What social science says about the impact of unemployment on well-being: it’s even worse than you thought

While reading this odd and meandering New York Times op-ed this morning, I stumbled upon a link to a fascinating study from last year on the impact of unemployment on non-monetary well-being. It was conducted by Stanford sociologist Cristobal Young, who discovered that unemployment has an even more catastrophic effect on personal happiness that we thought.

The study produced three major findings. The first is the devastating impact job loss has on personal well-being. Job loss, says Young, “produces a large drop in subjective well-being”:

Job loss into unemployment [. . .] brings on deep distress that is greater in magnitude than the effect of changes in family structure, home-ownership or parental status. The distress of job loss is also hard to ameliorate: family income does not help, unemployment insurance appears to do little and even reemployment does not provide a full recovery [italics mine].

The second finding is that while unemployment insurance (UI) is successful as a macroeconomic stabilizer, it doesn’t make unemployed people any happier. UI, says Young:

is not central to their sense of well-being. . . [Snip] . . .[ I]t does little to support their identity, sense of purpose or self-regard.

Third, job loss has a strong, lasting negative impact on well-being that may persist for years:

[J]ob loss has consequences that linger even after people return to work. Finding a job, on average, recovers only about two thirds of the initial harm of losing a job. It is not clear how long it takes for the nonpecuniary effect of unemployment to heal.

Other research suggests that what Young refers to as “the scarring effect” of job loss can last from three to five years, or even longer. He also notes that “the more generalized fear of becoming jobless” may persist.

Young’s discussion of these findings stresses the inequality theme. He points out that “recessions generate inequality in both income and well-being: people who lose their jobs bear a disproportionate burden of the recession.” He suggests job-sharing as a way to reduce the concentrated misery of unemployment. That’s a great idea that unfortunately never seems to go anywhere. Employers today seem more interested in squeezing as much labor out of employees as possible for the lowest cost. They’re looking to shrink their payroll rather than expand it. And unfortunately, there are very few public policies that promote job-sharing, let alone do it effectively.

The sheer human misery created by the economic downturn has been stunning. The economic damage is, in some ways, the least of it. Another study shows that the long-term unemployed experience shame, loss of self-respect, and strained relationships with friends and family. They even suffer significantly higher rates of suicide.

Yesterday, Paul Krugman and others discussed the impact of economic inequality vs. unemployment on income. Krugman argued that inequality has had the greater impact, and I agree. Among other things, inequality is also the root cause of the unemployment problem. Special interests which have disproportionate power in our political system prevented more stimulus and inflicted an austerity agenda, which has had a disastrous effect on employment. Re-orienting our political system so that we have a government capable of enacting an economic agenda that promotes full employment will be a huge political challenge. But unless we rise to that challenge, there will only be more suffering of the kind the Stanford study all too painfully documents.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee