University
Hans Harbers cleans a client's apartment in the Vondelflat. Photo © by Reyer Boxem

Lecturer Hans Harbers became a cleaner

A philosopher in an apron

After nearly half a century at the UG, Hans Harbers wanted one last opportunity to do something else. The associate professor of philosophy went out and found himself a low-skilled service job: he became a cleaner for people with a physical handicap.
Door Ellis Ellenbroek / Foto Reyer Boxem

On his farewell reception at the UG in the late summer of 2019, Hans Harbers announced the new challenge he’d be taking on. His colleagues at the Faculty of Philosophy were astonished. They’d been aware that Hans wanted to do something else before he truly retired. But they’d never expected he would find work as a cleaner.

Sixty-five-year-old Harbers became a domestic worker as part of the Social Support Act. His work ended two weeks ago, when he reached the retirement age of sixty-six years and four months. His new employer, MartiniZorg, would have loved to keep him, he says. But Harbers worried he would try to interfere too much with the management side of things, and he wanted to make sure that didn’t happen. ‘It’s a really complicated world. A bureaucratic mess. I never understood why I had two hours and five minutes for one client, yet one hour and fifty minutes for another.’

I would’ve loved to go around the city with one of those little cleaning carts

The MartiniZorg director herself came down to sit in on the interview; Harbers wasn’t the kind of candidate they saw often. She asked him if he didn’t want a different position within the organisation. After all, he had the experience. But he said no. ‘I wanted to get my hands dirty. I wanted a job that didn’t require a diploma. I wanted to get to know a world I was unfamiliar with.’ 

He also would have loved to work as a driver for the elderly or groups of school kids. Or as a cleaner at a hotel, or the city cleaning crew. ‘Not on one of those trucks. I’m too old for that. But I would’ve loved to go around cleaning the city centre with one of those little carts. Puttering around in my high-vis jacket. Having people from the university still call me “mister Harbers”. That would be so much fun.’

Farmer’s son Hans Harbers (Aalten, 1954) studied sociology at the UG and got a philosophy PhD for his research into the relationship between science and politics in 1968. In 1989, he was appointed associate professor of philosophy of science, technology, and society the Faculty of Philosophy. In 2002, Harbers helped found debate centre DwarsDiep, which ran for fifteen years. In 2012 he quit the research part of his job, dissatisfied with the state of academic philosophy. He quit the UG on September 1, 2019 and became a cleaner.

Essential

Harbers says the career change at sixty-five was an experiment to see if he even stood a chance. He also never had a side job like most students today do. ‘When I was a student, I received enough financing that I didn’t need a job.’ He’s not doing it to try and be a hero in his old age, although he did think it was funny when his new job was marked as essential during the corona crisis. He sent some of his former colleagues a teasing message: ‘My job is essential. Yours never has been.’

He calls his career change ‘switch 2.0’. He made his first big switch in 2012, when the sociologist philosopher, who loves a mix of science, politics, and society, turned his back on academic philosophy. ‘I was done. It had lost its meaning.’

What was the point? ‘All philosophers ever do is solve each other’s problems. Someone writes an article about a footnote for a footnote for a footnote in some other person’s article. And these articles only ever appear in journals that other philosophers read.’

Photo by Reyer Boxem

Expensive lecturer

People didn’t approve of his choice; they felt he was abandoning them, but Harbers quit the research part of his job and became a freelance organiser of debates and other events for the public. He continued to teach at the UG for two days a week. ‘I became a really expensive lecturer, since they were still paying me my associate professor salary.’ 

All philosophers ever do is solve each other’s problems

He thinks it’s weird they didn’t take any money from him, but he’s capitalised on it; the money helped him get his freelance business up and running.

Harbers helped create a new master programme: philosophy and society. It was set up when the review committee sided with him: ‘I said we were only training our students to do a PhD. We weren’t preparing them for the labour market at all.’ 

He was a thesis supervisor for approximately a hundred students, helping them get their PhD or master’s degree. With heart and soul. ‘I loved my students. They came to the university so shy and insecure. And at the end, they were people who were ready for the world. I loved having a hand in that.’

Service

Switch 2.0 has awakened a need for social servitude in him. ‘Everyone should spend a year doing something in service to society. It doesn’t matter what. It might put an end to people’s selfishness and populists who claim to know everything. It might cure the lack of humility in the world.’

He’s learned other things from his year in other people’s households. He wrote them down. ‘Our welfare state is amazing. I know people complain a lot, for example about making municipalities responsible for the Social Support Act. But that’s only one half of the story. So many people are helped with our tax money. It pays for domestic help, for example.’

He also found out that people can have wildly differing opinions on what constitutes clean and what constitutes dirty. ‘Sometimes two hours isn’t nearly enough to clean someone’s house. I’d spend thirty minutes just cleaning the kitchen counters. Dusting was useless. I couldn’t even reach the windowsill. Not only was the sill itself packed with tchotchkes, but there was also three cabinets blocking my way.’ How did he handle cases like this? ‘I just had to accept that this was the way someone wanted it. That it was their life.’

Photo by Reyer Boxem

Hard work

He admires people who make their living cleaning for others. ‘Women – it’s mainly women who do this work – who bend over backwards for ten bucks an hour, before taxes. That’s damn little. And it’s hard work, especially if you do it all day long.’ He did it for ten hours a week.

Cleaners bend over backwards for ten bucks an hour, which is damn little

Harbers cheerfully took his bucket, mop, dust rag, and vacuum cleaner to take care of strangers’ kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms. He regularly went the extra mile for people, scratching old glue off bathroom tiles, washing glasses that had been collecting dust for years, and sometimes even fixing doors that were stuck or crooked. 

One time, he made a wooden grate to cover a high window. ‘This lady had a Bengal cat. It was a beautiful animal, but really wild. She lived on the eleventh floor and she couldn’t open a window or the cat would escape. It got so hot in there this past summer. My little grate meant the window could open but the cat couldn’t escape.’

His clients loved the tall, educated senior. Except for his very first client, who refused his service. ‘I called him on the phone to introduce myself as his new domestic worker. The man was silent for a while. “A dude?! Not in my house! I’ll gladly have drink with you or spend a night out on the town. But I will not have a dude in an apron in my house!” It turned out he was worried about what the neighbours would think if they saw a man come over every week.’ 

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