This is what I have learnt from doing nothing:
The past few years I have dabbled in numerous creative endeavours that have all led to dead ends, not because of tragic misfortune but due to my indecisive nature and inability to stick to things.
There is a word for this in Japanese and that is mikkabōzu 三日坊主; a person who cannot stick to something for longer than three days.
Why three days? Looking at personal experience I can only assume it refers to the fact that my wonderful, life-changing ideas have never lasted for more than that.
Am I a mikkabōzu?
Through my aimless three-day spurts of browsing the internet I have discovered that media outlets sure think my generation are. Look past the words ‘avocado toast’ and ‘millennial’ and that seems to be general consensus. We cannot save for longer than three days, we cannot stick to a job for longer than three days, we cannot go without avocado for longer than three days. I would go as far as to say that the overly used term ‘millennial’ has become synonymous with the term mikkabōzu.
The thing is our generation has been told that we can do anything we set our minds to. However, I, like many others seem to have focused on the word ‘anything’ and seemed to have blissfully forgotten to listen to the rest. Not that I am placing blame.
We have been both fortunate and unfortunate enough to have been given the possibility to follow any path we wish to choose. Yet, it is the choice that we have been given that presents the biggest hurdle for most of us. How do we make such a choice? Yes, we are fortunate to be in such a position to be able to choose, however the ability to choose has its costs. You need to invest time and money in being able to choose and you need to take a significant amount of risk when making that choice.
It is when we leave high school that the pressure is placed upon us to take this step.
Which degree? Which university? Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?
We rarely have time to think about the potential consequences of these decisions before we have filled in our online application to the university of our somewhat random choosing. What are the financial implications if I decide to change courses? Will the job market have changed by the time I graduate? What is more beneficial; following what I think my dream is or enrolling in a degree that will lead to job security? Will there be such a thing as job security?
While our reasons in how we pursue our futures may be different, the majority of us feel compelled to think that the right decision is to invest money into higher education with the hope that we will make, if not a financial return, a spiritual one.
This has led to an oversaturation of undergraduates which has made it feel necessary for many of us to invest even more into our education by pursuing a post-graduate degree in the hope of outshining our peers. We even seem to go as far to follow the new motto: ‘You can do anything if you set your mind to it – and do an unpaid internship’.
With my humanities degree and a couple of unpaid internships I can apply to a limited amount of jobs, and fair enough, it was the choice I made. However, the opportunity to reinvest in our education; to either retrain or to follow an apprenticeship is limited, because to finance day-to-day living while taking the next step towards a brighter future is tricky.
So how can this be solved? That’s a tricky one to answer.
The first step, I would say, is a preventative one.
My time in high school in The Netherlands was a relatively stress-free and enjoyable experience, however a substantial amount of time was spent on worrying about grades and whether I will ever be able to enter a university at all. The primary goal was to graduate.
What happens after that? I had no idea, but a university degree will sort that all out.
One teacher did mention the irrelevance of grades, but to be honest it went in one ear and out the other. For me and many of my peers, grades acted as a yardstick that helped us define our position in our small world.
The Dutch education system is a relatively complicated one that can be roughly divided into three tiers; Mavo, Havo and Vwo. Each tier decides which colleges/ universities you are able to apply to. While the mobility between each tier is relatively high, a hierarchy very much exists.
On a practical level the tiers are divided as thus:
Mavo: 80% practical, 20% theoretical with a focus on vocational higher education; Havo: 50% practical, 50% theoretical and Vwo: 20% practical, 80% theoretical with a focus on academic higher education.
On a societal level the tiers are divided as thus:
To achieve the best, you need to have ‘good’ grades. Therefore, the focus is placed on grades rather than practical application of acquired knowledge. There is a stigma to vocational education, which is odd… why should practical knowledge be stigmatized?
In secondary school emphasis should be placed on not only scoring high in order to enter prestigious universities, but a certain amount of attention has to be paid to future goals, entrepreneurship and alternative career paths that exist outside of higher education.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the Dutch education system. In the Dutch education system an exam does not signify a be-all and end-all, there are numerous opportunities to advance within the system. However, there is an unspeakable social hierarchy within the three-tiered system. The social status of each tier weighs more heavily than the practical value of each tier. A stigma has been placed on vocational education.
This is partly due to the lack of sufficient careers advice. The moment I was placed in Vwo, it seemed apparent that I should go to university. The option of vocational education or an apprenticeship was never discussed in class. I never really knew it existed until I graduated university and discovered at the age of 24 that I was too old to apply for an apprenticeship.
Also entrepreneurship was never discussed. The money that higher education costs can equally be invested into one’s own business. However, we continue to have tunnel-vision when it comes to university education. For many a degree has become a social status rather than proof of our specialized knowledge and skills.
My memories of secondary school were mainly to accomplish one thing: to graduate with good grades. If I look back, the key phrases that were buzzing around in my head were: ‘What grade did I get?’, ‘How will this effect my total score?’ not, ‘What did I learn?’ or ‘Ah, that was interesting!’. Maybe my own tunnel-vision is to blame for this simple way of thinking, but I can’t really remember my classmates thinking much differently.
Academic education and vocational education should be seen as socially equal, yet different in its purpose.
Academic education exists in order to explore and push the boundaries of knowledge. Vocational education exists in order to provide us with practical knowledge and experience that can smoothen our transition into the workforce. Though both play an essential role within society.
However, it seems that academic education has, in present society, taken on the role of both.
Naturally vocational education is not the road towards all careers, but it is the road to many.
An alternative would be a paid apprenticeship. An example would be the Swiss Apprenticeship model. At the age of 16 youths are given the choice to either go to a baccalaureate school to pursue pre-university education or choose vocational education and training (VET) in order to pursue a paid apprenticeship in a choice of around 230 occupations including: health care worker, IT technician, commercial employee and draughtsman. According to the 2018 census around two-thirds of students decided to pursue the latter, highlighting that there is little stigma surrounding this path. After completing the apprenticeship many also choose to pursue university education. The VET system combines classroom hours with valuable hours on the work floor, while also paying students for their labour.
On the other hand, in other countries, doing an apprenticeship is an uncommon method of gaining work experience. Traineeships have evolved or should I say devolved into internships. The have become opportunities to gain ‘work experience’ in exchange for little or no pay and there seems to be more of an emphasis on ‘no pay’ and less of an emphasis on the ‘work experience’ itself. This situation favours the employer rather than the employee.
There are of course valuable internships out there where a lot can be learned, but I can only go from personal experience.
When I had the interview for my first internship I was told I would be paid 200 euros a month, not a lot of money, but to a student like me it seemed like a fortune. In the end, I was never paid. Why? Well, I assume that they figured out that there are many people willing to do the internship for free and I was too scared to press them about the issue because I was terrified I would be replaced. Did I gain experience? Yes, but not the experience I had hoped for. I purchased a vacuum cleaner and had a bizarre and infuriating email exchange with a press officer. The experience also led to a couple of overwhelmingly underpaid assignments. We have been made to believe we should be grateful for these experiences and that complaining is a self-indulgent activity illustrating how spoilt we are. We have to keep our heads down, work hard, never complain and we shall prosper. However, it should be okay to have standards. It should be okay to stand up for ourselves. It should be okay to say: “I have to pay rent”.
Another example of unpaid work was advertised on the Japan Studies Facebook page. A very prominent Dutch television network, with government financial backing, was searching for a Japanese-Dutch interpreter for an upcoming television show. The post stated that it was to be an unpaid job, but it would look great on someone’s CV. Many students and alumni complained about the sheer audacity, however, it only takes one person to do it for free, and who should blame them? A few years back I would have done exactly the same thing, no questions asked and that’s partly the problem. We are all too willing to do things for little return, in the hope that one day we will receive that one opportunity that will change our lives forever. However, as long as this way of thinking continues in our society, the longer companies will continue to exploit our eagerness. It’s a sad situation. We invest thousands of euros into higher-education in order to acquire specialized skills and we should feel grateful for unpaid work that might make our CVs look good. An internship is a luxury not everyone can afford, yet it is slowly becoming essential in order to advance on the career ladder.
I have experienced the positive side of an internship, but I cannot call it an internship because, though it was minimum wage, they actually paid me. They taught me and paid me. It was an internship of the best kind and so I feel that I have to call it a job.
The transition between education and the workforce needs to become smaller. Companies need to invest in their employees and not the other way round. In doing so you will get a more loyal and happier workforce, instead of a continuous ebb and flow of disgruntled employees. While, at the same time, the education system has to prepare students as best they can for the array of possibilities that lie ahead of them. Society is changing, lifetime employment is diminishing, permanent contracts are becoming harder to acquire. University should not be presented as the only option, but just one of many alternatives.
Last year when I was job hunting, I found a job vacancy advertising a position for packing parcels. You needed a master’s degree to apply. My heart dropped. It showed me that formal education no longer is enough.
I now live in voluntary exile in Japan, partly because I want to continue studying the Japanese language and culture, but also because I feel relatively free from social and financial pressure in order to take the time to figure things out. A luxury that seemed out of reach in Europe.
I’m lucky enough to have two wonderful bosses. I get paid on time, I do not work over-time and I also have a generous amount of paid vacation.
I lacked prior experience when applying for the job, but they have been extremely patient and I have learnt so much from them. In return I hope to give them my loyalty, respect and the best I can do. In the meantime, I will just have to figure things out on my own time.
Will this declaration to the infinite abyss, that is the internet, create the social pressure needed to make it past the third day of whatever it is I am doing?
I hope so…