I graduated from my engineering degree in November of 1998. I already had a job lined up, which I was due to start on the 18th of January, 1999. I had a couple of months to kill and I decided to go on the dole. What I wanted to do was work in a book store, and I applied to some, but not before first applying for unemployment benefits.
The Work for the Dole scheme was up and running by that point, but since it only applied to people who had been receiving payments for over six months, it was never going to be a concern for me. If I remember correctly, I had to fill out a form every two weeks detailing which businesses I had contacted in my quest for work. I definitely remember realising that all I needed to do was open the Yellow Pages at a random page, call whomever my finger fell on and have a conversation like this:
Them: Good afternoon [I was an unemployed recently-ex-student, after all. You can’t expect me to get out of bed in the morning, can you?]. This is company XYZ. How may I help?
Me: Hi. Do you have any jobs going?
Them: Uhh, no.
Me: Okay. Thanks.
I could then list that company on my fortnightly form, safe in the knowledge that even if Centrelink did bother to check – and I seriously doubt that they ever did; I could have written that I applied to “Savage Henry’s discount rabbit stranglers” and they would have just filed it away – then I was covered.
That felt a bit too much like taking the piss though, so I made sure that my targets were legitimate. As I mentioned above, I mostly applied to book and map retailers. I never lied to Centrelink or to any of the places I applied to. I always admitted to everyone that I had a job lined up and only needed to fill in the two-month gap, but if the truth be told, I didn’t put much effort in either, except for a couple of early applications to places where I genuinely would have enjoyed working. It’s not that I was disheartened; just that I didn’t particularly care. I wasn’t desperate for the cash (although it was certainly handy) or a job (since I’d have to quit in a few weeks anyway). I was really only doing the dole thing to see what it was like and the answer was: boring, but easy.
I’ve never felt any guilt or shame at doing it and I don’t think that any of my friends at the time were judging me negatively for it. It was a little unorthodox, but just accepted. I’ve certainly paid a lot more in taxes since than I received on the dole or for my university education. Fast-forward to 2008 and I am thinking about the social acceptability of receiving welfare payments, both in Australia and abroad.
It may just be the stereotype, but I get the feeling that in continental Europe, both in 1998 and today, what I did would barely raise an eyebrow; that it would be completely accepted. In the U.S.A., on the other hand, I think that it would be regarded by many as a shameful thing to do and an abuse of federal money. In Australia and the UK, I’m not so sure. I suspect that the more “aspirant middle class” you are and the older you are, the more shameful it will seem. I have no idea if the age thing is because it’s a process that everybody goes through as they get older or if there’s been a genuine generational shift in attitudes.