Joblessness is a personal crisis because work is a spiritual event. A job is not merely a means to a pay check, it is more. – Peggy Noonan
Unemployment is not just an economic fact, it is a personal reality. Every time we read an unemployment statistic or a headline about job losses, we need to remind ourselves that those numbers represent human beings. Every time we speak of an economic crisis, we must realise that there are mini personal crises happening in hearts and homes. These people are fathers, mothers and siblings who are breadwinners. Someone is relying on them to pay the rent, the water and the school fees. Someone is looking to them to provide.
If you know the struggle of unemployment personally then you know that it is not just about earning an income, although that is very important. You do not know how important it is to you to apply your degree in the real world is until you cannot. You go from applying to your dream job, to anything in your field and then to anyone who will take you. You feel depressed when you see your peers buying cars and going on holidays, you worked just as hard but all you have to show for it is graduation pictures. There are just not enough jobs for all of us to go around.
An identity crisis
At the end of 2013 when I graduated with my second degree I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, waiting for my first job offer to fall on my lap. When the third week of January rolled around with not one job offer in sight, I did not mind. The previous year had taken a toll on me and I was happy to spend my days sleeping in, eating Charhon’s chocolate-covered biscuits and catching up on all the series I had missed. When February came and went I decided that it was time to get serious about the job hunt. I would give it four weeks – the job interviews would come and then the offers. March, April, May…
By the time June comes around something happens. I realise that I am halfway through the year and in three months I will be sitting at home for long enough for me to have conceived a baby and given birth to it. That is scary. It occurs to me that my status is shifting from ‘recent graduate’ to ‘unemployed graduate’. I am becoming a statistic. So I step things up again. Tens of applications sent but no response. Family friends contacted but no one can help. CVs printed and given out, hundreds of emails sent.
I would vacillate between giddy hopefulness that had me on LinkedIn for hours saving jobs and drafting cover letters and deep discouragement that had me asking myself who I was and why I was here. I felt stuck and helpless and for a few crazy days, I felt willing to run away to South Africa to work illegally or enter a marriage of convenience. I didn’t know how important having a job and being able to work was to me until I could not do it.
That year was the worst of times, but also the best of times. I would never wish unemployment upon anyone, but if I could go back and change things, I would not. Now that I have the benefit of perspective (hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it?), I can now see how that year humbled me out of my entitlement. I needed to understand that if something comes easy to you then somebody else already worked hard for it and if something is tough then it’s your turn to return the favour. Whichever way, there’s always hard work involved.
I learnt about the importance of work and how unemployment is not just an economic issue but a potentially soul-destroying personal issue. Here are my insights.
Work and the Right to Dignity
The recognition of human dignity, in terms of our Constitution, is one of the founding values of our nation. Dignity must also be the starting point for understanding the importance of work. We were created to work. It is part of what it means to be an individual and to be part of a community. The concept begins in the family. As children we are given chores to do at home. Tari has the duty of washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen while Sphiwe sweeps the floor in the lounge. The idea is that each individual exists in the context of community and contributes to it.
This is why although most people do not aspire to a job of a menial nature, even menial work is important. Where would we be without the people who do refuse collection or the men and women who sweep the streets every morning? Each one of them is making their contribution to our society in the work that they do by making our community a more liveable place.
The feeling of isolation that jobless people often have is completely normal. You feel like a burden because you have an inherent desire to contribute. One of the churches that I was a member of in Bulawayo runs a feeding programme in the location and most of their volunteers are women from the community. Week in, week out, these women give hours of their time to preparing and serving food to those in need, for free. If they do not do it for the money then why do they do it? Maybe it is for the free food, you say, but remember that they would get it anyway and would not need to work for it. I think they do it for the deep sense of fulfilment that comes from contributing to your community.
Work is important because it shapes society. Think of what a stone sculpture looks like in its raw form. It is just a slab of rock. But an artist looks at it and sees a definite shape, something he can take, chisel at and smooth into a beautiful form. When he first grabs it, it is just an ordinary piece of stone, but his work changes it. He takes something of little worth and adds value to it using his unique skill. Artists do this with their art, gardeners with their tools, accountants with their numbers and lawyers with rules. They create order out of the chaos.
Work gives us a sense of purpose, something every human heart searches for. That is why you can walk down First Street where you see row after row of vending stalls selling identical wares. You wonder where the logic in that is. You might walk downtown and find bananas advertised at US$ 1 for fifteen and wonder what the profit margin is.
What if it was not about logic or profit and more about human nature? What if we have an inherent desire to do work that matters even when it costs us? What if what most of us are looking for is the fulfilment that comes from making a contribution to our community rather than getting rich? What if the real oppression every day is something that we have come to accept as normal; the oppression of unemployment?
The state of the economy is stealing more than people’s jobs; it has taken away more than our livelihoods. It is robbing of us of the very essence of what it means to be human. Economies are meant to work for people and not the other way around. Our economy is not working for us and it is only a matter of time before people open their eyes and decide to take back their dignity.
Zola is a blogger whose aim is to encourage women with her writing. To get more of her writing, subscribe for free at https://realmukoko.wordpress.com/
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