We don’t accept new staff over 45 years old

There is nearly one million inactive Portuguese between the age of 45 and 64. They represent the largest section of the unemployed and they face the greatest of dilemmas: too young for retirement and too old for a job market that doesn’t care about them.

Rita Ferreira

Translation by Paulo Montes

June 2014

José Évora: double prejudice

He was already 40 when he arrived in Madeira, after working for five years as an office clerk in a cultural society in Coimbra, a city in the central region of mainland Portugal. From there on, he was never able to find a lasting permanent job again. His age was beginning to have an influence on the type of jobs he could apply for, and being of African descent didn’t help him either. “The majority imposes an age limit and they only recruit people up to 35. If you’re 35 you’re in luck but from there on, you’re screwed”, says José Évora, who hasn’t given up applying for jobs and submitting resumes, despite rarely getting an answer. Not even a negative one.

José has the twelfth grade diploma and his work experience is essentially as an office clerk. And that would be his job when he joined an air conditioning company. “I started as a clerk, but I ended up on the streets cleaning air conditioning filters”, he says. He went from office clerk to driver and by the end he was opening ditches for the air conditioning cables. This went on for two years.

He started receiving unemployment benefit until he was placed as a driver in a hospital in Funchal (Madeira’s capital), but the contract expired after only nine months. He got unemployed again until he was hired by a clinic. “I was in costumer care, until they decided I wasn’t fit for the job. They didn’t want a person with my age or my skin color, I think that’s the reason why I got sacked six months later. They put a beautiful young girl in my place.”

He had to go back to the unemployment benefit. José Évora is 46, has two underage daughters and a working wife, who’s the major source of the household income. A few months ago, he was contacted by the job center to join an occupational program. “This is another way of fooling unemployed people. We earn 300 Euros for nine months, working six hours a day. Fortunately in my case, the schedule is flexible and I can do much of the work from home, with a computer and the internet. At least I can take care of my baby girls.”

©osomeafuriaCristina Pinto: maternity or employment

It’s already difficult to get a job when you’re in constant activity, but it gets even more complicated after you take a break in your career. That’s what happened to Cristina Pinto, now 53 and unemployed. When she got married, she was secretary in a company. Then came the first child, and Christina and her husband, who was working for a multinational company, decided she should take a break to concentrate on the baby, staying home with the child. They eventually had a second baby and Cristina postponed her return to the labor market. Something that’s fairly usual for many women in other Western countries, but that proved to be very complicated when, at age 36, Cristina attempted to go back to work.

“Untill I was 40, I kept searching for work as a secretary. I was unsuccessful but I never gave up. I did a lot of translation jobs and I invested in my education with a course in decoration and interior architecture. I finished with a high average and started sending resumes, but nobody answered me. It’s an area that’s hard to get in. Then translations started to dwindle until they stopped altogether”, she explains.

Already at the time, Cristina felt discriminated because of her age. And if it was hard at 40… “When you’re 53, it’s impossible, we’re old. They say they’re interested in someone younger or with fewer skills. Anyway, they always find a graceful way of saying: you’re old, you’re no good.”

She’s still in charge of her children, a 20-year old girl and a 17-year old boy. “I don’t regret my decision at all. I invested a lot in them, I accompanied their growth and I gave them their foundations.” The income available to the family is now smaller, but Christina never hid that from her children, whenever there was money or not. She keeps working, painting, and sometimes, “after much struggle”, she manages to make an exhibition. Last time, she sold two paintings.

Her daughter is finishing her degree in Molecular Biology, and Cristina says that sometimes she feels lost whenever her daughter asks her for advice. “I don’t know what’s the purpose of all this. People are detached from themselves and others, everything’s used as an excuse. Sometimes it seems like I just landed here on a parachute and I don’t recognize what surrounds me. If you don’t have friends in high places, you’ll have no chance of finding a job. I’m already telling my children: start preparing yourselves to get out of here. “

João Silva: a matter of trust

A degree in Economics, a place in the administration of the company where he worked for 28 years. João Silva started working as a technician at age 24, in a company he now wishes to keep secret. “I was a rookie, but I kept climbing, I kept progressing in my career. I was never frozen or put aside. At 47, I made to Chief Financial Officer”, he says.

Everything was running smooth until the day the shareholding structure changed and the company went from having a distributed capital to being controlled by one single shareholder who got 98% of the company’s capital. “It was a family business, and as usual, those high trust positions tend to stay in the family. Millions are placed in the hands of sons or nephews”, João reveals, to explain that the invitation to step down from his post wasn’t much of a surprise. But such an abrupt cutback wasn’t on his horizons, João always thought his 28 years of experience in the company “were a good argument to defend his job a while longer.” But he was mistaken. The dismissal proceedings went ahead, culminating in a “termination by mutual agreement.”

“It’s one thing when you leave because you want to, but being kicked out is a whole other thing. It’s a violent change and the idea that you’ll at least enjoy some free time is very wrong. The truth is that the one who gets sacked never has any active voice in these processes. The inner problem goes by unsolved and that inner problem is a bit complicated.” As soon as he became unemployed, João started looking for a job. Despite receiving the maximum allowed in unemployment benefits, the figures were still far lower than his old salary, and the compensation he got didn’t exactly “stuff his wallet with millions”. And then? “Then, zero. I got nothing. For starters, nobody’s creating new jobs. Then, at the level that I was, people who get hired don’t get there through the formal job market. The only offers I found were some very scarce opportunities in Portugal, some in Angola and that was it.”

In many other European countries, people like João are getting hired for projects with fixed-term contracts of 1-2 years by companies that can only benefit from their long experience, but that just doesn’t exist in Portugal.

João has no choice but to try and create his own job, and that’s what he’s investing in. At 54, still far from retirement age, with an unemployed wife and two children still in his household – one just finished college, the other just started it – João needs some income. “For now, in spite of all the changes in our lives, we still haven’t lost any of those fundamental things. We still live in the same house, we have lunch and dinner every day. Maybe not the same as before, but we have preserved the essential.”

João Silva is guaranteed to receive his unemployment benefits until early 2016. After that, he doesn’t know what will happen. “I could use a crystal ball. If I knew when I’ll die, I could make better calculations.”