Love on the dole
This isn’t entirely due to social change. Jeremy is, to some extent, inoculated from dependence on the state: he partly lives off money from his mother, who, in Telfer’s words, “coddles and shields him from the pressures of adulthood.” He also mooches off his flatmate Mark, who “shelters him, feeds him, bails him out of awkward situations, both emotionally and financially, and indulges him throughout the series.”
But it is mentioned in the series that Jeremy has been signing on for years, and I was curious to know whether changes in Britain’s benefits system have effectively rendered this impossible. “In the past, it was relatively easy to stay on unemployment benefits for very long periods without a lot of hassle from the state,” Tom O’Grady, author of The Transformation of British Welfare Policy, told me. “In the early to mid-1980s, there really weren’t a lot of conditions placed on the unemployed in return for benefits, and it was something that was used by ‘creatives’ to fund a more artistic lifestyle.”
It was really in 1996 under John Major that things got tough. This is when unemployment benefits were renamed “jobseeker’s allowance” (the name is telling: effectively rebranding the “unemployed” as “people looking for work”). This limited most unemployment benefits to a period of only six months, and introduced stronger conditions such as having to attend training if no job was found quickly and having to go to regular interviews at jobcenters. Most importantly, this introduced sanctioning: people who failed to meet the conditions could have their benefits withdrawn for several weeks and be left destitute.
Death of the slacker
So, by 1996, Jeremy’s lifestyle was already becoming much harder. But when Peep Show was released in 2003, it wasn’t yet an outlier. The year before saw the release of the song “Has It Come to This?” by The Streets, which featured the refrain “sex, drugs and on the dole!” In many ways, it was New Labour which really put an end to the dole-artistic complex. Throughout the noughties, they made the benefits system far stricter, introducing intensive monitoring and sanctioning of job-seeking efforts.
Since the Tories returned to power after the 2008 financial crash, things have become even harsher, with people facing up to six months of benefit removal if they fail to meet requirements. According to O’Grady, this tends to disproportionately impact people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties, or low literacy, or those with English as a second language. There are still cultural depictions of the benefits system today — the 2016 film I, Daniel Blake, for instance — but these tend to be considerably less romantic than their 1980s equivalents.
The fail-son fantasy
In Peep Show, unemployment is not the result of a structural problem — the lack of jobs — but rather due to Jeremy’s own perceived weakness, which chimes with the rhetoric of “benefits cheats” and “scroungers” which was so prevalent in the Blair years.
Jeremy is too cushioned by Mark’s support and familial wealth to be “poor”; in many ways he is the epitome of the undeserving broke. According to Telfer,
He’s workshy, lazy, and arrogant. He is a man so completely convinced of his own talent and self-worth that he thinks the stars will at some point simply align and he will be granted the fame and riches he deserves, without ever having to show a modicum of dedication to achieve it.
Because he’s so unpleasant, and so privileged, it’s hard to defend his right to live as he does. But I think we should! An effective and compassionate benefits system ought to accommodate people who we might not think of as particularly deserving of sympathy. State support should not be contingent on moral virtue: it’s better to be too generous than too parsimonious.
Thanks to the death of the slacker, the contemporary archetype Jeremy most resembles is the “fail-son”: someone with rich parents who fails to parlay their inherited advantages into their own success. The fail-son is a comforting fantasy of meritocracy’s revenge against nepotism. But past a certain level of wealth it is impossible to truly fail, because money protects against the consequences of failure.
Jeremy offers a similarly comforting fantasy, the idea that not everyone who is afforded unfair advantages is blessed with the talent and discipline to take advantage of them: in extreme cases, a meritocratic safeguard kicks in. But perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of Peep Show is that a talentless buffoon with a trust fund did not in fact achieve greater success within the British media.
In defense of indolence
If Jeremy’s lifestyle is no longer achievable, if it’s really no longer possible to slack off, does this even matter? He’s hardly an advert for a peaceful and contented rejection of ambition. But something valuable is lost if people no longer have the opportunity to drop out, both at an individual level and for the culture at large. As this has become harder, the creative industries have become increasingly dominated by private school alumni, which isn’t coincidental.
Shutting down the possibility of a life like Jeremy’s does exact a social cost — not only will this thwart people who are genuinely talented, but it is also inseparable from measures which punish people in less fortunate circumstances. Beyond the various reasons why people are unable to work, anyone who wants to should be able to slack off their job and still be able to survive. Anything else is a form of servitude — the essence of the way capitalism forces us to live for work.
“For me, the loss is both cultural and psychological,” says author Josh Cohen, who in Not Working: Why We Have to Stop argues against the cultural imperative to produce; and in Losers examines the role that the archetype of “loser” plays in culture and politics. It creates a consensus that all time must be “put to work,” that time — hours or days or weeks or months — not dedicated to purposive, productive activity is time wasted, a judgement that soon extends to the people — or “wasters” — themselves:
It encourages human beings to think of work as the primary meaning of their lives, and deadens non-working time, which turns into a kind of empty space looking to be filled by a proliferation of ‘leisure’ activities — it’s no accident that the demonization of non-work coincides with the rise and ubiquity of the smartphone… I think it is also socially and politically impoverishing to refuse to see any value or benefit in our non-working selves, as though only productive work legitimizes our existence.
If there is a value in indolence, or in having time to spend on creative projects, this shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of the elites. In an ideal world, there would be a safety net for everyone, including the people who can’t be bothered. Some people (myself included) really are lazy by disposition, but this doesn’t mean they deserve to live in poverty. A Jeremy-like lifestyle should be available not only to the Jeremys of the world, but to anyone who wants it.
James Greig is a writer with bylines in the Guardian, Vice, i-D, and Huck. He is based in London.
Featured image: Objective Productions.
This article was first published on Jacobin.