If there ever was a good time to look for a new job, let me assure you – it is not now. As someone with a degree in literature I am very aware of the hurdles and pitfalls the job market throws at humanists. Yet, the current pandemic has taught me some valuable lessons about my studies, my professional ambitions and the way I relate to wealth and privilege. And they are not at all what I expected.
A column by guest author Larissa Stahl
I was already prepared to experience the whole spectrum of negative emotions when I entered the plane in London Stansted on March 16th. I knew the coming weeks and months were going to be chaotic and I was ready to surrender to the sweet sadness of self-pity. Not so much because of the global health crisis (which already speaks for itself), but because of my general circumstances. I did not have a flat (it was still sublet until July), no health insurance and I was not even sure if I had a job anymore. Before I had left, I was working as a lecturer in Cambridge and my salary was an additional payment to free housing, health care and servery meals. It goes without saying that this income was hardly going to pay for a „voluntary“ health insurance and full rent in Germany.
„Wanting“ to work was not enough
During my first week back in Germany, I felt anxious and angry – as expected. Not being able to plan or control the most basic areas of my life (housing, income, etc.) made me feel like my independence was stripped from me overnight. I had already encountered several periods of financial difficulties during my studies, but they had always felt manageable. I knew that if I took on an additional job, cut my spendings and worked through the rough patch, I was able to pay my bills.
This situation felt different. Even though I was ready to take on an additional job, no matter which one, it was nearly impossible to find openings. When I finally found interim jobs I could technically apply for, I was oscillating between two dead ends: Formal overqualification and job cuts. The jobs available and needed (in supermarkets, supply offices etc.) would not even consider my application because of my two Master’s degrees. Jobs in my field (adult education and culture) on the other hand were cut before I even had the chance to finish my application. Prior to the pandemic, the cultural sector in Germany seemed to be stable. I found a lot of interesting openings with reasonable salaries and I was going to apply once my job in Cambridge was done. Two weeks into the pandemic a lot of those openings were simply taken off the market because the institutions or companies could no longer afford additional employees. „Wanting“ to work was simply not enough.
Now, this is the point where it gets interesting. The way I initially thought about this situation (as pictured above) is dripping with privilege. By privilege I mean that despite all the „disadvantages“ I was focusing on, I still had a lot of advantages over other people in this society and in other societies around the globe. Advantages I took for granted without even giving them a second thought. This is not to say that my current situation is not hard or frustrating on a personal level. It also does not mean I am depriving myself of the right to feel a certain way about my situation. What it means is, that I do not think I have the right to complain about it on a structural level.
Privilege deliberately distracts from inequality
Although everything was up in the air when I came back to Germany (compared to „my standards“), I knew I could rely on several factors. First of all, I had a social net which meant I was not going to be homeless and I could borrow money if absolutely necessary. Second of all, I knew that even though it was expensive I was going to have access to sufficient health care. And last but not least, I knew that I could apply for unemployment benefits which would – if worst came to worst – ensure my livelihood. This is far more than the majority of the world’s population has. All of my basic needs are met – I have access to food, shelter, sanitation, healthcare and even internet. I am able to see the people closest to me (because we live together) or talk to them on the phone. I can even enjoy the sun from time to time since I live close to a forest and large fields.
These things alone already constitute more than enough reasons to be grateful. Yet, it was exactly this privileged position which distracted me from the underlying inequality of the pandemic. From people who have been hit much harder by this crisis than me. From the global extent and differing realities of this pandemic.
The energy we save by stopping to complain endlessly can be used in more fruitful ways.
I might feel like my circumstances are difficult in relation to the standards I am used to. However, objectively seen and in relation to global standards my circumstances are not difficult. They are better than those of at least 90% of the world’s population.
And even within the German society I consider myself privileged. I do not have to finance a family, a house or a car. I am healthy and so are most of the people I love. I have not yet lost all of my income and since I am well-educated (even if it is a degree that does not open many doors right now). I have good chances on the job market.
Privileged people usually know how to use their privilege for positive action
I am convinced that the current pandemic and the economic crisis it entails have the potential to make privileged people think about their privilege. But not in a „Oh, I am actually really lucky, good for me“ kind of way. If the acknowledgement of privilege is only used to make us feel good about ourselves, it is not very powerful on a structural level. The energy we save by stopping to complain endlessly can be used in more fruitful ways. I am also convinced that people in privileged positions do actually know how to use their privilege for positive action. Even in times of crises.
As far as I am concerned, I am still in the same situation as in March. I have managed to do remote teaching which guarantees a small, yet safe income until the end of June. At the same time the job-hunt continues. The only thing that has significantly changed over the past few weeks is the way I relate to all of this. I am grateful I get to write this article at this point. It enables me to send out a different message than I would have six weeks ago. It also gives me a chance to reflect on my past behavior and thinking. And it makes me sad to admit that I actually needed a global pandemic to really think about social justice in depth.