I want to thank sincerely the Dr. Cândido Vintém for inviting me to be here with you all today and for sharing some ideas about the topic of this year’s Euromeeting.
The topic of the Euromeeting –Supporting the Europe 2020 objective about social poverty reduction and job creation– is a very important topic, not only in Portugal but in the whole Europe. And when I started thinking about what I could share with you I considered three matters: 1) we cannot avoid speaking about the existing problem; 2) it was essential to have ideas about new ways and how keeping up the hope; and 3) a third idea seemed to be especially important for me: people. Because they are who suffer from social poverty and unemployment.
Since I work in an NGO, especially in unemployment matters, I cannot help remembering the faces of those who re looking for us, sharing their worries with us and, thanks to us, found their way and courage to keep moving forward.
Doing so, I hope to transfer you to the past, present and future and share with you some stories from people I met. I hope not to disappoint you. I do not bring any theory, I am an anthropologist who works with unemployed people since three years; I only bring their voices, feelings and thoughts regarding this topic.
Back to the past
Thanks to the entry of Portugal in the European Union (EEC, in the 80s) the citizens’ lifestyle changed. Our quality of life improved: more roads, more education/training, wider access to material goods, more trips, more credit, more consumption in general.
Portuguese families were exposed to a general huge economic evolution in the 80s/90s, because they could experience a lifestyle they could never access before.
The technology’s height fostered the Portuguese people’s will of using devices and the last electronic sets including: computers, tablets, iPads, mobile phones, washing machines, drying machines and even kitchen sets (such as the famous food processors), and we are surrounded by objects that we consider as essential goods which we could not live without.
The number of stores that became large chains increased and they are now spread all over the cities of the country: clothing stores (such as Zara, for instance), decoration shops (such as Loja do Gato Preto store), book and music stores (such as Fnac), domestic appliances shops (such as Worten), banks, telecom stores, post offices, among others. And shopping centres were built in order to host all these stores, put together in a single establishment and with much wider opening hours than local shops. People started walking around these consumption establishments, buying and buying, generally unnecessary goods, nonstop. They had the feeling of having money in its different forms (debit and/or credit cards), they had easy access to credits, what allowed them maintaining this lifestyle.
We got used to buy on impulse because we could afford it (we had money and/or credit) and we wanted to (desire). Then, unemployment also increased and it was relatively easy to move on. This abundance generated a prosperity and happiness feeling among many people. But Portuguese’s life changed when struggles started and when companies begun closing and/or firing their employees. We still visit shopping centres but their shops do not sell like before and are about closing down. Store chains start being fewer in the country, there is no longer one on every corner, outside every Portuguese’s home. And of course Portuguese people lost their employments.
The economic austerity, which is so much talked about in politics, is coming into all houses without distinction, making lifestyle suffer from restriction and shortage. The middle-class, which has undergone most changes, is a class stripped of goods and, in some cases; they even witnessed how their social status was getting worse. There have been (many) cases where several families (couples) have started being victims of the unemployment and social poverty scourge and, since they cannot face the financial engagements they assumed, they are forced to come back home with their parents; they lost social aids, not to mention sociological implications that all this has entailed.
Employment in the past
The generation of those now over 50 years old has been generally educated for the so-called “employment for life”, especially in public service, where “it is well-paid and secure”.
My grandmother, for instance, always worried about me because I always worked in the private sector. However, my sister, that is teacher (she works for the State), has never been a worry for her. Because she was working for the State, her future and that of her family were ensured.
People are educated in loyalty towards the companies where they work, in order to progress within the firm, adopt and internalize its values, culture and philosophy. All the employees have a deep and empirical knowledge of the company’s history. They started working as beginners, and sometimes, without any studies and started evolving from inside, acquiring studies, sometimes paid by the company itself, betting on every employee.
The expression “experience is an asset” is directly linked to this idea. Dedication, determination or the employee’s together with the company’s knowledge and evolution allow certain advantages to arise from this close relationship.
On the other hand, there are workers, who do not need qualifications, because they learnt with practice, evolving within the company through their know-how and not through their knowledge. Executives know the job of every person and no not need to evaluate their performance in an objective and systematic way: “This person works here since more than 20 years. Therefore, we are not going to question his performance, because experience and loyalty is what counts”.
When times are changing, employment is scarce and qualifications are one of the criteria for ensuring labour market integration; when unemployment grows considerably, so that not only less competent workers are fired, but it becomes something general in any kind of duty, age, sex, firm, city, etc., things change!
Together with employment, parts of identity and contacts network are also lost. When we introduce ourselves, we use to say “Cristina Carita, engineer” or “Cristina Carita, market studies expert”. We are what we do and when we lose our job, it is like losing our identity: we forget who we are. We were used to get dignity through our job. When we do not have it, we feel useless, we get isolated from the rest in order to not speak about it, because that means social shame. We end up losing contact with many people we know and that we had regularly contact with. Thus, the contact network is also lost. We stay alone, in an island where we were put at the beginning and where, neither because of shame nor lack of courage and energy, we pretend being comfortable, not wanting to go out or get help.
Qualifications are essential for labour market integration and that is why we bet strongly on education, whether the State, the social society or families invest on young people in order to ensure their future. However, currently, having an advanced degree is no longer a differentiating factor. And we speak about transversal competences and social abilities. It is important to have an advanced degree, but my capacity for solving problems and ensuring communication and interpersonal relationships is important as well.
This means many changes at a high pace for our generation. We have lived in security for 20 or 30 years and, in less than half of this time; we are suffering from continuous changes. We do not understand (and either want to) what we are standing out against until hiding behind the feeling that everything will go back to the way things were before, in contrast to what is necessary to do daily in order to remain within the system.
There are many causes that lead to unemployment and, consequently, to social poverty including, as we can see: bad work habits; extended professional experience but in one single firm; unfulfilment of the expectations caused by seniority at the workplace; higher wages; low qualification, in some cases; chronical or professional diseases that decrease the productivity rate; resistance to the introduction of new tools or procedures: computers, new sale procedures, etc.
The consequences, as we know, are catastrophic:
As a direct consequence of all of this, we have people who are long-term unemployed: people over 45 years old without job or future prospects. According to statistical data (INE) although unemployment affects all ages and functions, in 2013, 27.6% of unemployed people (the highest percentage so far) were between 45 and 64 years old and they were unskilled. People who are in this age range are also spending more time unemployed: 25 months or more, besides being also those who are most affected by the cuts in social aids. Some are "too old" for access to labour market but "too young" to already retire.
Despite the difficulties and the limited evolution of new companies or the creation of new jobs, younger unemployed or those who were less time unemployed are those who enter back more easily in labour market. Attitude makes the difference, but the companies’ receptivity is also different. Wages suffered from a great alteration and then, people receiving a dole lose out if they go back to work for a salary not only lower that what they earned before, but also lower than the mentioned dole. Then, it is preferable to keep receiving aids as long as possible, postponing the return to labour market and, consequently, loosing competences and increasing the difficulty of being selected for a new job among so many candidates (even with the existing stimulating measures when it comes to hire people over 45 years old).
But, despite the difficulties, there are alternatives. Not all can/should be considered negative. There are people over 45 years old looking for a job (I know many of them indeed), and there are companies which are sensitive to this sector of the Portuguese society and hire people over 45 (I also know some of them).
Regarding the possible ways for reaching solutions, I will list some that in my opinion should be taken by both individuals and companies in order to create alternatives to the current situation of "no job and no future prospects".
Experience is an essential value that should not be underestimated. No matter if they say knowledge is outdated, there are skills that do not get lost and acquired knowledge that has to be transmitted to new generations. And there's nobody better to transmit it than this generation, because they lived it and that is what makes the difference in generational renewal.
Companies with a secure vision of the future which will understand the added value of keeping experienced and more motivated employees when it comes to transmit values, culture and philosophy of the company to future employees, with many skills but without any professional experience or knowledge of the company in which they will work.
And people with a vision of the future and attitude can demonstrate why they are an added value, not only in terms of effective work in companies, but also as transmitters of knowledge and values, which is what makes the difference between the company and the rest of the market. This allows maintaining or increasing their market share, sales, services and customers.
What we have to do is bring together people and companies through concrete proposals providing clear benefits.
Regarding this last matter, I feel bound to refer to the Project I coordinate and which I am "product" of: the GEPE, mutual aid groups for job searching, which not only allowed me make wider perspectives and horizons about the problem, but also made me think about new ways of addressing the problem and, especially, meet special and unique people, assuming the voluntary engagement to help each other, have been and are a source of hope for so many persons and an example that there are ways to get solutions. These ways are, without any doubt, based on strengthening civil and institutional networks, as well as on sharing and on the complementarity of interventions in the field of its more various functions.
Remembering all the people I have met, also remembering my own story, I conclude by saying that ATTITUDE is essential.
Key words for everyone: unemployed, companies, civil society, State.