2016 was a crazy year. Mid-2015 I was unemployed, largely due to volatility in the IAM vendor market space. IAM is my area of expertise, and you wouldn’t think that the acquisition a software company by a global vendor would have such immediate personal consequences. As a tech consultant, stints of unemployment are pretty normal. So is short, project-based employment stints.
So anyhow, when I got a Linkedin message offering me an employment opportunity in Germany I was overjoyed. I’d been in Australia for seven years and I did miss Europe. But I forgot that Europe isn’t all the same, much like Europeans think Africa is a country. I missed Italy, Southern Europe, and although Greece, Spain & Portugal – and even Italy itself – have different languages, cultures and history, we Southern Europeans share a certain affinity, a soul you might say, which the orderly northerners lack. Their psychological disposition is simply too hygienic. Their tidy houses, well-defined rules and languages have no place for nuance, ambivalence or passion.
Most of the world thinks of Germany as efficient, hard-working and environmentally conscious, the powerhouse of Europe. I also fell for this tourist marketing brochure boilerplate. Germans think they pay more than their fair share in the European Union. More than those lazy southerners. They think they’re at the cutting edge of innovation. Instead I found an arrogant country with a byzantine bureaucracy and more than a bit behind digital compared to other countries. Online government services? Nope. Contactless electronic payments? Non-existent. And as for being an economic powerhouse, I found I was working twice as hard (70 hour work weeks) for half the money. My Australian partner tried hard to learn the language but nonetheless was treated rudely and couldn’t find work.
My German tech salary was considered high over there, yet I could not get so much as a smartphone on a postpaid contract plan, let alone a credit card. I’d go to a bank, payslips and employment contract in hand, and would get all smiles until “computer says no”. The maddening thing about this is that no one could say why I was being rejected for credit, they cited “privacy reasons”!
I was having stress related health issues due to the workload and we decided to move back to Australia. Little did I know I’d be facing the same “computer says no” when applying for a credit card in Australia. We had to move house too since returning after being given a “no reason” eviction, so when filling in forms for credit card applications, getting to the “what’s your address and how long have you lived there?” part was an amusing affair.
By the way, I’m German-Italian-Australian, born in Switzerland, and I’ve spent some years growing up in Southern Africa. I had a rough childhood, my parents met in a cult (google “Children of God”). That cult brutalised me as a child and I have PTSD from the ordeal. The worst part of it is feelings of shame. For much of my life I’ve hidden my past, as if I was somehow to blame for having been born into a hippie sex cult that treated children as slaves.
Bureaucracy terrifies me. Whether it’s applying for a credit card, security clearance or permanent residency. I’ve lived in two dozen countries across three continents. I’ve moved houses about 60 times. There are many reasons for my many moves: that cult, a BPD mother, and later on well, working in tech, things are always changing. When you need to fill in a form providing addresses of the past ten years, the bureaucrats just don’t know what to make of me. I have zero debt, a six-figure tech salary, savings, a successful career, and the biggest challenge to finding work or getting credit is getting past the HR drones or the credit underwriter bureaucrats.
The thing is, my story isn’t all that unusual in the 21st century. Immigrants, expats, multi-ethnic families, itinerant tech experts, wanderlust-stricken millennials, people moving to another city to get away from a toxic relationship or family. Today’s reality in this hyper-connected world means that for many people the question “where are you from?” is almost impossible to answer. I’ve struggled to find employment in the past, due to my many moves, but get me in a room with a real person and I can tell them my story (and probably ace the interview, I’m good at what I do). This is why the question “what’s your story?” or “what motivates you?” are probably a better questions than “where are you from?”, “what’s your employment history?”, “where have you lived in the past 10 years?”.
How can you size up a person with the sterile questions demanded in application forms and the CV format? You see a CV in front of you with someone who’s had a number of short tenures, or periods of unemployment. You see an application form showing five different addresses in five different years. The first thing that comes to mind is this person is untrustworthy or mentally unstable, probably both, but if you actually sat down with them, in person, and asked them “tell me your story” the sterile data points would come to life.