Second-Class Commuter – Showing Status in an Egalitarian Culture

As a Swiss resident, have you ever pondered over your social status living in Switzerland? 

Whether the minor details that portray status such as the level of luxury you adhere to while commuting on the train? The transport system in Switzerland is very well laid out and fully planned, so much so that the railway system is the primary commute system for most. Trains have two categories or classes, aptly named as the first and second class. The first class is geared more towards “business people” and professionals on their daily commute to work, whereas the second class or lower class is reserved for the “normal” or median people of society. The question arises that, the system set in place is very clean and safe, with emphasis put into an effective schedule and overall experience, so why is there any need to travel in first class other than seeking out a higher status in society.

I am a second-class commuter and by choice. The train gets me from point A to B without lacking anything in-between. I’ve travelled in first class on a few business trips, and I proclaim to not be aware or ignore my status however that isn’t true. After meeting many expats and foreign personnel, most come from a high and elaborate social lifestyle from their respective homelands, pouring their wealth into extravagant luxuries to portray their accumulation of wealth. 

Many of them have informed me of their housemaids, cooks and sometimes even drivers, as they aren’t accustomed to housework and chores let alone looking after their children. Their perception of Switzerland is that they will fit seamlessly and thrive in a land of milk and honey (or cheese and chocolate in our case!).

But then again! The Swiss lifestyle and reality is far different. When we discuss privilege and being in the “Circle of Trust”, we must understand what status means in an egalitarian society and how it might be different from a more hierarchical society or a society where you are born into a status.

The “Classic” Family Model

Life, although simple, is beautiful in Switzerland for the “natives”, that is, women are more likely to uphold the household and carry out the associated burdens of home economics. Running the home and grooming their kids is all part of the routine, yet if the women are professionals they’ll take a step back after their first child to accommodate the family. Women only received voting rights in Switzerland in 1971 and there is still a lot of catching up to do when it comes to gender balance and equal rights for women in the workplace.

You must not forget that the Swiss also often have their parents and in-laws nearby, so they have support options for childcare and emergencies that you might not (yet) have as a newcomer to this country.

Childcare is very expensive, gross childcare costs were equal to 69 percent of the average wage in Switzerland, the highest proportion among OECD countries in 2018, based on a double-income, average-wage-earning couple with two children! 

That is more than half of the mean income a household generates. Switzerland also lacks in qualified educators, but fees for private kindergartens are quite high, with an indicative day cost of CHF 60 to CHF 150 for cities like Bern and Zurich. (If you are interested in working in childcare, I highly recommend a consultation with my friend Monica Shah at Children First.)

So many women decide to stay home or not work 100% and if you are a female expat with children (or even without) it might be expected that you do the same. 

Other Support Options I Have Tested

Opting for a cleaning person was a trial-and-error story for me. I was very used to having a cleaner, even in my early career but even those who may afford it are often not satisfied by the quality of work given the steep price you may have to pay. I tried several agencies for cleaning and finally came to the conclusion that I’d rather do it myself (together with my partner). This is not great, because I’m not very good at cleaning and ironing but I have gotten better over the last 10 years. To be honest, now I often feel that it even helps my brain digest all that has been going on during the week. If you are planning to hire a cleaner make sure that they are insured either through an agency such as Batmaid or you run your own payroll with SVA.

Egalitarian Cultures value Modest Behavior

Culture clashes here are evident due to the difference in “status” as compared elsewhere in the world. High ranking professionals such as CEO’s are often seen taking the bus and train to work. Their appearance isn’t necessarily associated with designer suits, expensive cars and watches. The Swiss tend to live a modest life, with small houses they do not like to show off. They define their status and luxury by travelling the world, bearing children and enjoying a vacation in a nice cottage in the mountains. 

Luxury is a longer period of time taken off work to follow a dream, being able to volunteer, support an NGO or support the commune by being in the fire brigade or in an association. Being able financially to work part-time or have your spouse stay at home are signs of luxury in the world today.

I often hear “The Swiss don’t like to work hard.” And I would like to add “The Swiss don’t have to work hard, but they still show up for work, because they have a strong work ethic and believe in delivering high quality at work.” Your perception of what comes across as being slow or not interested in service delivery might be influenced strongly by your home culture and expectations created by how things are in your home turf.

Go through the Pain to Follow Your Dream

Although most steps may feel common when moving to a new country, it often takes a while to truly get settled in. Time and real integration play a vital role in my opinion especially after two to three years. 

You start to enhance your social circle outside the reserved expat or foreign community, the sooner you embrace the country in its entirety  is when you really feel “at home”. I used to have status in Germany. I was an Executive, a “Leitende Angestellte”. I had an apartment, a nice company car, and a team. I also had a cleaning person, a tailor and enough money for several holidays and trips. Then I moved to Switzerland and suddenly my status changed. You probably wonder how I could let that happen as a Global Mobility professional. 

I should have made a net-to-net comparison and request a better package. I should have insisted on coming to Switzerland with an appropriate corporate title AND I should have known that there will be social security risks when I transfer on a local contract. And yes, despite the fact that I am a Global Mobility Expert I made a few miscalculations. I did not get the deal I deserved and I suffered a few years from this mistake. I accepted the terms of the contract because I followed my dream. I wanted to live in Zurich no matter what. And when you are emotional about a goal in life, you easily forget the pain. 

Learn Budgeting and Cash Flow

What does this mean for the “second-class commuter” in Switzerland? It means learning and following more frugal habits, planning finances not just for the future but also for recurring expenses and lifestyle quirks. Based on my experiences and those of people who have lived in similar circumstances, here are the nine budgeting tips that will be helpful especially for the startups and entrepreneurs:

1) Carry very little money with you when you go to town. Leave your credit card at home. Use your credit card only for emergencies or online bargains. Have enough money to buy a cup of coffee (max 10 CHF).

2) Call a friend for coffee instead of dinner and hope that they will ask you to come to their house. Invite friends to your house for a glass of wine.

3) If you reach a milestone such as two years in the business, celebrate yourself at home. Cook a nice meal and buy healthy food.

4) Pay small amounts at the grocery store with your bankcard so you see exactly what you spent your money for. When you go out for drinks or fun only carry cash and when you are out of cash return home. That’s especially important when you tend to buy expensive drinks at 15 CHF. (Imagine how long you work for one drink!)

5) Budget all your spending especially your holidays or how much money you spend on clothes, makeup, sunglasses and shoes.

6) Strictly separate business from private spending but try to optimize your private spending by using legal options to deduct costs for a home office, laptops, phone, Internet connection and cleaning services.

7) Avoid television and exposure to advertising. You feel a lot less like spending money on crap that you don’t need.

8) Avoid impulse buying decisions by adding all potential buys (books, seminars, travels) to wish lists. I even have a wish book. A lot of my wishes do not appear so important after a few weeks. Others just materialize themselves.

9) Love your business plan. Add anything you will earn right when you have the confirmation. Stay on the careful side but motivate yourself by adding all future turnover and checking the total annual turnover regularly.

If you need more advice on how to secure your old-age pension or budget your life in Switzerland without the hassle of watching every Franc, I highly recommend Keren-Jo Thomas, Financial Planning for Women.

How you show Status in Switzerland

A big luxury in Switzerland is being able to have one half of a couple stay at home to oversee the children, oftentimes the woman fills in the role while the husband earns the bread. What will happen if you move to Switzerland, unpacked your luggage and barely just settled in to realize you’ll have to live life like a “second-class citizen”? Feelings of struggle and working too hard at the office may arise with thoughts of not visiting the mountains as often you’d have hoped for. 

Learn Swiss German or French

Expats, migrants and international hires often underestimate the need to learn the local language Swiss German (or French), and in this phase doubt whether the move to Switzerland was the right choice. However, learning (at least understanding) the local dialect and language(s) will help you integrate and get access to what I refer to as the “Circle of Trust”.

With a more realistic idea of what to expect, detailed planning and the right support in the face of challenges, you can offset the “valley of tears” associated with your move to Switzerland and achieve the financial and mental stability that every “second-class citizen” would like to achieve. If you need our support we are happy to connect you with the right resources. Ideally, you join our HireMeExpress program or the RockMeRetreat in November.

Have an inspired week ahead

Angie

References:

https://www.expat.com/en/guide/europe/switzerland/10476-child-care-in-switzerland.html

https://medium.com/gokong/how-to-budget-for-childcare-costs-in-switzerland-31e4f024214a 

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