The point of Peep Show (2003-2015) is that both its protagonists, Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) and Jeremy Usbourne (Robert Webb), are abject and despicable losers. Yet watching it recently for the first time in years, I felt a trace of envy. Jeremy is an unemployed slacker, and yet his life, while bleak, holds an unintentional allure. I too would like to have recourse to a ‘nest egg’ or free accommodation, but none of my friends are rich enough for me to mooch off . My parents, while middle-class, are too Presbyterian to fund my efforts to make it as a DJ. There is something in this loser’s life that I can’t really aspire to.
The allure of Jeremy’s life owes partly to the nature of narrative fiction: Hitchcock once said that ‘Drama is life without the boring parts,’ and the same is true of sitcoms. We never see Jeremy spending hours watching daytime television or filling out forms at the jobcentre. Instead, he takes drugs, goes to the pub, has escapades, and pursues a series of disastrous love affairs—all of which seem preferable to working.
‘As a viewer, you are both appalled and thrilled by Jeremy’s actions and outlook,’ Craig Telfer, co-host of the Review from the Terrace podcast, which recently reflected on Peep Show, told me. ‘Appalled that someone so selfish, reckless, and impulsive can coast through life with no consequences for their actions, but thrilled because in some way because you wish you could be like that, too: untethered from the real world.’
As I was watching, it occurred to me that the life that Jeremy leads is no longer possible. I understand that Peep Show is a sitcom, rather than a Ken Loach film, and the situations it portrays may have been unrealistic at the time it was written. But as a work of social satire, it was surely responding to something. Jeremy must have been a recognisable archetype. I’m not sure that he is today, or at least not in the same way.
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 he 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.’
You can see this represented in a number of cultural products of the time: take Wham’s ‘Wham Rap’, for example. It proudly proclaims: ‘Hey Jerk, you work. This boy’s got better things to do… I’m a soul boy, I’m a dole boy; take pleasure in leisure, I believe in joy!’ Or Geoff Dyer’s novel The Colour of Memory (1989), which paints an evocative picture of a group of twenty-something slackers drifting between employment and the jobcentre in Thatcher-era Brixton.
Dyer later recalled that being on the dole provided him with opportunity: ‘This took the form of continuing education. Higher education leads to finer and finer specialism; my dole-funded project took the contrary direction, of wider and wider interest.’ Beyond culture, I’ve lost count of the times someone in the generation or two above me has waxed lyrical about how easy it was to sign on in the eighties, and what a pity it is that people my age can no longer do the same.
The benefits system had already changed by the New Labour era and the arrival of Peep Show, according to O’Grady. In the late 1980s, Thatcher began to tighten up the conditions for benefits, introducing mandatory interviews at jobcentres and requirements to ‘actively seek work’, although these weren’t stringently policed.
According to O’Grady,
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 jobcentres. 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 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 jobseeking 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—I, Daniel Blake (2016), for instance—but these tend to be considerably less romantic than their eighties equivalents.
‘At this point, anyone on Universal Credit is required to spend thirty-five hours per week searching for work and retraining, or face sanctions. This even applies to part-time workers,’ O’Grady said. All of which means that it’s now effectively impossible to live on benefits and pursue creative projects, as Jeremy does with little-to-no success.
Combined with soaring housing costs and the end of squatting, the slacker has effectively been killed off. However unrealistic Jeremy’s lifestyle might have been when Peep Show first aired, it’s now in the realm of almost total fantasy. ‘Nobody could be a benefits-funded “layabout” like Jeremy anymore,’ said O’Grady. ‘Welfare reforms have rendered that stereotype out-of-date.’ It’s still possible to scrape by in a city like London on a low income, but doing so will require you to spend all of your time working.
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.
Many of us know people like Jeremy: people who are middle-class, university-educated, long-term unemployed and supported by their wealthy parents. It’s easy to scoff about fail-sons, but the ones I know are largely sad stories: men in their thirties who spend all their time watching conspiracy theory videos on YouTube and people who want to pursue some passion or other but never get round to doing it because they are depressed, anxious, or smoke too much weed.
They are privileged, and their lives would be hard without a parental safety net, but few would envy them. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are: if you can’t even pretend to have a career there remains a high social cost to not working. You can see this at play in Peep Show too: Jeremy often seems tortured by a sense of exclusion from the class of fashionable creatives to which he feels entitled to belong. It doesn’t matter that he is shielded from the worst effects of poverty: no-one is immune from being harmed by the high level of status which we assign to work.
In Defence 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, it is 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 demonisation 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 legitimises 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.