My friend and fellow UAE blogger Talib Al Hashimi wrote yet another thought-provoking article a few days ago entitled : The dark side of unemployment in the Arab World. I recommend you spend a few minutes and read it.
Talib ends by asking us 2 questions as he wants to put a human face on the problem of unemployment :
- How does it feel to be unemployed ?
- What do you believe needs to be done immediately to tackle unemployment ?
At the time, looking for a job was very different. No internet, no social media, no LinkedIn, Monster or Bayt. You had to read newspapers, and send a handwritten “lettre de motivation” (cover letter) along with a print out of your resume by regular mail, often to a specific person (with their name). You also, in most cases, received a reply back, even when it was negative.
Job hunting was a time-consuming and expensive exercise, and a slow one too.
Some things were the same. With the economic weakening, companies were very cautious to offer jobs to young, inexperienced graduates. They wanted people with experience, not a young woman with only 4 internships even if they were productive and in prestigious organisations. And the experienced candidates who happened to be unemployed were not so much better off because, like today, companies preferred to recruit “passive candidates”, the ones who were still working.
From that point of view, my experience was probably very similar to that of many young Arabs in today’s world. Educated, sometimes with a bit of relevant experience acquired through internships. Often still living with their parents, which reduces the burden in part…. but increases it in other ways.
Parents worry about their kid’s future. After a while, they wonder whether it’s your fault : are you too picky, do you make enough efforts to look for the job or are you being a bit careless (if not downright lazy), why don’t you take just anything that comes your way even if it’s not in your chosen field (as if “anything” really does show up by the way…), what will our friends think if our child is not successful etc…
I believe in the Arab world, the last point is compounded by cultural expectations and the pressure to “look good” in front of society, no matter what. Plus, in many cases, young Arab men can’t get married until they have a stable job and income. So being unemployed has an even bigger societal and personal impact on the youth in the region.
I was lucky – or stubborn 😉 and resisted my family’s pressure to look for a job in merchandising or finance, or just about anything, “just to get a job”. I eventually landed my first role at what is now EADS (mother company of Airbus among others). The job was in HR, my chosen field of specialisation, and it launched my career.
In this 20-year career so far, most of the times, the decision to part ways with a company was mine, including very recently when I left my employer in order to set up my independent training and consulting company in International Compensation & Benefits in Dubai.
Yet, twice, I was laid off and ended up being unemployed. The first time was at the end of 2001. I was working for a company that supported the airline industry. Not a good place to be right after 9/11 when no-one wanted to be on a plane and the whole industry crashed at lightning speed !
The second time was in 2009 when the consequences of the global crisis were hitting even otherwise very healthy organisations – so, along many others in those days, I lost my job.
In 2001, to be honest I did not panick much. I was barely 30 years-old, with no dependent family, and with good skills. The crisis was only in my industry, not a general one. So I basically took a little bit of time off, and within a few weeks I was back on track with what turned out to be an even better opportunity to lead C&B EMEA for Apple. So in the end this layoff was a blessing in disguise, and the 2-month unemployment stint was more of a vacation than anything else. However, I did feel there was a lot of social stigma in being unemployed, and a form of pity too.
In 2009 it was a different story. I was working in the UAE at the time, and had to leave the country at the end of my grace period – I didn’t want to do “visa runs” as I always felt this is a grey area for EU citizens to remain in the country. The crisis was global this time, so the phone was not ringing with job opportunities like it used to.
No-one who was employed dared to leave their job, and I had a distinct feeling that because I was unemployed, some of my friends would be more hesitant in seeing me…. Maybe they were scared that being unemployed is contagious like the flu and they can “catch it” by spending some time with me ? There was also a lot more of pitying this time, as everyone was aware of how difficult it was to get back into a job – and most people could do nothing to help as there were no openings.
Luckily, I already had in mind the idea of creating my consulting company, so I was able to focus on learning new skills such as preparing a business plan, reading about marketing for consultants, and setting up my structure in France. Still, as Talib mentions, some people, including in my closest family, felt I was saying “I want to create my company” as a way to deny my status of not being employed.
Even though I knew I had survived being laid off a first time already, so I could “do it” again, it was more difficult this second time. I felt more pressure to take a job, any job, just for the sake of it. I quickly realised that being based in the french countryside was also not very helpful when you are targeting clients in the Middle East. So when I had the chance to return to the region with a prestigious organisation, I grabbed it and took it as a side-step to establishing my structure in the UAE… which I eventually did, only a bit later than initially planned 🙂
So the social toll was heavier the second time.
In the GCC specifically, as an expat, there is the added pressure of not being able to stay in the country even if you feel this is now your home, and where you want to continue to live. Some of my friends who lost their jobs had to leave the country at short notice, ruining the school year of their kids and making the children have to re-do the same class the following year, which in itself bears some social stigma, at least in certain social circles in Europe.
There is also a lot more pressure as bouncing cheques can lend you in serious legal trouble in the region, and there isn’t any structure to help you deal, if only emotionally, with the financial burdens of not having an income any longer. Not to mention that many expats also support an entire family/social system back in their home country, so their financial status affects more than their direct family nucleus.
Out of all this chaos and social burden, I believe one small positive thing has emerged though.
The word “unemployed” is not as shameful as it used to be.
With widespread unemployment, society at large is putting less of a moral judgment on the personal qualities or supposed “defects” of the person who is unemployed. When 28% of young Saudis are unemployed, it can’t be because they are all “bad”, “lazy” or “clueless”. Society now accepts that being unemployed does not necessarily mean that you were incompetent at your job or did something legally or morally wrong and were terminated.
The social pressure to make money and define your identity through a job is still here, but at least the moral stigma on the unemployed’s personal values and behaviours has ebbed away.
What do you think ? Have you been confronted with unemployment ? How did you live through it and do you think things are changing regarding the perception of the unemployed ?
Related posts :
- Four women’s influence on my career
- A few career and life lessons from my last job in Italy
- An unexpected career change
- As an expat, do I long for my home country ?