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“Living in the dark…” European voices about work


Every unemployment statistic has a human story behind it. Here, four young Europeans talk about their relationship to work. Of the crushing lack of future prospects. Or, in abundance of work, of the voluntary decision to work less. “Just scraping along” Maria Salzano, 26, Naples, Italy Master in Biotechnology, unemployed I am Maria, 26 years

Every unemployment statistic has a human story behind it. Here, four young Europeans talk about their relationship to work. Of the crushing lack of future prospects. Or, in abundance of work, of the voluntary decision to work less.

“Just scraping along”

Maria Salzano, 26, Naples, Italy
Master in Biotechnology, unemployed

I am Maria, 26 years old. I live in Naples, in the South of Italy, with my parents.

I took my diploma from a secondary school with emphasis on sciences and a Master’s degree in
Medical Biotechnologies. I have no educational experience abroad.

As for future career views in my field of studies, there are no financed projects, or in any case future prospects, in the field of research. It is already all full. It is a “closed loop” and pre-established.

My most recent experience with working dates to a month ago, when I took part in a project for Cystic Fibrosis for six months, without pay and without my expenses being refunded, and above all without any employment prospects.

I think that there is so much unemployment in my professional field because there is no interest in enlarging research teams or, more generally speaking, work teams. I think everything has already been assigned. To fight this employment crisis, we should reorganise academic work teams by diversifying them, expanding them and having the various universities collaborate with each other. There is too much competition.

A typical day in my life up until a month ago, when I worked for the project, began when I left for the lab in the morning at 8:30 to then end my day at 7 or even 8 pm. Today I wake up in the morning with the hope that some company will read my curriculum vitae, but they always ask for young people who already have experience.

I’m angry, upset and disappointed because I am finding so many difficulties preventing me from entering the world of work after so many years of studies.

I am striving to improve my situation. I teach swimming, and although I am willing to give up entering the world of research, I am finding difficulties in this field as well. I have attended teaching courses and competitions, but without success.

As far as adult learning is concerned, I  attended an English course with the hope of broadening my CV and chances.

Unfortunately, I must say that I am living from hand to mouth… or as they say in Naples, “just scraping along”.

“I have potential I cannot put into practice”

Oriana Tricarico, 22, Naples, Italy
Secondary school diploma, unemployed

My name is Oriana, from Naples. I live at home, with my family of origin.

I received my diploma from a secondary school with emphasis on social sciences. I have no educational or work experience abroad.

That is because although I am diligently seeking employment, I have not yet found one up to my expectations.

I have two work experiences: one as a clerk at a perfumer’s shop, and another as a substitute secretary at a general medicine surgery dating to six months ago.

We are now undergoing a heavy economic crisis in Italy, particularly in the southern regions of the country with Campania at the top of the list. This to me explains our difficult unemployment situation. My region, Campania has the highest unemployment rate, which in my opinion is due to poor regional management. I also believe that this unemployment stems from the high costs employers have to bear. They have to pay a considerable amount in contributions in order to regularize an employee due to a system that does not provide hiring incentives.

I think that the government has to offer tax reliefs and benefits to employers, incentives that encourage hiring, in order to fight unemployment. The government could also make training courses or initial skill adaptation training available to the unemployed, which would introduce them to the world of work after training them.

My typical day? I wake up in the morning at 6 to go to a social promoter course that starts at 8 am and ends at 2 pm. I arrive at home at 3 pm and in the afternoon I meet up with one of my friends or study English. In the evening I then go to an English course.

I personally feel dissatisfied because I believe I have the potential that I cannot put into practice in a work environment.

I send out a large number of CVs every day and I stay up to date on the courses and projects that my project offers young holders of diplomas like me.

I presently attend a regional training course to get the qualification of social promoter. I believe that these professional courses are useful because they offer the chance to get a qualification that could provide greater employment opportunities.

My hope is to find a job that fulfils me both professionally and economically, and I plan to win my personal independence.

“I’ll continue living in the dark”

Patrícia João Santos Lopes Umbelino,29
Leiria, Portugal
Degree in Social Services, unemployed

This is definitely one of the most difficult texts I have had to write in my life. I never thought I would reach 29 with my life in such turmoil.

It all started when I was still very young and believed that studying would help me to be successful in life. That wasn’t what happened.

I chose the course in the first year of high school. My classmates weren’t very sure of what they wanted to do but I knew I wanted to be a social worker. When I entered, I decided it would be better to take the course at the Lisbon Social Services Institute because it had the best reputation and that was what I did. I moved away from my home town, family and friends thinking that it was for the best, which turned out to be an illusion. I left them all behind and my relationship with them was never the same.

I finished my degree in 2006 without failing any year. During the last year of the course, I became pregnant and defended my degree thesis six months later. I hoped that I was finishing one phase in my life, which would bring me work and stability to bring up a child. After my daughter was born, I immediately started to look for work and I found a job at an old people’s home where I stayed for 1 month to replace someone else. I earned €500 as an independent worker. At the time, the independent worker payment system was often used by companies. This was the only job I had that was related to social services. But I didn’t give up. I prepared a mediation project between parents, schoolchildren and teachers and went to every school in Leiria but the Ministry of Education had no money to hire staff. Even so, I battled on and presented the project to town councils, but to no avail. No money was available.

Despite these setbacks, I worked up my energy again and decided I could open a Private Social Welfare Institution. I drew up a business plan and presented it to the bank but as I had insufficient collateral I wasn’t granted a loan to go ahead with the plan.

As I could either use it or lose it, I set up my own business exporting food articles. I exported Portuguese articles to Portuguese-speaking countries for a year and a half, then I was forced to close down because I bought the articles including VAT (as the articles were Portuguese) and sold them excluding VAT, (as they were for sale abroad), but the Government took a long time to return the VAT and I had to close because what I was earning wasn’t enough to pay my wages.

Recently, I went to England to try to find a job but unfortunately the money I had didn’t allow me to stay for long enough to get one because I wasn’t alone as I had a 5-year old daughter in my care.

I am now unemployed and receive no benefit whatsoever from the Government despite having paid social security for a year and a half. As I had my own business, I’m not entitled to any type of social security benefit. It is ironic to think that one social worker now needs help from another one.

I’m not married but I live together with my partner. As he earns more than the minimum wage, I’m not entitled to income support either. It is as if people aren’t entitled to their personal dignity. Because that is how I feel just now, without no dignity at all. I did everything I could to be successful but I failed and I admit that I’m losing my courage and energy to keep on going. I already thought about committing suicide and putting an end to this sense of outrage but I thought of my daughter and couldn’t go through with it. I’ve often thought of ending this pain because I’m no longer living, just existing.

The last time I earned any money was in January 2008 so despite having to work every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, I can consider myself unemployed since then. The last job I had was in a supermarket as a shop supervisor but the shop belonged to a group that went bankrupt and I was once again left unemployed. I don’t earn any money at the moment and living like that with a child isn’t easy. It is my companion who pays for everything, which I hate. I can’t live with this sense of depending on someone else. I thank him every day but I know that the love we feel for each other may not be enough to overcome this difficult problem facing us: unemployment.

What am I doing to fight unemployment? I have a consultancy project for companies linked to the external market but I still haven’t had any positive feedback. I send CVs every day but to no avail either because I have too much training and experience or, if it’s for my area, I don’t have enough. It is frustrating living like this and I don’t know how much longer I can take it.

The economic crisis and the job market crisis is the only explanation I can find for the situation I am in at the moment. I’m not afraid of working and I have the ability to work. I know I’ll do my best when I am given the opportunity but until the sun shines down on me, I’ll continue living in the dark.

In short, I am just a young mother with a degree who had a model life, either as a student or later on as a professional and I must say, even as a politically active person.

I have a diploma full of job experiences and work as a volunteer or for free. I still dream of working in my area, respectfully, honestly and truthfully, but I can’t find a job.

I believe that Portuguese politicians don’t defend people properly and that truth and loyalty (which should be the anchors of democracy) were replaced by a lack of values and principles, moral and intellectual dishonesty, a lack of discussion of ideas (discussing only figures without thinking about people), incoherent, mediocre, lying, superficial speeches that question the social state and democracy.

I have no hope for my country or my future because we don’t have honest development policies with ethical principles and underlying interests that defend the people, based on a framework of fair and ethical political values.

I am a non-believer, worried, outraged and scared of having no light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not ashamed of asking for help but no-one can help me. Time is running out and I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this mess.


“What if you could downshift to success?”

Karita Sainio, 33,
Helsinki, Finland
bachelor in ICT (digital media), CEO of Sugar Helsinki


I was asked to write an article about downshifting at work. That suits me perfectly because I think that taking it easy is a key not just for an employee’s well-being but also for the success of a company. That said, you are very welcome to listen to the story of my company, Sugar Helsinki and myself.

Work and free time do mix

I have to start everything by saying that I love working. Downshifting is not about not wanting to work. It’s all about making things cleverer way and being creative, so you can also have time to experience life outside of work. That other life will back you up at work.

In the end there is no line between work and free time: it is just something that we have modeled. However, our brains don’t work like that. They don’t know how to distinguish between work and free time. The brain is working all the time. The first step to downshifting is to let go of the idea that you can separate work and your free time. You can’t because it is neurologically impossible. So give up and start to enjoy your life as a whole.

A personal quest

I have been downshifting for years. I think it all started when I was working at the ICT sector and got really frustrated with constant meetings and emails, which I felt were basically just waste of my time. All those endless PowerPoint presentations, annual reports, visions and missions that just make you yawn when instead they should inspire you to be passionate about what you do: who do they serve?

I tried many times and ended up quitting my job in many companies such as Accenture, Hewlett-Packard, Tieto and Ixonos. I just didn’t fit in. I started to work as a freelance journalist and copywriter and worked on projects as a producer and managing editor for magazines. I started to work only four days a week and specialized in sustainability.

I don’t think downshifting is laziness. It is about being brave and taking responsibility of your life. If the way you work does not work for you, or you can’t find the right job, you need to move on and create your own path.

Innovative time management

And so my current work, Sugar Helsinki was born. A group of people wanted to make something in a different way. We call ourselves a new generation’s PR agency. We want to question the current ways of working. It all started from the values and we decided to take in only brands that are sustainable. It makes a huge difference to come to work when you know that you’re doing something good not only for the society, but also for the environment and human rights. Among other things, we promote sustainable food, cosmetics and other lifestyle articles. Our customers range from a yoga school to a forest certificate. You can imagine how fun it is to work in a field like this. It makes work much more easier when your heart is in it.

Working sustainably doesn’t mean it’s not a real business. Our goal is to do even more fresh and clever communications than our competitors are doing in the traditional field. We want to take huge steps ahead with ethical communication, from the green and brown to something creative and chic.

Doing PR is very hectic, as most of the jobs these days are: the rush is not going anywhere. So from the beginning we decided to have a four-day week: our company is closed on Fridays. In the end of the day, working five days in such a hectic world would not be good for our employees or the company itself. Creativity needs peace and time, so that things have time to settle down in our minds. In my opinion, choosing between a four-day and a five-day week makes no difference when it comes to work efficiency. We do the same or even more, just in a shorter time. For that we have come up with – and are constantly working on – tools to make our work easier. We also outsource work that is not our core business.

I personally always have my phone on the silent mode. I get back to the calls when I have the time. This way they don’t constantly interrupt my day. I try to read emails only twice a day. At Sugar we have decided to have internal meetings only once a week: on Mondays. On our weekly meetings everyone is focused on the agenda and not doing their own stuff on a computer or a phone. We actually think behaving like that in a meeting is very rude and wastes other people’s time.

Different people are creative and effective on different times of the day. I personally can’t wake up early so I’m coming to the office around ten or eleven o’clock. Some people at our office prefer the more traditional nine-to-five, and that is fine. Everyone can decide their own rhythm of working. At Sugar there is also the freedom to work remotely from home (or from a paradise island in Thailand if you want to!). We also encourage people to work at café’s, because that is fun and you can do a lot in a short time with a cup of good cappuccino.

HR with a heart

At work we are friends with each other and take care of each other. To be honest I think it would be quite strange not to be interested in your colleagues’ lives, even when you spend so much time with them! At Sugar we share a lot, even clothes: we have our own cloth borrowing system where everyone has brought their nice clothes for others to borrow. There are a lot of fun things you can do together at work.

We also have a meditation routine to calm down the busy days. Before you think that’s hippie remember that even Google is doing it. Meditation doesn’t only make you feel better and healthier; it also gives a huge boost to your work. And that benefits the company.

We are living in times where Europe is close to getting beaten down by Asia. This is something that we are not able to win with mass production and old-fashioned ways, because that way we will loose. This is a time to be brave and creative and succeed that way. Downshifting at your work may be one key to survive in this new world where everything changes all the time. If the employees’ minds are relaxed, creative and flexible, they adjust to the changes easily. If you have a group of fearful, overworking and burnt-out people, your company will struggle for sure. In the end of the day, it is all about the people.

This article was produced in cooperation with InfoNet adult education network.

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