01-01-2012 - Traces, n. 1

Taking a “Position” in the Crisis

WORK that Changes YOU
We talk about it all the time–why it needs to be reformed, and why it is failing. It is reduced to pensions, contracts, lay-offs. But what does the job market ask of us? GIORGIO VITTADINI, President of the Foundation for Subsidiarity, outlines a brief “handbook” to approach it as men, learning that one’s trade is “an encounter” and a path, as documented by several stories.

by Giorgio Vittadini

Fr. Giussani said that work is the most concrete, arid, and tiring aspect of one’s love for Christ, and then he added that living it like this facilitates an attention to the totality of the factors in play, a respect in dealing with them, and a patient attitude in front of the passage of time and unwelcome circumstances.
This offers the first key to our reading. To approach the job market adequately, we must consider it an encounter between a subject and an object that interact based on their characteristics and the correspondence to the needs of the subject. This perspective is not automatic, because work is normally considered to be either a problem of adaptation to the objective conditions that it imposes, or a problem that concerns overcoming these conditions, the distortion of objective reality according to the ideas and images that one already has.
The dimension of the encounter, on the other hand, is what permits us to safeguard both the subjective and objective conditions. If we conceive of ourselves as in a continuous relationship, our desire confronts itself with reality and becomes aware of itself.
If this awareness is lacking, we usually make two types of errors when facing occupational choices. We can call the first an error of “idealism,” that is, to have a project in mind and seek to apply it regardless of the actual conditions, mistaking pretense for desire and skipping over the comparison of desire with reality.
I could call the second type of error an error of “pragmatic relativism,” and it consists in giving up on putting our desires and ideas into play, making room only for objective necessities. It sometimes happens that we speak with people like this, who truly do not know, cannot say what they desire.
Instead, there is a position that is more realistic and holds together both terms of the question. In this position, desire is always kept present and is made to dialogue with the facts of reality in action. This is very interesting, because we understand who we are in action; and it could happen that, in the relationship with reality, we realize that we are not what we thought we were. Desire, confronted with reality, changes. Becoming aware of oneself is gradual; this awareness does not abandon the desires that move us, but, slowly, in action, it changes, it intensifies. Because of this, one who waits until he gets the job that he has in mind before starting to work is limited. And one who lets himself be determined by the dominant mentality or his present circumstances is also limited.
With regard to the objective factor–the situation of the job market–the first consideration to make is that, whereas up until a few years ago obsolescence took forty years, now it takes five; in five years, the knowledge and techniques that one uses change completely. In this context, simply repeating what one learned in college–even well–is not enough, and highlights the importance of considering work to be a path that is continually changing, in which it is fundamental that one never stop learning, staying up-to-date, watching how the situation evolves.

Without defending oneself. To continue to watch what happens allows us to notice the different opportunities that arise. One can realize, for example, that the in-demand jobs more and more often require high- and low-level qualifications, and those related to intermediate positions are decreasing. Or, if one wants to pursue advanced studies, that universities abroad [with respect to certain countries] offer better possibilities. Or, one can realize that, while up until some time ago a person who had studied liberal arts or philosophy could only expect to go into teaching, today some companies prefer a humanistic profile to more technical profiles in the management of human resources. Or even that now, ever more frequently, the management engineer is replacing the economist in the corporate organization.
From these brief observations, you can understand that approaching work “notionally” or being frightened of change leaves one with no safety net in today’s market. But it is necessary to feel that dynamism, change, the necessity of knowing, is something profoundly positive, not something from which you must defend yourself.
Today, not only the small company, but also the large one has become more dynamic, is compelled to change quickly, make new acquisitions, move into new sectors. This implies that work be conceived of more like a path in order to keep up with these changes. And this does not only concern the industrial world–in a rapidly changing society, for example, a teacher must also take into account new needs and expectations, and therefore must continually find new instruments and methods for communicating contents.

Willingness to change. In order to approach the subjective aspect, that is, what the relationship with the job market implies for the person, I will list the primary characteristics required of new hires today, as articulated by a survey conducted among a sample of personnel directors.
The first characteristic that a worker must have today is flexibility. In order to face different, ever-changing conditions, it is necessary to be willing to change duties, even within the same company, and to handle different working conditions. The type of person that I am describing is one that is often presented to us in the CL Movement; openness and willingness to change are, in fact, in the DNA of the education that we have received.
The other word highlighted by the survey is “knowledge.” It is necessary to learn continually, throughout one’s entire career. Unfortunately, in Italy, for example, once college is completed, we consider the period of learning to be over. In other countries, like the United States, one goes back more easily to studying during the working years. Here [in Italy], there are fewer possibilities and fewer means, but we need to seek them out and, above all, be open to doing it. I have in front of me the example of my father, a retired doctor who, at the age of 89, goes to the hospital every day as a volunteer and makes the rounds with the residents. When asked why he does it, he responds, “How else will I learn, how else will I stay up-to-date?”
While speaking of “knowledge,” moreover, we cannot ignore the fact that we are in a globalized world, and thus the study of foreign languages is now essential. All of my former statistics professors hardly ever published in English; today, if a researcher doesn’t present some of his publications at the international level, he cannot even think of embarking on a university career.
Another aspect emphasized in the survey is relational capacity. This is something that is, in reality, a normal dimension, because it is in the structure of the “I,” and it is highly valued by the job market as a characteristic that allows one to “be a team player.” This trait is so important that companies invest in team building and other initiatives–even encroaching on free time–to sharpen the “common sense” which is ever more necessary in a dynamic and globalized reality that requires willingness to work in groups and with different people.
Motivation is another aspect to which employers pay plenty of attention. It is interesting that this dimension implies increasing the value of an aspect that is very intimate and personal: desire, from the deepest to the most superficial levels, and also the awareness of what we are, of our aptitudes and peculiarities.
The image of the person that emerges from the requirements of the job market is that of an “I” that is not static, but that, in relationship with a changing reality, follows it according to the desires that constitute this “I,” thus rediscovering them ever more profoundly.
Paradoxically, this difficult moment in the world of work is an opportunity, because what is strongly required is a man, not just a worker, even if he is well trained. A subject of this type cannot be produced by a training course, although this is the route that is often undertaken.

Every step is definitive. In brief, I want to propose some ideas, taken from my personal experience, for a useful method of tackling the job market.
1. First of all, one is never in an entirely precarious situation. It is not the job contract or the salary that makes one feel precarious, if he has the awareness that they are conditions within a path. Between 1880 and 1920, 20 million people emigrated from Italy; the people were truly starving, but they rolled up their sleeves and started over from where they were, considering every step not as precarious, but as definitive.
2. Any job is better than no job at all, because work has value in itself. Then one can always look for a new job if he wants something else; it’s certainly not necessary to give up trying to improve (conditions, salary, opportunities to learn). It’s also fundamental to know that it is easier to find work when one already has a job.
3. Every job has dignity and one can learn from everything. There is a particular episode in my career as a statistician that is very significant for me. It concerns my first job, which had to do with calculating statistics regarding commuting in the province of Bergamo. I was very proud of the algorithm that I had made, but when I showed it to my professor, he said, “Nice! Let’s see, 100 people enter Calolziocorte in the morning and 50 leave in the evening; there must be some great hotels there!” I had neglected the basic counting; I had not bent down to see the simplest aspects of reality. In that moment, I learned that every type of work has its own dignity. I remember that I spent entire afternoons in the library, looking for articles for my professor, photocopying them and bringing them to him. At the time, I complained but, looking back, I understand that everything was work, and from everything I had the possibility to learn something. Complaining, instead, prevents us from truly desiring and from seeing reality. Our attitude usually oscillates between not caring and wanting to succeed at all costs–that is, the idea that our substance depends on what we manage to accomplish at work. I recall periods of my life in which I lived like an insane person, frozen by the fear that I wouldn’t make the cut to become an associate or a full professor. It’s different, though, when one is determined by love for work conceived of as a service, a collaboration in the work of an Other. To stay there, in front of your work, with this awareness is called “merit.” And it is what allows us to overcome even the “bureaucratic” method of approaching work, illustrated by the following anecdote: once, at a university, the elevator stopped. So the janitor was called, but he took no interest in the situation and said that it would be necessary to call the technician who, in turn, said that it would be necessary to call the elevator company... until the elevator started again on its own! You can understand that, in certain situations, if there is no one who gets involved because he cares about what’s in front of him, everything stops.
4. The presence of teachers who are willing to teach is a fundamental aspect. The teachers can be in the workplace, but outside it as well. I, for example, did research not with the professors that got me into my program, but with teachers from other universities.
5. The mistakes that one makes are one of the most important occasions for learning. I remember that once, at a meeting, the others picked holes in my work and I immediately reacted like an Italian–“the ref was bribed (that’s not fair)!” My professor convinced me to call the person who had criticized me and to meet with her so that she could explain her objection to me. That was an extremely important occasion for me, because after that meeting I started to concern myself with evaluation. A criticism can be wrong, but taking it for the aspect of truth that it contains can make one take great strides forward.
6. How to assess the contract-salary issue? It is reasonable to be flexible here, as well. One must look at the globality of the factors, because in a dynamic world it’s easy for firms to take on workers through internships, which then often become permanent contracts. One of the things that no one talks about is that in the northern regions of Italy, 73% of short-term contracts become long-term within 42 months; not a small amount of time, but one could consider it a trial stage on the professional path, above all for younger workers. And we also need to consider that sometimes short-term contracts have a shorter duration than long-term contracts because the people prefer to change jobs. Sometimes it’s better to accept a temporary contract, if the job allows one to learn and provides for growth, rather than a permanent contract in a company that is not on the right track or that doesn’t allow for growth. Here, as well, one must think flexibly, considering all the factors in play and remaining aware that, in the current situation, risk is a normal condition.

A need for someone stable. In short, what educates us the most to approach the world of work? A position that engages the “I” and makes it willing to compare itself to whatever happens. Giussani often recounted that, when the barbarian invasions of Europe began, people were forced to escape and thus moved around from place to place. The monks, by virtue of their relationship with Christ, stayed where they were, accepted the risk, and, in time, built a civilization. And Giussani made an analogy with today’s world of work, where everyone is unstable, insecure (one can have a brilliant career and still be unstable). And he said: we need someone who is stable in his work, because of Christ, and not because he doesn’t live the risk, not because he couldn’t wind up unemployed, not because he doesn’t have changes to make, but because he has a certainty within that allows him to confront the risk.