In 2009, during the most brutal part of the recession caused by the global financial crisis, I found myself unemployed, unqualified and without a laptop.
For six months, my life was held together through financial support from family, job recommendations from friends and daily trips to the local library for a mere hour on the internet.
Although I fondly remember it as the year I decided to embark on a career in journalism, I can’t help but think myself extremely lucky to have been able to access cloud services through the library. Because without that my life might have gone in a very grim direction.
With those precious internet hours, I did career research, CV workshops, job applications and even some social media networking. Those were the slow and frustrating initial steps I needed to take to get off the bottom and into a career. The first job was horrendous, but when my first payday came I bought a very basic laptop for £200. It served me well, helping me gradually move up the job ladder over the near decade I owned it, as well as seeing me through a number of online courses. And while I can’t remember the brand, nor would I likely recognise it if I saw it, it will always have a special place in my heart.
You see, while the cloud is free and you pretty much get all you need to get started when you sign up to a Gmail account, the hardware to access it isn’t. For many, particularly the types of people who make up little library communities, limited access to computers is a barrier to a better life.
It’s not just job-seekers who face this problem, either. According to research by the National Union of Students (NUS), a third of university students were unable to access online learning during the coronavirus lockdown, with disabled students and those from poor backgrounds being worst affected. Among the reasons for this were insufficient course materials, poor internet connections and (surprise, surprise) a lack of IT equipment and software.
There used to be a government scheme that acknowledged this problem and sought to remedy it by providing low-income households with £500 to put towards a home computer and broadband access. It was launched in 2008 and reportedly helped around 270,000 families over the course of its existence. But with the arrival of the new Conservative government in 2010 and its focus on austerity, the programme was axed and we’ve seen nothing like it since.
Right now, as we begin a new cycle of recession and the government tries to find ways of getting people back to work in the new normal, a £500 handout could feasibly pay for a laptop and some decent internet access. Hell, it could arguably get you an entry-level or second-hand smartphone, too. With these tools, the possibilities are only limited by the imagination.
For me, getting the hardware I needed accelerated my route into journalism, for others it can be the first step on the path to becoming an entrepreneur.
Laptops and phones are also essential tools for remote working, which may be a barrier to some businesses right now. The cost of kitting out your small operation might be too much and it can turn into a decision to furlough staff, make them redundant or even close down your business if it can’t operate in these difficult times. However, with a little help from some hardware schemes, the government can accelerate some aspects of digital transformation.
When I see the almost daily reports of mass job cuts now as a result of COVID-19, I can’t help but reflect on my own experience of unemployment. With the coronavirus still lurking, a trip to the library or an increasingly rare internet cafe might not be safe, but help for people to buy the hardware themselves could do wonders for equality and maybe even the economy.