Doris: The Foreboding Time Traveller from a Neoliberal Future

DORIS: THE FOREBODING TIME TRAVELLER FROM A NEOLIBERAL FUTURE

(originally published April 2018)

Letterboxes in my hometown have received these flyers recently.

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The reverse side exclaims, “Join the most recommended homecare team in town!” – offering employment benefits such as, “top rates of pay”, “flexible hours”, “paid travel time + petrol”.

Following the web link given at the bottom of the flyer, a more detailed advert for the position states, “If you have experience of providing care and support to those in need, we would love to meet you. The role is best suited to car drivers, but if you have the right skills and attitude, we would still like to hear from you.”

This is a tricky thing about the care industry. It is increasingly common for job vacancies in this sector to detail, “No experience necessary!” under candidate specifications. An attractive prospect for many job seekers.

Yet, out of all of the possible issues for concern this may create (for the purpose of my argument, as long as training and safeguarding policies are in place, there is little reason to believe that a lack of care work experience endangers anybody), I want to highlight two areas of primary significance. Firstly, the desperation of the care industry, private or otherwise (down to various factors, including a lack of staff, competition with one another), and secondly what motivates people to work in the sector.

To clarify my position – I work in the care industry, and I have undeniably benefited from employer’s willingness to take on those without experience. I made quite a change from my administrative background, for many reasons, but generally in pursuit of a new career trajectory. This has also been an opportunity to utilise skills of mine which I felt otherwise had no palpable use in the corporate sector. But overall, getting into the care industry has been reliant on each employer’s organic judgement of my character – a real leap of faith.

So far, my colleagues in this sector vary across a spectrum of four main “demographics”:

  1. Young and female (aged 19-25)

  2. Mature and female (aged 45-65)

  3. Working class and skint

  4. Skint

For many, the benefits of the job are clear – if the individual has children, the flexible hours can lend capacity to childcare and other family commitments. And, while it is dependent on successful checks, most positions promise an imminent start – great for someone in need of money.

However, similar to the nature of “flexible” roles across all industries, these illusions of freedom become bondage. For example, those who begin working as a carer without relevant experience or qualifications will find themselves working at minimum wage. They may develop a dependency on overtime hours. The work itself is hard on the body and mind, which can lead to staff absence. This creates overtime, which employees feel obliged to take on because, frankly, they need the money… and so on.

Going back to my (very scientific) demographics, only 2 of my colleagues so far have been male. This relates to a discussion on gender roles which I will save for another time. But on the subject of mature, female workers in this industry – many do not have another option. Even if they are unhappy in their current place of employment, it is unfortunately harder for older women to switch either career or employer.

In a similar vein, care work for many has become a “last resort” for those seemingly without other prospects or opportunities. One colleague, aged 20, went to her local job centre and specified that she would like to work with animals. The job centre representative replied with, “Have you ever considered working with the elderly?” Twenty years later and in her 40’s, she was still working with the elderly, but not out of enjoyment – for she expressed plainly that it was anxiety and lack of confidence which stopped her from finding another job.

Undercurrent to all of this is an opinion which runs antagonistically beneath the surface of discussions regarding care – that anybody can do it.  

The cartoon “Doris” who fell through my letterbox fascinated me. What a strange choice of representation of the client. Elderly care is not a cartoon – considering all of its inclusions (dementia, disability, palliative) and not to mention the person-centric possibilities (isolation, depression, anxiety). Indeed, the person-centred approach to care relies on recognition of the individual’s personality and life history. Reducing them to a characterised cartoon hugely negates their agency, not to mention perpetuating misconceptions of the care worker’s role.

Considering that one day I will (if I’m lucky) be a “Doris”, and that the UK population is steadily growing into a disproportionate amount of Doris’ against the number of young people needed to look after them – how can this stereotyped treatment of the elderly be an effective communication?

One explanation I can think of relates to treatment of “the worker” in the current climate. Seemingly, the market economy consumes everything, all the way down to the attributes of the jobs it creates – especially that all important “flexibility”. Work your own hours! Which actually means: work all of your hours. It’s a deceptively proposed ideal of self-empowerment, accompanied by a lack of sick or holiday pay.

And, just like Uber or Deliveroo – to work in community care, essentially all you need is a driving license. Or, in some cases, all you need is a spare room.

Here it comes back to that classic line about care work – anybody can do it. It’s just looking after little old biddies called Doris, right?

During my writing I find myself returning again and again (ironically, robotically) to the theme of the neoliberal condition – the human is removed, and with it goes the emotional element; the lack of which is no more stark than in attempts to reinstate it (self-service checkouts ending transactions with “Have a Merry Christmas”, anyone?). But I see the same problem occurring in the care sector – the human is removed and the reality is streamlined in place of a convenience of time and cost. This wholly contradicts the emotional and physical labour of the worker. 

Which seems strange – surely one would want to feel that their care is taken seriously? To be treated with dignity and respect?

Hopefully this goes without saying, but care work requires a huge amount of resilience, patience, and empathy. How many people can claim truthfully to hold these qualities, and in abundance? Not to mention that the price of care home residence begins at upwards of £750 per week. How do these factors combined benefit the client (a cynical word in itself)? Who is the convenience for?