The psychological price of job loss

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The psychological price of job loss

Man bundled in winter coat holds cardboard sign that says need money for food and diapers

Feb. 2010, khteWisconsin
One modern face of unemployment.

Almost four years after the economy started sliding into the Great Recession, unemployment in the United States is still at 9.1 percent. On Sept. 1, the White House announced that it expected a 9 percent rate at least through the presidential election.

And on Sept. 13, the Labor Department revealed that the poverty rate had reached 15.1 percent, a rate not seen since 1993. A family of four must have income below $22,314 to qualify as poor.

Those numbers hide even more grievous problems: Among blacks, the rate is 16.7 percent, and among all Americans under age 24, it’s 18 percent.

And if you count discouraged workers, who have quit looking for a job, and part-time workers who would prefer full-time work, the rate soars to 16.2 percent — or 14 million Americans.

All this, and the average period of unemployment has stretched to 22.9 weeks.

Historic U.S. unemployment rates

Chart shows 1948-2011. Line fluctuates, peaks near 11 percent in 1982; near 10 percent in 2009

In the long term, change is the only constant in unemployment rates — but today’s rate is close to a post-war record.

Who is looking for work? It’s easier to ask who isn’t…. According to new research from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, men, single parents, young adults, and people with less education have been hit harder. Marybeth Mattingly, a research assistant professor of sociology who directs research on vulnerable families, says, “Jobs in manufacturing and construction have disappeared in the recession and they may or may not be coming back, and these tend to be jobs held by men and the less educated.”

Beyond the numbers

Unemployment is not just about economics. Psychologist Maria Jahoda argued in the 1930s that employment provides latent byproducts, hidden things,” says economist Arthur Goldsmith of Washington and Lee University. “She said people always see the explicit benefit — the wage — but employment also organizes your day, gives you a way to connect to other people, status; there are many other things associated with work. If all you do is say, ‘We have a lot of unemployment, the GNP is down 1.4 percent,’ you don’t capture the potential psychological and social costs.”

Photo 1: January 18, 2010, White House photo by Chuck Kennedy; Photo 2: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, 53227(293)
In honor of Martin Luther King Day, First Lady Michelle Obama serves lunch at a soup kitchen in Washington. Roll-over photo to see a Volunteers of America soup kitchen, Washington, DC, 1936.

Goldsmith adds that developmental psychologist Erik Erikson said “your sense of self is undermined by an incapacity to become a self-sustaining member of society.”

In 2011, the psychological effects of unemployment are compounded by a devastating surge in foreclosures: Millions of families are confronting poverty and being forced to find a place to live. “Foreclosure has been an enormous part of this narrative that does not always happen with a wave of unemployment,” says Goldsmith.

And so we got to wondering. Beyond the obvious — and ominous — economic harm from unemployment, what does it do to self-esteem, psychological health, the willingness to get up and face the world with diminished prospects? In a time when so many people identify themselves by their occupation – what does it mean to be out of work?

Suffer the children

Being laid off, even when you are one of millions with the same problem, can lead to “why me?” questions, and to doubts about your self-worth, about your role and utility in society.

When the story ends with a well-paid, fulfilling job, these doubts usually answer themselves.

Otherwise, these doubts can easily lead to brooding, depression, despair, isolation and anxiety – even apparently to child abuse. A study presented in April1 found that the incidence of shaken baby syndrome had doubled in the Great Recession (December 2007 through June 2010), compared to a prior period of prosperity.

Babies have weak neck muscles, so severe shaking can cause violent head movement and serious, even fatal brain injury. Shaking, often by angry, frustrated care-givers who cannot stop the baby’s crying, causes an estimated 1,300 such head injuries each year. Surviving children can have varying degrees of visual, motor or cognitive damage, or even end up in a permanent vegetative state — a coma.


Dozens of people mill around booths at a convention center, sign hangs from ceiling

Job hopefuls try their luck at a job fair earlier this year in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Beyond a doubling of the rate of such abuse, the researchers also saw trends toward graver injury and a higher death rate, though they were not statistically significant.

Suffer the teachers!

In a study of school behavior among children of single mothers that started in the 1990s, Heather Hill, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, found a higher level of problems among children of mothers who had been out of work years earlier.

The study was intended to explore the effects of welfare reform, which mandated that welfare mothers find jobs, and was performed when their children were 8 to 10 years old, five years after some of their mothers had been unemployed for at least three months.

The teachers reported a rise in both “external” problem behavior, such as acting out or disobedience, and “internal” behaviors, such as seeming depressed or anxious. “Problem behavior captures how they are coping, processing, as they have to sit in class, pay attention, stay on task, and do what they are told,” Hill told us.

Both categories of behavior were much more prevalent among the children of mothers who had been unemployed years earlier. The delayed reaction reflects the fact that early childhood sets the stage for future achievement and adjustment, Hill says. “The early years, prior to starting school, are very important for the developmental process.”

Life on the line?

The stakes in unemployment may be even greater, however. A new analysis of 42 studies, mainly performed in western nations, found a 63 percent increase in deaths (78 percent for men) among those who had been unemployed.

Although this deadly impact probably reflects financial and physical roots, not just emotional ones, “Our study results clearly indicate that unemployment is not just bad for your pocketbook; it’s also bad for your health,” said Joseph E. Schwartz, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York, in a press release. “The results suggest a causal relationship between unemployment and higher risk of death, as well as the need to identify strategies to minimize the adverse health effects of unemployment.”

The analysis of unemployment and mortality data, which covered 20 million people, showed that a significant history of job loss raised the risk of death by 75 percent among people younger than 50. The elevated risk of mortality was 25 percent among older people.

Bright spots in a dark picture

Could the woes of unemployment be temporary? In a study of 774 Germans who lost their jobs between 1984 and 2003, psychiatrist Isaac Galatzer-Levy of the New York University School of Medicine found that most people had regained their emotional equilibrium within a year.

The silver lining?

What are jobless men doing at home? In interviews in suburban Illinois, University of Kansas graduate student Illana Demantas discussed family structure and household tasks with 20 men who had been jobless at least three months.


Man wearing glasses reads book to diaper clad baby, both sit on a couch

Photo: Paolo Pace
The upside of unemployment: more time for the little ones.

Demantas, who worked with Kristen Myers of Northern Illinois University, reported this summer to the American Sociological Association that the men were doing more work at home and appreciated increased family time. “That’s nothing new, men have always been involved at home, but what was most interesting was the way they see their contribution,” Demantas told us. “In the past, men have always defined breadwinner status as making money, now they see the value of household work: ‘If she wasn’t working, I’d be on the street; I’m glad to make coffee for her so I can do something to contribute.'”

The participants were divided into four groups based on how satisfied they with their lives. The largest group, 69 percent, reported a relatively high and stable level of life satisfaction before job loss, and although they were affected more severely by unemployment, a year later their life satisfaction was restored to its pre-unemployment level.

Although life satisfaction scores were less positive among the other subjects, the results tend to refute the standard view of unemployment, says Galatzer-Levy. “There’s a real concern that [unemployment] will have long-term implications on the mental well-being of a large portion of the work force. But this analysis suggests that people are able to cope with a job loss relatively well over time.”

We tried to reach Galatzer-Levy to ask how well results from Germany, where unemployment is lower than in the United States, apply to the United States, but we could not connect. But by looking at the same people before and after they lost their jobs, the study sidestepped a basic pitfall in understanding the psychological outcome of unemployment: the problem of causation.

A word on method

In science, an experiment is the cleanest way to establish cause and effect, but this technique does not apply to studying the psychology of persistent unemployment. Instead, researchers try to correlate unemployment and health, behavior or psychological well-being.

They ask, are people with jobs healthier, happier, or more stable than those without?

But finding that two things go together — are correlated — cannot distinguish cause and effect. To take an obvious example, unemployment could cause psychological depression, or depression could cause unemployment.

The correlation between unemployment and psychological harm dates to the Great Depression of the 1930s, Goldsmith says. To get a better picture of causality, researchers began to follow individuals over time, as the German study did. Having evidence of mental-health and job status in 2010 and again in 2011 helps pinpoint cause and effect, Goldsmith says, but “Unfortunately, many things could also happen during this period,” and some could override employment status.


Young girl in 1930s garb sits on a bench in a bedroom, looking sadly into the fireplace

December 1935, photo by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration
A farm child resettled from Taos Junction to the Bosque Farms project in New Mexico.

A grimmer picture

In an effort to refine the methodology, Goldsmith and colleagues are completing a study on the psychology of unemployment, using data from 2002 and ‘03. The first step was to exclude people with a history of psychological difficulties.

“We focused on people who have never had a psychological problem, or had a first bout of poor mental health in the past year,” Goldsmith says. “We all lose girlfriends, dogs, our surfboards get dented, but these are pretty tough people.”

Among subjects who were fully employed and then were unemployed, the researchers statistically controlled for education, work experience, marital status, having children, and church membership, all of which can buffer assaults on mental health.

The goal, Goldsmith says, was to tease out the psychological effects of unemployment from the other slings and arrows of unfortunate fortune. “Suppose you were unemployed last year, and had your first ever bout of poor emotional well-being. It’s hard to believe that caused your unemployment, because we know you are resilient.”

The study, which has not yet passed peer review, included contributions from Tim Diette, Darrick Hamilton and William Darity Jr. The results, Goldsmith says, show that long-term joblessness has an especially severe emotional impact among those with more education. “This is not surprising, those are the kind of people who have an internal locus of control, a lot of self efficacy, have always had the sense that they could govern the things that happen to them.”

Data source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
The latest unemployment rates are even grimmer for the lesser educated. Mouse-over chart for data on minorities.

Similarly, a study of 9,570 people found that those who were conscientious — and likely to fulfill their obligations — had a 120 percent greater decrease in life satisfaction during unemployment. “Thus the positive relationship typically seen between conscientiousness and well-being is reversed: conscientiousness is therefore not always good for well-being,” the authors wrote2.

Although Goldsmith found a small detriment following unemployment of less than 15 weeks, people with longer unemployment were almost twice as likely as employed people to evince depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. “These are not trivial diagnoses, they are very serious, can be long lasting,” Goldsmith says. “They can spill over and have effects on people around you.”

Thus the emotional fallout is not restricted to the 16 percent of Americans who are unemployed, discouraged, or involuntarily working part time, Goldsmith contends. “These people have spouses, children, grandchildren, and former coworkers. This says to policy makers that the cost of joblessness is more than financial, there is a substantial social consequence, and while we are having this debate about budget deficits, we ought not to forget that putting people to work does not just produce output, but also greater well-being as a society.”

– David J. Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Rise in Non-Accidental Head Trauma Incidence and Severity in Infants Associated with Economic Recession, Mary I Huang, April 13, Annual Scientific Meeting, American Association of Neurological Surgeons, Denver.
  2. The dark side of conscientiousness: Conscientious people experience greater drops in life satisfaction following unemployment, Christopher J. Boycea et al, Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 44, Issue 4, August 2010, Pages 535-539.
  3. 10 Steps to handling unemployment.
  4. Trauma of joblessness.
  5. Psychological impacts of unemployment.
  6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  7. Unemployment hazardous to your health.
  8. Unemployment and mortality: Finnish case study.
  9. Jobless era transforming America.
  10. BBC Video: Effects on children.