Posted on 25. February 2015
Step 1 – Making a decision
I had been unemployed for several months, when I decided it was time to create some opportunities myself. There had been many discouraging factors. There was the threat that things would become even more difficult. I had never been self-employed. Previously, I had been working in academia as a lecturer and researcher on bilingual education. I am not a risk-taker, I had to fight my fear of failure.
And then, there was the Spanish bureaucracy. Despite the fact that Spain still suffers from high youth unemployment (more than 50 percent of the under-25-years-old), it does not provide an entrepreneur-friendly atmosphere. Tax liability is a nightmare.
But I came to the conclusion that the risk of waiting was higher than the risk of trying. So I tried.
Step 2 – Taking action
I worked myself through a labyrinth of papers. I went from office to office, I was transferred from one department to another, because apparently I was always mistaken, or one document was missing, or the person who had to rubber-stamp my application was ill that day. It was frustrating. It seemed to me that the government wants to deter people from getting self-employed rather than encourage it support them.
Luckily, I received support from an association of retired entrepreneurs of Madrid who generously use their time to advise new entrepreneurs. It was them who motivated me to go through the process, to endure the tangled administration.
It took me six weeks until I was officially an independent professional. On the financial side, the initial investment was not very significant. All I needed to do my job was a laptop, an internet connection, a briefcase and a public transport pass. I mainly dedicated myself to get clients, using my professional network to spread the word. Luckily, it worked. I got most of my jobs through word-of-mouth recommendations. I did not earn much money, but the fixed costs of my new-born business were not high, so I managed to pay my taxes and I could live on my new profession.
Step 3 – Settling in to resignation
For the first time in many months my professional future looked bright. Everybody congratulated me for having the courage to reinvent myself and become a freelancer, and for succeeding in doing so. However, I did not feel victorious. I felt lucky to have a job I liked and very fortunate to cope with all my monetary obligations, but I was missing something: living. Running a business – even my very small and humble business – took all of my time and energy, and like this I lost the privilege of enjoying life. I assumed this as part of the process, but I was not pleased with it. I had reckoned that being a freelancer would take a big part of my life, but I could not imagine it would be my only life, 24-7.
Nevertheless, I accepted it with resignation because I knew it was the price to pay. Many of my friends were in a similar situation. Some of them decided to move abroad (and leave behind their lives), some struggled to also become freelancers, others decided to get involved in so-called discussion circles, frustrated with the established political system, outraged by the cases of corruption in the conventional established parties. This is where the new leftist party “Podemos” (“We can”) comes in. It was founded one year ago and is a product of three years of crisis, of the loss of trust in the traditional bi-partidism of the socialist PSOE and the conservative PP.
Jobs were our first priority. I was pretty sure we would all end up needing therapy. The problem is none of us would have time for this either. At this point, I could understand everyone who chose to be unemployed rather than starting their own business. The hurdles, the insecurity, the intensive work had started to take their tolls: I felt burnt out, resigned, weary.
Step 4 – Embracing change
However, I managed to carry on. Four months ago, when I had my business reasonably well established, a new opportunity knocked on my door. A client with whom I had been working as a consultant offered me a position at her primary education school. ‘I want you to be a teacher trainer for the staff, but mainly I want you to be the teacher coordinating the bilingual education department.’ It was a really appealing opening, but it required full time dedication. I was at a crossroads once again.
On the one hand, it was a well-paid offer, with regular working hours, and at a school I was already familiar with and whose teaching style I admired. On the other hand, accepting the job would mean quitting all my current projects and losing my clients. In other words, a year of crazily long working hours and sacrifice would be wasted.
I resolved to turn down the offer. I went to the headmistress’ office to communicate my decision. ‘I respect your decision, but I don’t understand it’, she said. Then she added: ‘If you like everything about the job, why don’t you take it?’ I quickly replied: ‘Because I cannot fail. I have put so much effort into being a freelancer that I can’t simply give up overnight ’, I explained. She reacted: ‘You’re not failing. You’re moving forward’. In that moment I realised accepting the job didn’t mean downgrading. I had been offered that job precisely because of the work and skills I had developed over a year, and not in spite of it. So it was one step more, not less.
Step 5 – Hoping against hope
I feel privileged. I put into practice what I have been researching, lecturing and advising about for many years. This is a wonderful way to move forward.
However, many equally skilled young people in Spain haven’t been so lucky. Politicians are aware of this, and they try to attract voters using two types of discourse: fearful and hopeful. The first group, represented by the Conservatives and Socialists, insists on the need to continue using austerity as a path to growth, or “we will lose the slight improvements we recently achieved”. The latter group, formed mainly by “Podemos”, calls for a strategic change and firmly refuses cutbacks, claiming there is a less painful way to overcome the crisis.
The campaigns in Greece had been quite similar. Many of my fellow Spaniards closely observed the electoral race there, they saw it as a preview of the general elections in autumn. Podemos has emerged as a top-contender, and its leader Pablo Iglesias used the success of Syriza to boost his own campaign: “Syriza, Podemos – venceremos” is what he chanted at the anti-austerity party in Athens.
The polls seem to confirm him: When young voters have to decide between threat and hope, they clearly choose hope.
This blog post has been published in German on Süddeutsche Zeitung in the framework of FutureLab Europe and Süddeutsche Zeitung’s cooperation.