never married, over forty, a little bitter

the scenery

(1) What does the title of your book, ‘Non-Stop Inertia’, refer to?

It represents a perpetual sort of crisis that people seem to be in, in everyday life. There’s this sense of always having to look for the next thing, having to sort everything out – this sort of endless circulating, networking, competing, and always passing through somewhere on the way to somewhere else. It’s sort of a vicious circle. But this is presented as ‘how it is’ or a self-imposed situation – that’s quite important, I think.

The title draws attention to the contradiction in that – in that we’re in a loop of anxiety and we’re not really getting anywhere. There’s a sort of frenetic activity and we’re not really achieving
anything at all. And there’s this sense of freedom all the time, but is it really freedom? Has this sort of mobility and availability and stuff – has it actually made us free in the way that we’re told that it has?

And I suppose I’m thinking as well, in the title, that there’s the implication that if we were to stop in some way, we could see the scenery clearly and see each other clearly, and that the scenery wouldn’t be blurred. We might be able to see an exit, or a way of improving things.


(3) Why have people accepted a society of non-stop inertia? Why aren’t they resisting it?

It’s clear that certain factors have been put together to stop people resisting it. You sort of feel helpless, that you can’t resist, that you have to go along, that you have to go with the flow. There’s a lot behind that. As an individual – in the face of the dismantling of unions, insecurity, the wage gap, etc. – you’ve got few resources to draw on. I think that all contributes to it. Now, obviously, with mobile devices and stuff like that people are encouraged to exist in their own little bubble and connections are very difficult to establish. But that push towards individualisation and insecurity has a lot to do with it.


(6) There’s also a psychological dimension to the term ‘precarity’ as well, isn’t there? In the book you say that it describes a fear of losing one’s job (because one needs the money from it) and a simultaneous desire to see one’s job end (because one’s job is boring).

Yes. Again, going back to what I was saying before about why resistance is difficult: You need the job to carry on and you also don’t want it to carry on. It’s having to carry that sort of contradiction around in your head in whatever tasks you’re doing at work. There’s that fear and all other stuff as well – like housing, the welfare system, etc. – which feeds into that fear. Yes, definitely, there’s a psychological element going on there.


(10) Another theoretical term you discuss in your exploration of the contemporary workplace is ‘emotional labour’. Could you explain what this is?

It’s an idea that Arlie Russell Hochschild was exploring in the 1970s. She introduced this phrase relating to the work involved in producing the product of yourself as a commodity – the smile and the appearance of customer service and all that sort of stuff. Also involved in emotional labour is the working up of a sort of synthetic enthusiasm for something, such as a product, which feeds into sales and jobs like that.

In the book, I look at how the term is applicable now, and, as with precarity, I think it seems to have spread a lot. In one sense there’s what I call remote emotional labour, which is virtual media work, advertising, marketing, etc., and call centres. I’m also thinking about – again from a personal point of view – how Hochschild’s traditional ideas of emotional labour – of selling yourself and of selling an experience to the customer – could be extended to the “jobseeker” and worker as well. You’re selling yourself to your manager and your boss through a performance of enthusiasm and immersion in whatever tasks you’re doing – looking as if you’re giving 110% and all that crap. That applies whether you’re in immaterial labour or in what would be old-fashioned manual labour: in a warehouse or something. It’s still there. It’s still a background to it – this sense that you have to appear to not just be doing what you’re paid for, but enjoying it and feeling that it’s the right thing for you.

As Hochschild also mentions, the effects of selling yourself starts to affect yourself and your identity. The commodified self starts to re-shape the real self. You come to believe your cover story, so to speak. Again, going back to what I was saying earlier about resistance – having to sell yourself has a huge impact on people, especially when you add a sense of self-failure and self-blame onto it, which helps people get into the part that they are playing.


Though our capacity to decide to do nothing – or do something else – is severely curtailed by the creeping sense of insecurity in the modern workplace. All employees are disposable, jobs feel precarious. Employees are required to constantly sell themselves, smile, improve their skills, prove their worth. And we do this for the fear of unemployment is too strong. Unfulfilling low paid work benefits greatly from this very climate of precarity that exists in work life. The apparent scarcity of jobs means individuals start to feel anxious even about the loss of a job that is far beneath their experience and qualifications.

What is produced is a continual feeling of insecurity – an insecurity that feeds on the centrality of work to our understanding of what it is to live and be human. Unemployment is a scary abyss of watching the Jeremy Kyle Show and sleeping til noon. Flexible work has not provided freedom but a constant need to market oneself to the next prospective buyer. And we are all commodities selling our teamwork skills and managerial experience.

And it does alarm me how normalised this mode of existence has become. Stood crammed into the tube on the way to work in this wondrous capital city of ours, a morning never passes when I don’t wonder how, why and what we are doing here squashed together, not talking, barely breathing, headphones plugged in, brain switched off, when we could be climbing Mount Everest or sailing around the world in a boat or learning Japanese or starting a jazz band or eating croissants or doing yoga in some shala in South India….

dwelling places

Waiting then serves another related purpose, to hide us from the fact we cannot win. For waiting is hopeful and can be the better option when the avenues to express one’s desires are unsatisfactory, limiting and repetitive, when it feels like you’re going in circles (Lewis, 1961). But this then begs the question: What is the grieving person waiting for? In the double-bind of the love affair, the waiting is the hope for a change in circumstances (he/she will treat me better, I will be happy again etc), it is a naïve belief that ‘everything will work out’. It is a better road to follow than one that says: ‘he won’t love me like that’. But of course in grief, he/she cannot ever love you like that ever again. The waiting then is the ‘invisible blanket’ that keeps us situated in the numb sense ‘like being mildly drunk or concussed’ (Lewis, 1961, p5), of not quite being part of the world.

To detach from what is not working, to stop waiting is perhaps then to come face to face with no recovery. But no recovery offers no narratives or objects to follow. It is to lose the anchors one had in the world, to lose one’s dwelling place. This why it is threatening and awkward to detach from what is not working (Berlant, 2011). This is why it so feels like fear (Lewis, 1961). To believe we do not lose others – though a ‘house of cards’- provides a future for the friendship. When grief reveals to us the pointlessness of it all, indeed it is easy to think ‘what does it matter?’ and allow laziness to prevail (Lewis, 1961 p.7). So in vacating the life we once knew (or it vacates us?) creates fear and anxiety. I would propose anxiety is a negative affect that emerges at the emptying out of the imagination. When everything becomes equivocal, anxiety floods to fill the space, that terrifying space of non-signifiers, of the meaningless, the death of the imagination. Anxiety is restless, ‘I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much’, it tries different paths but they don’t stick. Anxious habits become a way of clinging on to give a structure in the horrifying swirl of what is not in the desperate attempt to stop the self-unraveling. And throughout, the anxious mind is plagued thinking: What’s next? What are we becoming?


Instead of creating powerfully, women often adapt/shrink our creative powers to the depressing task of pleasing those who are boring us to death.— Mary Daly, Pure Lust


To create a convincing shopgirl identity, then, involved detaching my feminist self and replacing it with a smiley face. I was nudged into these norms of being, sometimes explicitly: “You need to smile more”. At other times I picked up cues from my environment that told me acting a certain way would produce bigger sales, which in turn would lead to financial rewards and positive encouragement from my peers. Actively managing one’s emotions and surveilling one’s self for bad feelings became a daily practice necessary to work productively and efficiently. What results is not a self devoid of emotion but a self full of emotions deemed appropriate, in this case “happy” emotions. However, these emotions were often quite distinct from how I actually felt on a day-to-day basis.


Happiness is increasingly a project of self-management, and not only for the shopgirl. The government’s interest in measuring our well-being and the growth of organisations such as Action for Happiness have reinforced the belief that happiness is an attainable object that we all deserve to pursue in the name of autonomy and self-empowerment. But whose happiness are we working towards? And is happiness even something we should desire? Happiness is often attached to particular objects, like getting married, having children, a steady job and a mortgage. An unmarried, childless, irregularly employed woman may not sit so comfortably in this vision of happiness. The legacy of the female hysteric and the persistence of depression diagnoses in women suggests that happiness is not always an easy object for women to attain. Just as the shopgirl is trained into conducting herself appropriately, to silence our unhappiness is to become complicit in validating a way of life that might be contrary to our ideals as feminists.

So what would a happy feminist future look like? I suggest it should involve the exploration of a form of happiness that did not work towards certain objects, that did not silence itself, that did not seek to avoid or overcome unhappy feelings. It might mean being a troublemaker, ruffling feathers and brushing people the wrong way. It might mean seeing depression not necessarily as pathological but in some cases as a form of resistance to conventional norms. It might mean encouraging the shopgirl to stop silencing her bad feelings and salvage her unhappiness as a political statement. It means claiming happiness as a feminist issue.

the regrouping

It turns out that a man I was set up with on a blind date here was also set up with a woman who used to work at my same place of employment, while the man who pulled the recent disappearing act just showed up on the Facebook page of another single blogger, posed in front of the same coffee chain where we first met.

Both men are in their fifties, childless, and left me with some confusion about their sexual orientation.

Even in a megalopolis it can sometimes feel like the same small number of single men are being reshuffled over and over, especially when one is primarily dating the over-fifty and childless.

That’s one of the many reasons I need to take breaks from dating– to let both my mind and the pool refresh.

pros and cons

Steven, 40

In my 20s, I lived for several years with a girl who wanted to settle down, but I hadn’t got the wild streak out of my system. After that, I went berserk and I’ve not settled down since. I have days when I’d like someone to be around, but about 90% of the time it doesn’t even occur. I’ve always got some project on the go. I think this is just my life card; I’ve never had to consider anyone else and I don’t think I’d be capable of it now.

There are times when I wonder if I’ve made the right decision – Christmas is painful on your own – but you’re not telling me that people in relationships don’t feel the same thing. They may lie and say they’re happy, but I’m a therapist: I see people who have been in loveless marriages for 25 years and they are riddled with stress and disease because they’re constantly unhappy. This concept of love that we’re exposed to by the media is all fake. It’s the stuff of Hollywood.

The one thing I do not like about being single is that you’re always viewed with suspicion. Did you watch The Killing on BBC4? It turns out that the killer was the fortysomething single bloke. And you think, great, thanks for that.


Stacey, 38

I always thought it was a given that one day I would marry and have children. Obviously, I’ve got my mum, who adores me, but other than my family, I don’t really feel like I’ve got support. My friends have partners, so I play a smaller part in their lives, while they play a bigger part in mine. I’ve begun to get more involved in my own thing recently: I keep fit and do courses at the weekend.

I think it’s important to find love. I can’t imagine what will replace not doing that, because I’ve done everything else I’ve wanted to. I’ve travelled the world with my job, and I’ve now given that up so I can meet someone. I think it’s the sense of belonging I hanker after. My sisters are twins, three years older than me, so when I was growing up they were always so much closer than I was. If I was 45, I’d be more worried. I do have confidence in myself, but I don’t want to be the one at parties who’s on their own, with everyone saying, “Oh, where are your kids? Oh, you don’t have any. Sorry.”

the over-insured

I know what you’re thinking: I’m going to die alone with cats. But this is a myopic and selfish vision. Selfish because it presumes that we should use a relationship as an insurance policy: commit your life as protection against the possibility that you’ll become lonely or dependent in later life. One survey last month claimed 51 per cent of us are over-insured. And that, I doubt, doesn’t include people staying in mediocre relationships just in case.


So what, exactly, seeds low mood? Rottenberg points to three distinct but interconnected triggers: explainability, evolutionary significance, and timing. He writes:

Modern psychological theories postulate that we recover more quickly from a bad event if we can readily explain it. We would expect, then, that events that generate mixed feelings and/or confusing thoughts would be a powerful impetus toward persistent low mood.


Events that present irresolvable dilemmas on themes that have evolutionary significance — like mate choice — are fertile seeds for low mood.

When the bad things happen also matters. Extensive research demonstrates that early life traumas, such as physical or sexual abuse, lay the groundwork for a slow creep of depression and anxiety.

the alarm

Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.