I hadn’t seen my friend Tania for many years and when I met her a few days ago in the street we tried to catch up in barely a few minutes. Among other things I asked her if she continued working in the same place, but she took a while to answer and whispered a no to me. I became aware something was amiss; therefore I did not insist and changed the subject of the conversation. We were about to say goodbye when she confessed she had been ashamed of talking about her current employment: now she was cleaning a house in Nuevo Vedado whose owners rented to tourists. After the initial surprise, I told her she had nothing to be ashamed of, that this job was not only as dignified as any other, but was even coveted because the pay was better than many other places. Tania looked at me with some bitterness and said something that left me speechless: and you think I studied to clean floors?
Tania’s most ambitious goal during her youth was to study engineering, but she wasn’t able to “get” that career when she was in senior high. She found a basic course about any old thing and once she had joined the working force she registered in the Course for Workers. As it was very frequent in the 1980s, Tania was the first person in her family to have higher studies and she was able to graduate from university. For her parents it was quite an event and she felt proud of what she had achieved, she was even able to get a job that, though it did not have the ideal labour conditions, allowed her to make her university title worth something. Then the economic crisis of the 1990s arrived, her parents, already retired, increasingly depended more on her.
“It was not easy for me to make the decision, but I do not regret it. After the divorce it was the only way I found to earn sufficient money to maintain my daughter and help my family. Every day, when I got up, I told myself that that was temporary, that when things got better I was going to recover my job post, to resume my career…, and, you can see now….”
During those years Tania even approached the Christian religion which, she affirmed, helped her to find the strength she needed to face her new life. After seven years of doing that job, she feels much more resigned and now what hurts her most is that her daughter refuses to study a career, as at some time was her wish. “Why should I study,” her daughter tells her, “to end up cleaning like you…?” “And the worse thing is that she is right,” Tania recognises.
Claudia is 26, has a small child and seems happy with her job. I met her one day when I entered a small private business in Old Havana to have a cup of coffee. There she is a waitress in the second work shift, while studying law in the distance course. However, she says that if she is able to finish her studies she doesn’t hope to exercise her career. She has discovered that she likes what she does, that she meets people and always learns something new, even though she finishes her night shifts with swollen feet and dead tired.
“The thing is that many young people already think differently. Before, it was thought that everyone had to have a university degree, but now, even if you study, you already know that you won’t necessarily work in something related to your career.” Trying to understand the logic from her point of view I asked her why was she studying. “I actually don’t know exactly why,” Claudia said. “I suppose I don’t want to totally disappoint my parents, or because it sounds nicer to say that I am a lawyer, even if I work as a waitress. But in real life no one cares what you studied, but rather what you earn. My work comrades are all university graduates and I see myself every day in that mirror.”
After such educational lessons about life, I found out that this month I was going to write about a subject that not only demonstrates different generational logics and diverse expectations among today’s young people with respect to their parents’ generations, but rather that helps to reveal some of the increasingly deeper changes – and not always positive – our society is experiencing.
For the generation of my friend Tania, which is also mine, the passing on to higher studies was almost natural and a great majority hoped to graduate from university. It was what was expected of us. Today that perception seems to have changed a lot, perhaps because – as Claudia already explained to me – of how they also think of the future in much more practical terms. I particularly have nothing against those opinions, especially when the big gap that exists between dreams and pure and harsh reality became evident with the crisis of the 1990s.
At the risk of seeming anchored in the past, I cannot stop recalling how during those years we possibly had the largest number of agriculturists per inhabitant in Latin America, but we did a great deal of juggling to sit down at our table every day due to the shortage of food produced in our country. In fact, I have two friends who graduated in that specialty who used their knowledge to set up a gardening business which they still maintain with notable success.
The truth is that the exodus of professionals toward jobs for which they are overqualified but are more economically profitable is one of the signs of these difficult times. The most coveted job posts include those related to tourism, the joint and foreign ventures, and more recently private work. That’s why it is not strange to find a former graduate in any of the specialists of the Higher School of Pedagogy working as a taxi driver, or an economist who is trying his luck as a hairdresser.
To this we would have to add the unknown and incalculable figure of those who decided to emigrate in search of economic improvements. I know physicists and mathematicians who were lucky to get a post in Latin American universities, and others less fortunate who from architects in Cuba went to painting homes in Madrid, while one or two philologists work as cashiers in a Miami supermarket. It is a problem that cannot be ignored for any longer, though the solution does not involve – it seems we have already understood it – denying one and others the possibility of seeking on their own and at their own risk an alternative of a better life, or establishing certain rules that prevent their personal development and the right to decide their future.
The question is rather to get to the roots and find out the reasons why so many persons have abandoned (and will continue doing it) their professional career, be it in Cuba or because they have emigrated. No matter how contradictory it might seem, we still have the admirable and necessary capacity of forming high-level professionals, but we’re doing something wrong and we are incapable of keeping them and take advantage of their potentials, which would make it possible to profit from the resources invested in their training. We have already lost too much talent and will continue to lose more if that equation is not changed, if a variant is not found in which Tania can recover her former job, knowing that her wage will allow her to lead a dignified life, while her daughter recognises her as a possible model to follow. Or that even those who decided to emigrate can feel tempted to return to their country and recover their former posts as professors, doctors or engineers.
In short, what’s it worth dedicating resources and efforts in the formation of thousands of professionals in different careers and technical specialties if when they have barely finished their studies or already have years of experience, many of them face the need to hang their titles and get a job that, though not related to their career, does guarantee their earning a living and meeting their needs? (2015)
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