that I couldn’t possibly start looking for work without a proper chair to support what my GP cheerily described as ‘age-related’ disc degeneration, so I spent a morning testing bounce and tilt features in a second hand office furniture shop. If a job application ever specified that a candidate needed a firm grasp of procrastination skills, I would be a sure thing.
Despite my preparations for my war on unemployment, my phone was stubbornly silent during the day. In the past, I had relied on my friends and contacts for the next job, but freelancers were only being used as a last resort and we were growing in numbers.
On one of the rare occasions I did see a producer’s job on a recruitment website that sounded promising, I found that one hundred and forty people had already applied despite the position only going online that morning. I started to fret about the growing gap on my CV and how I would explain it to a prospective employer. Could I lie and say I had taken a sabbatical to an Indian ashram to walk the path of a yogi? I wondered how long one could reasonably take off in search of enlightenment and whether anyone would rate it.
This enforced, prolonged midlife crisis made me wonder where all the tired old producers go when they have reached the end of the line. How do they survive financially? Do they have trust funds, mentors or are they holding up “Golf Sale Here” placards in Oxford Street?
My unemployment came at a time when my English partner was so overworked that he was suffering from dizzy spells. We’d been together seven years and had a Helena Bonham-Carter/Tim Burton arrangement although the Englishman’s flat was 70 miles away in Brighton and not handily next door.
I began to dread the Englishman asking me what I had done during my day because sometimes a walk up to the newsagents to buy a lottery ticket from Mr Anju would be the highlight. Some evenings, I would practically jump on him at the front door like an overexcited puppy in desperate need of a walk I was so starved for conversation. I certainly couldn’t tell him that I was becoming too familiar with what was happening in the lunchtime broadcast of Neighbours (yes, they still have our soap on twice a day and no, I really don’t know why I watch it. An intervention may well be needed).
One morning, the recruitment site asked me whether I wanted to be archived as if it had given up on my relationship with television before I had. It was time to take the hint that despite 17 years in the business, things had fundamentally changed. The buzz phrase was ‘transferrable skills’, so I bid farewell to my telly career and wondered what I could possibly do next.