Why the young and jobless are rebranding as funemployed
Un/employmenthood: As more and more young people struggle to find work in an economy ravaged by Covid, words like “funemployed” are making a comeback. Amelia Tait meets those reframing their unemployment with some good ol’ fashioned wordplay.
When 27-year old Shravya quit her high-powered consultancy job this May, friends and strangers would “look concerned” or “not know how to react” when she told them she was unemployed. Within two days of joblessness, the New York resident found herself feeling like “a waste of oxygen” – she had secured her job straight out of university and now felt guilty about being unproductive for the first time in five years. The solution was simple: it was time to rebrand.
When Shravya told friends she was “funemployed”, they were able to joke together about the road trips she had planned and the reading she was going to catch up on. The word also made her feel less guilty about taking time off: it reminded her to “unwind, relax and just have fun.”
For the longest time, “funemployed” was just a typo. Google Ngram – a search engine that charts the use of particular words or phrases in books printed between 1500 and 2019 – says “funemployed” started appearing in print in the early 1800s, but closer inspection reveals that most of these are a fumble with the “f” key. The term actually began appearing in earnest during the Great Recession, when its usage shot up dramatically after a 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times.
In For the ‘funemployed,’ unemployment is welcome, journalist Kimi Yoshino interviewed the “happily jobless” who “found a silver lining in the economic meltdown” via travel, volunteering and general relaxation. According to Yoshino, Twitter allowed the word to spread. “The daily lives of the unemployed have never been more public,” she wrote. “They can post online photos of globe-trotting vacations [and] blog about their long lunches.” In 2011, “funemployed” was defined in humour book The Wage Slave’s Glossary, while in the era of Obamacare, some Republicans threw the word around mockingly, arguing that increased unemployment benefits were “funemployment insurance” that allowed people to have a good time.
Since then, the word hasn’t disappeared. In 2017, it showed up in journalist Hannah Jewell’s 100 Nasty Women of History; a year earlier it materialised in sociology professor Benjamin H. Snyder’s The Disrupted Workplace: Time and the Moral Order of Flexible Capitalism – but in the midst of the Covid-19 recession, it’s no surprise that some people are picking it back up.
“I think generally, youth culture and language has been shifting to be more ironic and more determined to ‘go with the flow’,” says Daniel, a 22-year old recent graduate from Staten Island who refers to himself as funemployed on social media. “Many younger people feel like the generations before us have set our generation up for financial failure… I think the ‘just vibing’ mentality that birthed the idea of funemployment comes from that mindset, because if you can’t get a job, you might as well joke about it, right?”
For Shravya, funemployment is genuinely fun. Because she’s starting an MBA program (with a full scholarship) in September, she isn’t worried about her future. For the last few months, she has been able to relax, catch up with friends and family, and visit New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee (she also has upcoming plans to go to Vegas and The Hamptons). For Daniel, funemployment has been slightly less exciting – although he also planned to travel, things didn’t work out “in part due to Covid and in part due to not having the money to do anything too fancy.”
Still, like Shravya, Daniel isn’t too stressed – he has a job lined up at a computer security company in late August, meaning he has happily spent the last few months “watching TV, browsing Twitter, looking for apartments or playing music.” While he thinks telling friends he’s funemployed is “a funny way to reduce the negative implications” of unemployment, he also says friends who are more stressed about their situation are less drawn to the term. “They don’t want to make light of it.”
Anecdotally – and perhaps unsurprisingly – it seems people who use the words “funemployed” and “funemployment” have a certain degree of privilege or security; nearly everyone I reach out to who uses the words on social media has a job lined up in the near future. But that doesn’t mean that people in more difficult situations aren’t also drawn to the term. Kim is a 33-year-old videographer in London who quit her job for personal reasons just before the pandemic. For the last year and a half, she has been on benefits while looking for work.
“It’s not an enjoyable experience,” she says of the day-to-day reality of job hunting, citing the constant rejection. “It’s a bit like Groundhog Day sometimes.” Yet Kim says the word “funemployment” helps to remind her to enjoy her free time: she’s been able to go on long walks, spend more time with her nieces and nephews and take a few classes. “I find that I use it when I’m out on a workday doing something fun and I’m like, ‘Well, actually, this is the benefit of being unemployed’,” she explains.
Kim also says the word is a useful way to “make other people feel more comfortable with the fact I don’t have a job.” She says using the word “funemployment” stops people from prying and asking more questions about her situation. “Rather than go, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m unemployed, I’m on the dole’, I go, ‘I’m funemployed’ and that’s when the conversation normally stops, because I don’t really want to go into talking about it,” she says.
Kim isn’t alone. In March 2020, 29-year-old Vancouver resident Nox completed a graphic design course and began looking for work. “Despite being a top performer” in her class, the pandemic meant Nox had “no job prospects”. Although she found work in July 2020, she was laid off in November after the company’s business suffered a downturn. In February 2021, the company rehired her. In June, she lost her job again after profits declined once more.
“Being unemployed sucks, we all know that, but making light of the situation and joking about it makes it hurt a bit less,” she explains. Like Kim, she says the term helps “soften the blow” when talking to friends and keeps her optimistic about the upsides of unemployment – she’s been able to grow her Twitch channel, cook more and keep her house clean. “We all know it’s a joke to make light of a shitty situation,” she says of the word. “People aren’t happy to not have stable income, but getting down in the dumps about it doesn’t help.”
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work, says “funemployment” is a “wonderful” example of how gratifying wordplay can be. “Funemployment is satisfying because it takes advantage of the fact that ‘un,’ with its negative connotations, can so easily be changed into ‘fun,’ with its positive ones,” she says.
“Humour is always an invaluable way to deal with calamity, misfortune, any bad experience; so is realising that others are in the same boat. I also think there’s satisfaction in seeing or, even better, feeling you’ve done something creative. And putting a positive spin on something negative even has a slight hint of hope: you can change the bad into good.”
I am most surprised to discover that people use the term on LinkedIn, from those who have listed themselves as “CEO at funemployed” to “Funemployed at Parents’ House”. Jamie, a 32-year-old in Edinburgh has himself down as “Currently Funemployed” on the networking site. He quit his medical technology job in March due to stress and planned to take three months off. Although it took longer than expected to secure new work, Jamie ultimately hasn’t been too perturbed by six months of unemployment.
“I come from a very privileged position where I’ve been able to amass some savings, which allowed me to take that time,” he says. During his six months, he’s been able to go on long walks with his new puppy, play golf and do some DIY around the house. Still, he “laboured over” whether it was insensitive to publicly use the word “funemployed” on LinkedIn.
“I know this is a very difficult time for people. Some people will have unfortunately been thrust into the position of unemployment,” he says. Nonetheless, he disliked how “LinkedIn just seems to be a bit of a stuffy place for people to brag about their achievements” and wanted to show a bit of personality. The word helped him “embrace” quitting his job. “In my mind, the phrase ‘funemployed’ was almost taking ownership of that decision to stop work.”
Jamie wasn’t even worried that potential future employers would be put off by the word. “From my point of view, it was almost kind of a realisation that I wouldn’t want to work in a company who would look at that and say, ‘You’re not allowed to have a sense of humour about these things’.”
For those furloughed or fired due to the pandemic, struggling to secure work after university, or simply unable to find any job at all, the word “funemployed” could arguably be salt in the wound. Kim says she isn’t annoyed when privileged people use the word “funemployed”, but does note that “I probably couldn’t afford their [version of] funemployment even with a job.” Still for people like Kim, “funemployment” can be a (sometimes ironic) way to reclaim and reframe their situation. And for those with work lined up, it’s a reminder that taking time for yourself in a capitalist society isn’t a hideous crime.
“I was so used to being so productive that not having anything to do felt very unusual. I had a very stressful job with high demands and I was used to working around the clock to meet client deadlines. Going from that atmosphere to not having anything to do was nice for the first day or so, but then I felt like I was wasting time,” Shravya says. “The term ‘funemployment’ definitely helped me feel less guilty.”