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Nothingness and Time

Exploring the temporal governmentality of unemployment
Le néant et le temps. La gouvernementalité temporelle du chômage
La nada y el tiempo. La gubernamentalidad temporal del desempleo
Tom Boland et Ray Griffin


Le chômage n'est pas seulement une catégorie économique, mais également une gouvernementalité (Foucault, 2010), comme en témoigne l'augmentation des interventions dans la vie des chômeurs par le biais des politiques actives du marché du travail (ALMP). En outre, la définition de l'Organisation internationale du travail (OIT) selon laquelle le chômage se définirait comme une privation, une disponibilité et une recherche d’emploi, est une classification glissante en ce qu’elle catégorise le chômage selon de multiples horizons temporels, l'élément passif d'être sans travail étant de plus en plus remplacé par l'accent mis sur la recherche du travail. A travers des entretiens biographiques avec des chômeurs en Irlande, couvrant la période 2012-2018, nous retraçons empiriquement cette transformation de la temporalité et concluons que la gouvernementalité fait advenir des formes multiples, contradictoires et indéfinies du temps. Nous proposons tout particulièrement une lecture originale de deux temporalités qui se chevauchent : Kairos, l'attente, la ténacité, la souffrance, un néant en attente de sa transformation par l'obtention d'un emploi, et Cronos, non pas le temps cyclique, mais la dévoration par le temps, un temps où les jours et les loisirs des chômeurs sont délibérément consumés par la recherche d'un emploi. Ironiquement, les États mettent en œuvre des politiques actives du marché du travail dans l'espoir kairotique de transformer leur économie, mais l’efficacité de ces politiques est surtout celle de rendre l'expérience du chômage encore plus difficile à supporter.

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1Unemployment is sometimes termed a “labour market transition” by economics, and we argue that being unemployed is a profoundly temporal experience, which is decisively constituted by governmentality. Indeed, Donzelot identified how the welfare state introduces the “governability of society through its regulation by time”(1988, p. 407). The time of the economy, demography and individual life-cycles are all addressed through governmentality, creating a curious, indefinite time-horizon (Dean, 2010). Herein we examine the governmentalisation of unemployment, from the International Labour Organization (ILO) definition of unemployment to how activation policy categorises and constitutes the time-horizons of the unemployed. Through interview data we examine the transformation of the experience of unemployment through the emergence of activation and conditional labour market policies, focused on the Irish case. Our research covers this governmental shift from passive to active labour market policies (ALMPs). ALMPs assemble interventions in the lives of the unemployed, including supervised job-searches, regular motivational interviews, compulsory internships and even “workfare”, often backed by sanctions of reduced or suspended welfare payments for non-compliance. Our data spans 2012-2018, tracing the shift from “passive” to “active” welfare policies, and a concomitant transformation of the experience of unemployment from being a spectator to the labour market, to constant, frantic job-seeking. This policy transformation is common, with variations, across the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development zone (OECD); yet in Ireland the swift adoption of these policies in a small jurisdiction allow us to capture the transformation clearly. There are implications across the OECD because the ILO definition of unemployment – being without, available for, and seeking work – has shifted to emphasise “seeking work” which significantly transforms the temporal experience of unemployment (Gilbert, 2004).

2Beyond identifying a shift in the experience of unemployment due to changing governmentality, we attempt to understand the meaning of these transformations. Time matters in the experience of unemployment, and we identify a shift between two temporalities, Kairos and Cronos: Kairos refers to waiting, hopefully, for a fortuitous future event (Hutchings, 2008), here, finding a job, the hopeful economic disposition of modernity (Pechenino, 2015). Cronos is typically associated with cyclical time, but this vision of “father-time” is also haunted by the image of time as the “great devourer” (Thompson, 1967). Mythically, Cronos was a titan who devoured his children for fear they would overthrow him. This manifests itself in welfare policies that deliberately waste individuals’ free-time; their time is devoured by ALMPs that are useless or even punitive. Kairos and Cronos represent two simultaneous experiences of time, not a dichotomy, neither ideal, but both clearly emerging from our data; our argument is not a simple critique of activation or a nostalgic advocacy for passive welfare policies, but a meditation on two problematic experiences of time generated through governmentality.

Method in Context

3Amid a great recession and an International Monetary Fund (IMF)/European Central Bank (ECB)/ European Union (EU) bailout, Ireland rapidly adopted activation policies, with increasing focus on conditionality and sanctions rather than human capital (Murphy, 2016). Beyond constructions of unemployment as part of a cycle of boom and bust, policy makers posited unemployment as a problem of governing time-bound populations, for instance, through fears of a “lost generation” of younger workers (Millar & Gaffney, 2019). In 2012 with unemployment at a height of 15%, the left-right coalition government launched a policy initiative Pathways to Work, which made benefit payments conditional on job seeking behaviour, with sanctions for non-compliance with the directives of “street-level bureaucrats” (Lipsky, 2010). The weekly entitlements of the under 25s was reduced from €188 to €100. Reform of offices to link social benefits and training was rolled out slowly, with new Intreo offices applying the new ALMPs, which were also administered by private companies from 2016. Some investment in human capital was made, but simultaneously, Community Employment schemes were cut. Workfare style policies were implemented, where retention of welfare entitlements was conditional on participation in “work-experience” schemes, JobBridge and Gateway, which supplied labour at no cost to qualifying employers–which met with widespread public criticism. In 2018 policy discourse shifted somewhat away from conditionality; the privatisation of welfare services was being reviewed and Youth Guarantee commitments to the EU are now fulfilled by the Youth Employment Support Scheme (YESS) which is putatively better linked to training and less poorly remunerated. This is a mere summary of the plethora of overlapping schemes, differentially “rolled-out” and implemented across the state, but gives a flavour of the swift turn from passive welfare to ALMPs. Within policy, time emerges as a confluence of concerns; how long people endure unemployment, demography, budget horizons and the electoral cycle.

4We conducted 120 interviews in bi-annual tranches since 2012 in Ireland, following the biographical interview method (Wengraf, 2001), allowing the respondent to retell their experience of redundancy, unemployment, claiming welfare and job seeking. Details on the composition of this cross-section include duration of unemployment, age, sex and location–divided into rural and urban because activation services were rolled out initially to cities. This sample broadly reflects the composition of the unemployed in Ireland over ten years, and serves principally to trace the impact of intensified activation policy. However, amid the composition differences emerge; the young, male, long-term unemployed and urban individuals tended to have more negative experiences, though not uniformly so. Other variables on social class or education are not recorded here as individuals were in the midst of social mobility, usually downwards and without predictability, or undergoing retraining or joining a new sector–often in lower skilled work than their education level might otherwise predict.











Whole corpus





Of 120:

Males: 66

Females: 54

Youths: 31

Mature: 52

Older: 37

Urban: 68

Rural: 52

Short Term: 44

Long Term: 76

Age cohorts: Youth: 16-25, Mature: 26-45, Older: 46-65.

Urban/rural based on location of welfare office.

Duration of unemployment: Short-term Unemployment (STU) is defined under 12 months,Long-term unemployment (LTU) as over 12 months.

5Conceptualisations of time have methodological implications, focalising interviews into the transition of unemployment. Studies of unemployment tend to neglect wider temporal horizons, or focus only on the macro-policy level or the micro-social individual levels; our study aspires to bridge these levels by capturing the governmental transformation of unemployment over time. Biographical interviews provoke a chronological re-telling of experience, from a specific point within a period of unemployment, which informs the narrative told (Demazière, 2007). Our interview method elicits “story”, implicitly a retrospective sense-making device (Weick, 1995). Rather than interviewing to fathom “opinions” or “attitudes” our method focuses on narratives which are more than just “facts”. Boje (2001, p. 5) argues that story and narrative interact in intriguing ways, and narrative is the retrospective sense that comes after story, adding plot and coherence. For Gabriel, stories involve interpretive effort and poetic expression; “factual or descriptive accounts of events that aspire at objectivity rather than emotional effect must not be treated as stories” (2000, p. 5). Indeed, experiences are not unmediated, but become significant through how they are narrated:“our relationship with our stories is less under our control and less utilitarian on our part than the ’sense-making’ tag might suggest. There is always a tingle of uncertainty, which gives spice to our storied lives, an aleatoric element” (Sims, 2003, p. 1198). Questions of meaning persist: how we interpret stories, experiences which have already been ruminated upon, retold again and again, dwelt upon by authors and auditors alike? The validity of our reading of these stories is not absolute, but is substantiated by the quantity of interviews, the recurrent narrative of the transformation of temporal experience.

6Interviews do not exist outside social context, but involve teller and co-tellers and co-listeners (Boje, 2001). The unemployed are repeatedly interviewed by welfare officers, called to account for their job-seeking efforts. Thus, our study raises the implied questions of “who are you”, “account for yourself” and “what is it you do”. Butler (2005) suggests that all accounts of the self are fundamentally incomplete, and performatively re-create subjective identity; therefore interviewers must exhibit tact and care, allowing ambiguity and polyvalence rather than demanding a clear “authoritative” account. Mindful of this power-relation of interviewing, we presented ourselves as sympathetic researchers attempting to track how welfare services were impacting the lives of the unemployed, changing the dynamic of the interview from an interrogation to a “social collaboration” (Elliot, 2005) Here the interviewer becomes a fellow-traveller, empathising, encouraging and filling in the blanks by interpretative effort (Gabriel, 1995); and as we shall see, there were many blanks, silences, ellipses and puzzling stories, which provoke an on-going interpretative effort. Rather than coding and defining our data by method, we re-read these stories, dwelling on their meaning and enigmatic quality, and developed a mythological interpretation of the experience.

7While an appeal to “mythology” may seem odd in a sociological interpretation of the experience of unemployment, the work of Boltanski and Thevénot (2005) directly suggests that deep-seated cultural models provide “orders of worth” or “regimes of justification”. Basically, these are criteria according to which the worth of individuals and things are measured, and which legitimate and reform institutions (Boltanski, 2011). Following Boltanksi, Hansen (2019) suggests that welfare policy reform appeals to a variety of regimes of justification–redistribution, paternalism, incentivisation and so forth, drawn from figures from Keynes to Smith. Our analysis reaches beyond economics or even theological models of welfare to mythology, remembering Bataille’s injunction: “the absence of myth is the only true myth.” (1998, p. 48). Recognising mythology as the “irrational rationality” animating the governance of welfare helps us to move beyond “evidence-based research” to understand the production of enigmatic experiences.

8In Hesiod’s Theogony, Chronos is the Greek God of time, eventually conflated with Cronos, father of the Gods, especially by Roman thinkers, who identified this God with Saturn; namesake of Saturday, the weekend sabbatical which punctuates the working week. Indeed, Cronos and Chronos both appear with sickles or scythes, tools of the harvest. Many cultures have a cosmogony which accounts for the creation of the world and the beginning of cycles of time (Eliade, 1959). Crucially to Greek cosmogony, the mother God Gaia incites Cronos to castrate his father Uranus in revenge for violence against her children. Yet even though Cronos then presides over a timeless “Golden Age”, a prophecy that he will be defeated by his children provokes him to devour them as soon as they are born. Zeus evades this fate, being replaced by a stone which is swallowed, then grows up to defeat Cronos. The nigh-identical Cronos and Chronos are generative and destructive; venerable “Father Time”, and a horrific cannibalistic monster. Yet, they are challenged by Kairos; timely interventions save Zeus and allow him to defeat his father, ending the relentless cycle of parricide and infanticide. Such myths may seem remote, yet contemporary figures embody these impulses; for instance, Gide or Beveridge’s ideas around welfare as insurance which protects workers caught in “untimely” redundancy who await the “second coming” of work, or equally workfare from the poor-house through Malthus to contemporary JobCentres.

9Since Freud or even the Gospels, sacrificial motifs within myths are often taken as a cover for real violence (Girard, 1977). Yet to understand the place of sacrifice in the economy, Bataille (1998) argues that “sacrifice” is not simply negative, but a joyful consumption of the “accursed share”. Contrary to conceptions of economics as concerned with scarcity, Bataille shows how political economy is maintained through abundance; glorifying waste of resources in symbolic legitimation of political power (Hutchings, 2008). For critics of ALMPs, the state seems irrational, ideological or punitive. Yet the temporal logics of the state can be extrapolated from the myth of Cronos devouring his children, here the Leviathan state destroys the time and freedom of the unemployed, consuming it through human capital building and workfare. This sacrifice of “surplus labour” in the pointless and deadening work of job-seeking serves to legitimate the work culture of capitalism, including precarious work. Empirically, activation policies and harsher conditionality are provoked by political considerations rather than emerging within social policy circles (Hick, 2018). Finally, the state fears being overthrown by the unemployed, and therefore consumes their time, yet this may actually hide and entrench this animosity, leading to unintended political consequences, from Brexit and Trump to the gilets jaunes.

10While devouring surplus labour, the state awaits Kairos, not in the individual sense of getting a job, but the fruits of ALMPs, interventions in the chronic economic cycle (Pelaez, 2017). Policy makers see themselves as acting in a “timely” fashion, intervening before problems are entrenched, and creating better future outcomes. For instance, economist Brian Lucey welcomed the introduction of activation policies in Ireland as “timely”:

For the most part, outside direct employment, governments can’t really create jobs, but they can create the business, economic and socio-political environment wherein jobs are created.

11And described ALMPs as:

“The merest preparation of the ground for a crop yet to be sown.” (Irish Examiner, 2012)

12Within this “ordo-liberal” analysis of the state as managing economic conditions rather than directly intervening, Lucey invokes chronic time, the cycle of recession and growth. Yet, he welcomes the new measures as foresighted interventions which will eventually bear fruit; ALMPs will create “an environment” where jobs are created, principally by governing unemployment actively.


13Foucault’s (2010) concept of “governmentality” traces transformations of state power which coalesced from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Distinct from rule by sovereign exercise of violence and law, governmentality is a distinctive use of state power to know and regulate the population. The portmanteau of “govern” and “mentality” express the emergence of a new mentalité, not just an attitude but a mode de savoir, a mode of “governing”; referring to the accretion of new apparatuses for shaping the lives of the population as a whole and as individuals. Governmentality harnesses the population for the purposes of the state; “to develop those elements constitutive of individuals’ lives in such a way that their development also fosters that of the strength of a state” (Foucault, 1981, p. 252). States take over religious charitable institutions, including incipient attempts to count and categorise the “poor”, and institute poor-houses or public works for the relief of poverty in crises (Mollat, 1986). Contemporary Governmentality Studies focuses on how welfare offices and processes exert power over claimants, and reshape them through the “conduct of conduct”, that is, institutionally required behavioural transformations (Dean, 1995; Brodkin & Marston, 2013; Lane & Kwon, 2016). By classifying individuals as unemployed and imposing this categorisation upon them, by naming them and normalising this definition, by requiring attendance and interviews, by demanding job seeking activity, the welfare state “governmentalises” the unemployed, perhaps against resistance but generally transforming subjectivity.

14Our data covers a decade of the gradual introduction of activation policies in Ireland, abruptly transforming an older passive system of welfare. Governmental policy within this period has explicit temporal concerns: There is fear of a “lost generation” of youth who may never reach their earning potential after initial experiences of unemployment. Long-term unemployment for older workers is seen as dangerous as it may mean the loss of human capital and welfare unto retirement for a large cohort of formerly productive workers. Demographic concerns for a “greying population” and future state pension short-falls also inform how the Irish state reformed welfare. Such policy is oriented to managing the life-cycle of individuals, but also the population as a whole. There is a clear disjuncture here: individuals have very personal concerns around how to spend their time when they are excluded from the economy, yet this does not automatically correspond to how the welfare system directs their time. Time repeatedly emerges from the data, particularly around prior experiences of the economy, the present tense of managing unemployment and to anticipation or hope for future successes (Demazière, 2007).

15Modern states have appropriated the “pastoral power” of the church at the level of the welfare state, replicating in secular form how pastors had once regulated their flock through ritual, confession and preaching (Foucault, 1981). The medieval state formed part of teleological time from Genesis to the Second Coming, anticipating a “last empire” before the apocalypse (Hamilton, 2018). Just like an individual life-cycle, the state was implicitly finite. However, this was displaced by governmentality, and, since the eighteenth century, modern society necessarily lives “in indefinite time” (Foucault, 2010, p. 355). This concept of “time” is neither infinite nor finite, but indefinite, subject to endless modification, as governmentality ceaselessly intervenes in the lives of its subjects. Within this “indefinite” time, governmentality is not indifferent, but pursues teleological goals which are incremental, not absolute: population growth, public health, economic prosperity, military security, and today, sustainability, education or digital interconnection (Dean, 2010). Such goals are horizons; endlessly pursued but never reached. Within welfare systems and the labour market, this teleology means an indefinite movement towards “full-employment”; ceaselessly building “human capital”, constantly reducing the average time spent unemployed and relentlessly cultivating “social mobility”.

16Unemployment became differentiated from poverty in the long nineteenth century; as waged work becomes institutionalised, unemployment appears as a lack, an absence, nothingness. Subsequently, this “lack” is incorporated by governmental classifications, including the ILO formula. Even sociological “deprivation theories” of unemployment confirm this experience of “nothingness” (Jahoda, Lazarsfeld & Zeisel, 2002). However, this “classic” experience of unemployment as deprivation is not natural but historical, reflecting the idea of unemployment as a temporary accident, which can be insured socially, following Bismarck, through L’État providence to the Beveridge “cradle-to-grave” welfare state. Rather than an independent economic experience, the state thoroughly shapes unemployment, inventing the “social” by instituting relations of solidarity (Donzelot, 1988). Inter-war crises of mass long-term unemployment complicated this vision of unemployment as an insurable economic accident, and although “golden decades” of the welfare state followed WWII, the emergence of ALMPs followed swiftly, and now predominate (Gilbert, 2004), emphasising the activity of job-seeking over the transitional lack of employment. Such policies draw from older “workhouse” thinking around “policing the poor”, by categorising, evaluating, disciplining and setting the poor to work (Boland & Griffin, 2015).

17Terms such as jobless, surplus labour and reserve army of labour capture aspects of “unemployment”, but precision arose via the ILO, who fixed the standard definition of unemployment as being not in work, available for work and seeking work. The ILO, now an agency of the United Nations was founded in 1919 as a tripartite organisation of workers, employers and governments to shape labour standards. The agency was created by the Versailles Treaty, reflecting the atmosphere of crisis of the time, with fear that labour market problems can produce social unrest. While the ILO definition of unemployment continues to have tremendous currency and legitimacy as the official definition, activation policy in recent decades has seen a new emphasis on the “seeking work” element (Gilbert, 2004).

18Precisely how “actively seeking work” ismanaged in specific welfare institutions varies, but it broadly entails increasing emphasis on benefits becoming conditional upon evidenced efforts. Yet street-level bureaucrats engaged in case-load management actively intensify or moderate these systems, according to many criteria, including the “creaming and parking” of clients, that is, focusing activation on those most likely to gain employment swiftly. Famously, Esping-Andersen (1990) offered a tripartite division of “worlds of welfare”, although these broad distinctions have been broken up into “many worlds” of welfare with a broad policy drift towards activation, but retaining historic influences (Wright et al, 2004). Irish activation is modelled on UK and Australian versions, with a liberal emphasis on personal responsibility, with less provision of human-capital forming training.

19Since 2012 new activation procedures were rolled out, initially in urban areas, concentrating on the long-term and youth unemployed, and now applied to all claimants. Re-categorised as job seekers, the unemployed now have contractual obligations to the welfare office to take steps to seek work or retrain. They must attend meetings, provide evidence of job-search and accept offers of work or face penalty sanctions of a reduction of payment by one quarter or complete disqualification from benefit for up to nine weeks. Training, ranging from higher education to “job-search” or “confidence” training can be prescribed to job seekers to improve their employability. Discourses which individualise responsibility and even psy-science motivational techniques are deployed by the offices (Frieli & Stearn, et al. 2015), and the stigmatisation of fraud and unemployment are underlying currents in Irish political life (Devereux & Power, 2019). Activation services effectively pressurise the unemployed into frantic job searching, impacting well-being and reducing personal reservation wages.

20What is remarkable about the Irish system is how judgement is applied; street-level bureaucrats in state and private activation providers have considerable discretion over what constitutes an acceptable job-search or a suitable job-offer, and whether or not to sanction claimants. Yet the portion of activation services given to each claimant depends upon the PEX algorithm which fathoms their “Probability of Exit” to a job. Amid these contradictions, two main experiences of time emerge; “Kairos”, an indefinite waiting for a job, and “Cronos”, having one’s days devoured in mandated job seeking, but with activation policies increasingly transforming the indefinite wait into infinite job search. This tension of personal and systemic forms of judgement reflects Ireland’s history both as a liberal state and the hangover of Catholic social provision. Our analysis suggests that these experiences reflect different forms of governmentality, passive versus active welfare policy which are “rolled out” gradually and unevenly across Ireland. While we separate them analytically to clarify the governance of time, these experiences overlap, with the “Cronos” version of devouring time only partially displacing the “Kairos” of waiting for jobs.

Waiting for Jobs

21In 2012, unemployment seemed indefinite, unfilled time, partly because the economy seemed unlikely to create jobs. Many interviewees struggled to represent what they did with their days. Many revisited the event of redundancy, the moment of interruption to their time-line:

“I was sacked on a workday, it was a Tuesday, I’m fairly sure. So I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, I was thinking to myself, like, is this a day off? Is this a weekend? Is this a summer holiday from school? What the hell am I meant to do now? I felt like I was completely lost. So I just back into my room and sat down on my bed, I wasn’t really sure what to do… I think I was there for a few hours at least.” (Male, 21, Urban, STU)

22Redundancy appears as a rupture in the structure of work, but this “origin narrative” gives way to a formless story of incapacity, uncertainty and indefinite time. The regulated time of the “real world” of work fades into the drift of unemployment. Unemployment appears as a curious in-between world, neither a day off, nor a “day on”. How to spend the day becomes a chronic problem:

“I made my own hours, made my own rules and on the very last day we all drank rum in the car park, it was great like. It was really good ya know and then a couple of days later it starts to like, sink in.” (Male, 28, Urban, LTU)

23After the initial euphoria for the free time of redundancy, the realisation dawns that unemployment is a constant problem of filling time. Work, toil and labour are recalled as meaningful time, unemployed time is divested of meaning and worth.

“There’s nothin’ sweeter than slobbing in front of crap TV after a hard day’s work… There is nothing worse than slobbing in front of crap TV after a hard day’s nothing.” (Male, 23, Rural, STU)

“You come home after a hard day’s work like you know you’re after working and like, you can sit down and you can relax or even after a hard week you can go and you can sit down and eat or… have a few pints like and you can feel you are after putting in a week’s work, you’re entitled to have a few pints.” (Male, 26, Urban, STU)

24Thus, the economic time-cycle of work and wages, production and consumption is confounded, so that continuous leisure becomes a burden. Arrestingly, another interviewee expressed this experience of meaninglessness in regard to caring for his children:

“I’m stuck at home now, I’m a stay at home dad, something I didn’t want to be, something I don’t want to be. […] It gets monotonous, you’re only there, you know you have to be there with your kids… but you’re only there… it’s not because of choice.” (Male, 36, Rural, LTU)

25This interviewee expressed gendered ideas around work and sought new employment constantly after his redundancy. Being “available for work” overshadowed his identity as a father, so that each moment he hoped to choose work over family or home. While this is a striking example many responded similarly; “it’s like, Jesus get me off this thing as fast as possible”. Like supplicants, the unemployed wait, available, hoping the labour market will bestow a job upon them.

26Before activation, unemployment appeared as an isolating personal experience which deprived people of ways of filling their time with things of worth and meaning. This lack, for the personally resourceful, can be converted into other worthwhile “past-times”.

“You have nothing to do, but I’m good with time, I have hobbies and interests… because other wise you’d go insane.” (Female, 49, Rural, STU)


“I couldn’t just get up and sit around and do nothing; I’d have to get up and do something so that when I do sit down, I do feel like – well look it; I can sit down now, I’m after doing something.” (Female, 30, Rural, STU)

28Beyond hobbies, even domestic labours become a past-time, an escape from the interminable drag of doing nothing, strategies to stave off the emptiness of waiting. Nonetheless even for the resourceful the recognition that time is an abyss creeps in:

“But it hits ya, getting up every morning sitting on your arse. […] Filling time is the killer now. It is now. I think I’d say, there’s more people become depressed and down and feeling worthless, and I do mean worthless, because they ain’t got a job. […] All you have to do is talk to some people and they’re so down and depressed about doing absolutely nothing.” (Male, 54, Urban, LTU)

29In the absence of temporal structure which prescribes certain tasks and behaviours and proscribes others, every moment can be a choice. When one wakes, eats, drinks and sleeps is unfixed. Hence, many respondents recall an initial response to redundancy of reversing night and day. Similarly, recreation and social interaction are released from any pattern, so that leisure may be constant yet unfulfilling, and social interaction constantly postponed as there is no rush. Filling the day becomes a problem, which sounds trite, but it effectively means that life-conduct becomes uncertain; the scarce commodity of time becomes a burden. Below are citations where individuals directly describe the problem of time, firstly through the widely recognised difficulty of “getting up to face the day”, and secondly, when night and day are reversed:

“Cos you’ve no work your independence is gone. Like it’s very very hard to motivate yourself first thing in the morning to get out of bed. It’s like today, this is another day. Very hard, so.” (Male, 36, Rural, STU)

“You do start to develop cabin fever, you get stuck in the door. […] Em, my sleeping hours, fuck I was a full vampire like, sleep all day, wake up at night and watch Star Trek on Sky One and sleep again like, it was horrible, it was a very very depressing time… Maybe it wasn’t even a year, it just feels like that.” (Male, 28, Urban, LTU)

30These vague yet evocative descriptions of “doing nothing” clearly articulate the de-structured limbo of unemployment. One cannot ignore the reported subjective consequences: “horrible… a very very depressing time”. The inverted demi-monde of unemployment might seem appealing at first, but eventually the absence of structure and purpose become an affliction. These experiences of “doing nothing” prove almost impossible to narrate. Indeed, there is no doubt that each interviewee filled their day with a variety of activities; the real issue is not activity or inactivity, but the way in which individuals reflect on their experience as a void or non-entity.

“God I hate it. This is no existence; I keep saying it’s only temporary! But two years is far from temporary.” (Female, 32, Rural, LTU)

31For economics unemployment is a “transition” between jobs, but as this interval stretches out, it is a void or limbo and experienced as “no existence”. Despite being termed “passive” policies, this experience of unemployment is produced by the state as it holds people outside the labour market, a disciplinary power created by the institutionalising forces of government that maintain individuals outside the labour market. This experience reflects the first two elements of the ILO definition of unemployment; not working and being available for work. In an economy that valorises labour as worth, time as money, the worthless time of being excluded from the economy takes its toll. Days feel like years, and any activity becomes a source of escape from sitting around and doing “nothing”. Thus the absence of employment, being “without work”, is a governmentalised experience of lack. Many of our interviewees described their daily lives as full of tedium and monotony and interviewees frequently used phrases like “putting down the day”, “killing time” and “limbo”. Beyond the economic notion of surplus labour, the temporal experience of unemployment is Kairos, constantly waiting to escape, to be in “the right place at the right time” to gain a job.

32These interviews vary from halting, elliptical clichés to lyrical and creative attempts to express the profound triviality of waiting. These stories sometimes assume that the interviewer implicitly understands the experience of “doing nothing”, but generally acknowledge the curious, counter-intuitively difficult experience of “doing nothing”. Analysed in terms of social temporality, these stories are clearly meditations on peculiarly modern states of indefinite waiting, and more philosophically on the traditional concepts of time.

33It could be readily assumed that waiting is an incidental process, experienced by all in some way, but irrelevant to the reality of meaningful life in any society. Yet modernity generates distinctive situations where waiting may endure far longer than is intended or humane, and repeated more frequently than is acknowledged. Striking examples include asylum seekers waiting to get to Europe, waiting for their case to be resolved in some processing centre, or waiting for an opportunity to move out of a precarious existence on the streets.

Unlimited Jobsearch

34As ALMPs took hold in Ireland there was a rapid transformation of unemployment. Dejection and alienation at the vagaries and incoherence of waiting were broadly displaced by anger and frustration at the endless administration of active job seeking. The following quotes perhaps express “resistance” to governmentalising power, but they also reflect a distinctive experience of time:

“They want you to do courses, the more courses you get under your belt, you know, I think it makes them look better.” (Male, 23, Urban, LTU)

“I was just being sent to do something just to be sent so I was kind of out of their hair.” (Male, 26, Rural, LTU)

35While ALMPs prescribe training and education (“courses” in local argot) these are interpreted as useless and imposed by the office under threat of sanction for non-compliance. Thus, the “human capital” orientation of ALMPs becomes clouded by the push towards conditionality, and the policy of building skills seems nothing more than a bureaucratic logic to fill official targets. Interviewees considered these courses as equivalent to the requirement to attend group and individual meetings; a waste of time:

“They sent out a circular last week to attend a jobs seminar down in Waterford library, right? Which I didn’t attend. And I didn’t attend it on purpose because when you’re in receipt of the dole, which is not an awful lot of money, to take 20 or 25 euro out of it to go to Waterford to listen to the same bullshit you’d listen to here…” (Male, 57, Rural, LTU)

“Goin’ in and lookin’ at these things being pulled down and lookin’ at DVD’s wasting 2 or 3 hours questioning ya and you’re goin’ I already answered that 6 or 8 weeks ago. Then they’d wait for 2 or 3 months, do you wanna do a computer course, do you wanna do this, do you wanna do that?” (Female, 53, Urban, LTU)

36Here the amount of time and money may seem paltry, but how this specific quantity is treated reflects the constant destruction of time by the office. Both quotes here reflect not only the waste of time, but the repetition of the same pointless exercise, to add “courses” merely to use up time. Sanctions are continuously threatened, so time must be accounted for on threat of destitution, so that not only time, but life itself is devoured–well-being, confidence and choice are diminished by activation processes.

37It is important not to conflate the woes of bureaucracy with the specific governmentalisation of time by ALMPs. All our interviews consistently raised the difficulty of negotiating the “system” which seemed badly designed, hostile, or like jumping through “ten million hoops”. What really emerges, piecemeal and incrementally is a system which is not just uncaring or stigmatising, but one which not only positions “free time” as a burden, but also attempts to use up that free time, preventing inactivity (Haikkola, 2018).

38Along with group meetings, evaluative interviews and compulsory courses, ALMPs demand job seeking from claimants, increasingly with documentary evidence: an absurd labour of recording efforts and failures to secure employment. Some interviewees resisted this power-relation in subtle or indirect ways, nonetheless it recalibrated their time, telescoping the future into the present moment of seeking work, or setting up a “revolving door” between inadequate work and welfare:

“Anything that would get you off their register. Some of them don’t care obviously what your future is. They’re just like well no but you need to be working. If it’s something I don’t want to do I’m not going to be doing it in a month’s time regardless of what you say to me or make me do.” (Male, 28 Urban, LTU)

“It’s quite demoralizing ’cause you’re up in the morning and you’re waiting for the phone to ring, hoping that a teacher will be absent and the phone will ring at half 7 or 8 A.M.. Or 8.30 AM, or 8.45 AM.” (Female, 43, Urban, LTU)

39As a compliant claimant for whole or part-time welfare benefits, this woman was diligently available, having circulated her CV widely and registered as a substitute teacher in local schools. This “availability” was experienced as a daily, even hourly, rejection, repeated each day as she made herself “available” again. Weekends were some reprieve from this routine as the welfare office accepted that she was only seeking work as a teacher–other interviewees were unremittingly available, implicitly 24/7. ALMPs change unemployment from simple unstructured time to a frustrating form of continuous and active failure. Such difficulties are well-known, yet curious; being without work is a continuous state in the present tense, yet defined by absence, a problematic experience captured in metaphorical phrases. One said “We’re just floating along, trying to keep our heads above water” referring less to financial difficulties, than the daily effort to make life meaningful without work.

“Desperation sets in and you’ll apply for anything you know?The routine is really panically looking for jobs for two hours on jobs online and then crying into your Coco-Pops because you can’t find anything, right? That’s been the, that is the routine.” (Male, 45, Rural, LTU)

“Oh, yeah, chasing work all the time, and you wouldn’t be getting a letter back every time you put in an application for a job, and then “the social” would be getting on to you, you know, why aren’t you applying for jobs, and you’d say I applied for this job, this job, this job and they’d say where’s your proof, you know.” (Male, 54, Rural, LTU)

40Being “without work” is a null category, making the subject ripe for transformation, through work being bestowed upon them, or through their activity of “seeking work”. Prompted by the threat of sanction by the office, availability becomes less an underlying condition than a constant pressure for activity, albeit usually for a fruitless search. Over the period of months this altered job seekers’ expectations, so that professionals considered menial work, service workers began to envy those “sweeping the streets” and one woman stated she’d consider anything “except prostitution”–said jokingly, yet indicating the degree of pressure exercised by conditionality and the trials of job seeking. There is a palpable mixture of hope and despair attendant upon these activities (Pechenino, 2015), as the low probability of success and the high ratio of applications to responses from employers becomes abundantly clear—furthermore, activation policies actually ensure job applications proliferate!

41Being available for work implies a future conditional; if there is a job the subject will accept it, thereby escaping their present state of being “without work”. While it may initially seem like a merely bureaucratic status, “being available” is also lived experientially as quotidian waiting, attending the labour market; this coloured many experiences of everyday life, demoting the virtues of volunteering, domestic labour, aiding relatives and many other activities mentioned by our interviewees as overshadowed by unemployment. Such diversions from waiting are ruled out by the requirement of job seeking.

42Seeking is a vague term, covering a multitude of concrete actions, including the work of making oneself more employable through training, education or even “working on the self” in the broadest sense of psy-science self-management (Friedli &Stearn, 2015). So, investing in “human capital” is both making the worker more “available” but also part of the spectrum of seeking. One interviewee was enraged when a job he was qualified to do was cancelled and re-advertised as an internship:

“I’ve done education […] I’ve done nearly ten years work with youth workers I’ve gone back to college to do psychology to try and improve myself so I can have the qualifications for the job and the experience and another degree and I see this on JobBridge I wanted to tear my hair out. What is going on in this country that we have to keep chasing the cheese no matter what you do somebody moves the cheese to somewhere else so we have to keep climbing and climbing and climbing.” (Male, 36, Urban, LTU)

43The frustration expressed here reflects ten years of waiting which is then transformed into an endless effort, volunteering, education and still the job moves out of reach. Unlike forms of work where tasks can be completed incrementally through effort, or the mere passing of time while paid hourly, job-seeking appears a Sisyphean task–until a job is finally found. Yet, under ALMPs even this interminable labour becomes curiously transformed:

“Before I felt like I was just looking for a job, but now I feel like I’m working for the social welfare officer.” (Female, 27, Urban, LTU)

44This quote most precisely encapsulates the transformation; the task of hopefully looking for a job is transformed into the labour of “working for the social welfare officer” the onerous “busyness” of job seeking, the consumption of time.

From Doing Nothing to Killing Time

45Amid the tedium of enduring unemployment; the absurdity of “doing nothing”, our interviewees increasingly described how their time was spent on activation measures required as a condition of receiving benefits: They attended meetings, revised CVs, made on-line applications, job-searches, training courses – but all of dubious benefit. Indeed, beyond education or training that resulted in specific qualifications, there is little statistical evidence to contradict the perception the unemployed have of welfare processes as being a waste of time; now they were literally “killing time” (Burman & Rinehart, 1988). Beyond declaring that activation is inefficacious, ideological or irrational, how can we understand the experiences of temporality it generates?

46Clearly our interviews capture a shift in the temporal experience of unemployment, corresponding to the introduction of ALMPs; an incremental shift from simply waiting for jobs to arrive to actively consuming hours in seeking them out. While separated analytically above, our interviewees had mixed experiences of time, with the frenetic work of job-seeking increasingly displaced the empty time of waiting. Such data does not “speak for itself’ and here we attempt to understand the meaning of these disparate, evocative, elliptical and rich stories (Boje, 2008). Interviewees often retold the event of redundancy, but soon this event passed and was succeeded by interminable waiting, a story which could hardly be narrated, except in the desire to escape to a job. Yet the interim was almost unspeakable, narrated haltingly, like a Beckett play. By contrast, interviewees despondently described their routines of writing applications, polishing their CV, sitting unsuccessfully in interviews, and even trudging the streets looking for a job of any kind, constantly harangued, yet directionless, akin to Kafka’s novels (Boland & Griffin, 2015). Giving meaning to either experience is challenging, whether it is indefinite waiting or unlimited seeking. Thus, we turn to myth.

47The transmutation of time into waiting is not culturally neutral, but draws on the myth of Kairos, the individual hopes for a job or even the “second coming” of full employment. Similarly, using up time in constant activity reflects a culturally specific penitential logic which positions sacrifice and suffering as edifying (Boland & Griffin, 2018). Thus, ALMPs represent the state as Cronos, devouring his children; neither a universal impulse nor totally new, but another in a long line of intervention from workfare to poor-houses which disrupted older ethics of charity (Mollat, 1986). Historically, time is explicitly part of charitable giving, because alms for the poor are counted against time spent in penance or in purgatory for earthly sins (Willis, 2008). Yet, while Judaic charitable welfare was sanctified by its institution in the covenant and the Torah (Lowenberg, 1995), there were other impulses towards disciplining the poor which was intended to transform them, intervening against the adage “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark, 14:7) with the injunction “if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thessalonians: 3:10). Modern governmentality seeks to transform the poor through activation and human-capital building, but also ensure compliance through conditionality–mixing a punitive impulse with the attempt to transform the poor into self-interested active economic subjects. Here, Kairos and Cronos meet, one anticipating transformation, the other demanding it, through the sacrifice of time.

48Paradoxically, ALMPs which sacrifice the surplus time of the unemployed in a Cronos-like devouring of the vulnerable is an attempt to produce Kairos, to create a job which would give a meaning and value to the time of waiting. Activation seeks to “redeem” lost or wasted hours through using them up in work, with clear echoes of “redemption”, in the spiritual and economic sense. Governmental reason understands indigence and idleness as a waste of talent, skills and human capital, as though unemployment itself was metaphysically Cronos–a fear shared by some job seekers. Policy is haunted by potentially revolting jobless workers, “Lost generations” of youth and older workers on the “scrap-heap”–potential demonstrators, rioters or revolutionaries. The economic Cronos of capitalist “creative destruction” is mitigated by activation policies, introduced in hope of kairotic transformation, but ironically employing a devouring logic, just as Cronos mirrors and defeats Uranus and is defeated by Zeus in turn. Fear of revolution, hope for growth and the demand for timely intervention all animate social policy, so that irrational rationalities emerge from “evidence-based-policy”; and increasingly it is clear that sanctions and conditionality only proliferate job-seeking, not job-creation, except in driving down reservation wages.

49Returning to the temporal experience of unemployment, our focus on how governmentality and ALMPs constitutes the contemporary position of “job seeker” helps us to clarify the otherwise opaque. It helps us to understand why “free-time” becomes a burden of incessant waiting. Ordinary life becomes devalued without paid work to structure it. Our analysis also clarifies how activation transforms individuals into “job seekers” who must “consume” their own labour, destroying their own time in the fruitless pursuit of paid work. Incrementally, against resistance, they are encouraged to take up the priorities of ALMPs, auditing their skills and experience, polishing their CVs, undertaking work on themselves and in seeking a job relentlessly. Like the metaphor of “chasing the cheese” or “working for the welfare office”, the time of unemployment is consumed through the labour of job seeking.

50Taken together, the definition of unemployment as being without work, available for work and seeking work is not fixed but open to interpretation, creating a flexible, indefinite temporal horizon. Rather than relief from labour, unemployment and job seeking are existential predicaments, verging on nothingness, indeterminate stretches of time waiting for providence, judgement and salvation, yet ALMPs do not create meaning or purpose, but consume this time through forced activities under the threat of sanction. Across the OECD, this policy platform contributes little economically, beyond rendering the experience of unemployment almost unendurable. Thus, it is unsurprising that many claimants will accept almost any job to escape it, even those which are not financially advantageous, precarious or have worse outcomes for well-being than job seeking (Butterworth et al. 2011). Meanwhile individuals must perform the time constructed by the ILO definition, personally holding in tension the slippery, multivalent and chimerical temporalities generated by governmentality as they nurse themselves through their indefinite experience of unemployment.


51Our data clearly demonstrates that how the unemployed experience time has been significantly transformed by the shift from passive to active welfare policies. More widely, governmentality introduces disruptive and indefinite temporality into the life-conduct and subjectivity of job seekers, and, doubtlessly, other workers from the precarious to highly regulated professions. Interpreting this through Kairos and Cronos may not convince all readers, but we maintain that it is illuminating; there is more to understanding ALMPs than evaluating their efficacy or critiquing them as ideology. Regardless, the main aim of our paper is to trace the coexistence and overlapping of two temporalities of unemployment which are defined by the ILO and institutionalised in ALMPs–being unemployed and seeking work, waiting for a job and consuming time–which together constitute the enigmatic experience of job seeking. Ironically, part of the drive towards ALMPs stems from how unemployment was “problematised” by deprivation theory, with “lack” targeted by diverse interventions to prevent subjective deterioration. Yet, perhaps that “nothingness” itself was partially produced by the ILO definition and by cultural anxieties around idleness. Ironically, L’État providence appears too impatient to wait for Kairos or endure chronic time, and so turns to Cronos; devouring its own.

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Tom Boland et Ray Griffin, « Nothingness and Time », Temporalités [En ligne], 29 | 2019, mis en ligne le 11 octobre 2019, consulté le 27 janvier 2020. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/temporalites.6202

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Tom Boland

Waterford Institute of Technology

Ray Griffin

Waterford Institute of Technology

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