Being unemployed – is there any cultural difference in perception?


Recently I took a part in the URA-polku program offered by the Unemployment office. I decided to participate in Finnish speaking group, because well if I speak all the time only in English, I will never feel comfortable speaking Finnish. The program consists of 1-week long training with different lectures every day and 3 hours of individual coaching during the following 3 months. In the group of approx. 20 job seekers, there were 17 Finns and 3 foreigners. And the atmosphere was different from the group that I usually participate in, with 100% of foreigners. It made me think, what is actually happening?

During one of the training days about job interviews, we raised a question: how to explain gaps in our work-life period? While all of us foreigners felt uncomfortable with having periods of unemployment in our CVs, the majority of Finns seemed to be completely stressless about it. The most common attitude was: “It is normal these days to be unemployed and there is nothing to be ashamed of.” The lecturer herself said that we should be capable of explaining how we used this time and that for the majority of recruiters having gaps in the work history is not a problem. I know immigrants in Finland who are looking for a job for years, that’s why I don’t believe we should still be relaxed about it. 

The other reason is that we naturally want to look like “good immigrants”. The one who has a job, doesn’t cost the state a cent, who doesn’t cause any troubles, who simply lives a life within the community and not much bothers the majority. By being unemployed, it is an immediate confirmation of all stereotypes about immigrants and immigration. Starting from: they only suck the state’s resources, they don’t have skills for our labour market, they are lazy, they are comfortable just sitting at home… In other words, as a foreigner, you have to try twice as hard to avoid all these labels and to be seen in a different light. The easiest way to be seen differently is to have a job. It is another reason why most foreigners cannot afford to be relaxed about their unemployment status.   

Number three is that some of the permissions of stay in the country are connected with the job status and capability to have enough income for the life expenditures. Losing an income for a longer period can cost you permission to stay in the country. So, again, you cannot be easy about unemployment and you always have to think from the long term perspective. 

And my last viewpoint it’s even more personal. I saw many human tragedies that were directly caused by the unemployment of one or both parents in the family. In Slovakia in 1989 had happened an enormous change in the social establishment. From the centrally planned economy, with a 100% rate of employment, we had moved to a market economy and people had started to lose their jobs immediately. The system of social benefits wasn’t completely ready and many people fell through the social support network. Families with children were unloaded from their homes because they couldn’t pay the rent. I remember how this was happening in the family of my close friend. Her father even started to drink from despair and the products like fresh fruits or menstrual aids were seen as a luxury that was not possible to provide. People started to be ashamed of the fact they cannot guarantee a decent lifestyle for their families. The burden sat particularly heavily on the shoulders of men. I was a teenager when my father was unemployed for a few months. I remember him being nervous and smoking a lot. I also remember frequent disagreements between my parents. Later on, as a social worker, I was in touch with families where unemployment was one of the risk factors that led to violence within the family. Maybe the violence would have appeared anyway, but unemployment, lack of resources and no schedule had definitely accelerated it.

So, it was harsh. I don’t forget what might happen if you don’t have a job for a longer time. I cannot be easily comforted by the fact that I live at the moment in the welfare state. State welfare is sustainable only if there are enough paid taxes. And the future will show if such sustainability is maintainable if there are a certain number of people relying on it…

What to add as a conclusion? If I come back to the question I asked at the beginning of this text, either there is some cultural difference in perception of unemployment, I would say, there is. It seems like unemployment harasses immigrants in larger contexts and might cause them deeper obstacles. Therefore when we talk about unemployment in Finland, it depends from which standpoint we are speaking. And let’s not be misunderstood. I am not saying it’s easier for Finns to be without a job. What I am saying is that it might be different.

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