Getting rid of the stigma of unemployment
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WGiven the looming 2024 election, one of the most discussed mysteries of our time is why Americans feel economic anxiety despite low unemployment, low inflation, and other positive economic indicators. My research on American workers points to one of the root causes of this anxiety. It focuses on the kind of workers we might expect to not have to worry about — experienced, college-educated, white-collar professionals — including some with advanced degrees from elite universities like Harvard and MIT. Focusing on this group reveals that the professional lives of even the most advantaged workers in the contemporary United States are anxiety-ridden and precarious.
Regardless of prestigious degrees and impressive work experience, the professional lives of almost all American workers have been made unpredictable by routine layoffs. It wasn’t always like this. In the post-World War II era, workers at large companies could expect to remain at one company for decades. But since the 1980s, job security has collapsed, and is now collapsing 3 out of 4 American Workers become unemployed at some point in their careers.
However, the economic anxiety extends beyond just layoffs. It is rooted primarily in the fear of not being able to bounce back after Laying off workers, falling into the trap of long-term unemployment or low-paid work. This fear is justified, even for experienced university-educated professionals. A 2013 Stady The Economic Policy Institute reveals that if a college-educated worker becomes unemployed, they are just as likely as any other worker — whatever their level of education — to fall into the trap of long-term unemployment. Even after prolonged searching, many are stuck in low-paying jobs. The downward movement does not appear in unemployment statistics, but it destroys people’s lives.
American workers are worried because anyone You could fall. There are no reliable shields against an invisible but powerful force that can quickly erase past educational and professional achievements: stigma. Once a worker is unemployed, they are stigmatized in the eyes of potential employers. This can be clearly seen in studies Where researchers send fake CVs to companies that have real job opportunities. These resumes are identical in terms of skills and qualifications and differ only in whether or not the applicant has a current job gap. From these studies, we know that employers are much less likely to invite unemployed applicants for job interviews.
I interviewed recruiters to get a better understanding of the stigma of unemployment. After assuring them that they would remain anonymous, recruiters openly discussed employers’ widely shared assumptions about unemployed applicants. “A company can lay people off for a variety of reasons,” one recruiter explained. “But there’s a perception that oftentimes, those people who are laid off or out of work for any period of time, they’re not going to be some of the best people out there.” In practice, this perception often translates into an employer preference for “passive job seekers,” referring to workers who are currently employed and not actively looking for work; in other words, workers who are not unemployed. Here’s how one recruiter summed it up Summing up the widely shared sentiment behind the preference for passive job seekers: “The sense is that if someone is good, they’ll work.” Upon thinking about it, this recruiter admitted that “this logic is bullshit,” recalling his own experience: “I was of the best employees and the whole group was laid off.” Yet even this recruiter, recognizing his employers’ flawed logic, felt compelled to follow his employer clients’ preference for passive job seekers.
Employers are not the only ones who face stigma. As unemployed workers interviewed in the course of my research repeatedly emphasized, they experienced the stigma of unemployment in all Their sphere of life, including when they try to connect with former colleagues, or even when they turn to their spouses or close friends for support.
The stigma of unemployment is ubiquitous because most of us want to believe in the myth of meritocracy – the false assumption that one’s position reflects one’s merit. The influence of this myth is clearly evident when I share stories from my research. Take, for example, the story of Ron, one of the people I interviewed. Ron is a Harvard graduate and has worked in finance for more than three decades, most recently at a large, prestigious bank. After being laid off, he spent three years trying unsuccessfully to get another job in the banking sector. Today, Ron earns poverty-level wages at a department store.
When I share Ron’s story, I’m inevitably asked for more details about his own situation. A story like Ron’s is terrifying to anyone who hears it, because if his career can go downhill, anyone can too. The thread connecting the different questions is the search for something wrong in the rune, which would reduce the anxiety of the person asking the questions about whether the same fate awaits him. Almost no one asked me about the hiring process or the stigmas employers might face that might underlie Ron’s difficulties.
Focusing the questions on finding something wrong with Ron shows how stubbornly we cling to the belief in the predictability of meritocracy, that if you do the “right” things, study hard, go to a good college, and get a good job, you should do okay. But the dark side of this belief is the stigmatization of those experiencing unemployment or social mobility. Holding on to this belief motivates us to find a reason Why The unemployed are to blame for their unemployment, so we ask skeptical questions – mirroring those of employers – about the talent or motivation of anyone who is unemployed or has experienced downward mobility.
Ironically, while we cling to the myth of predictable meritocracy as a way to deal with our anxiety, this myth leaves behind the institutions and employer practices that ensure our constant anxiety. The myth of meritocracy means that we judge and stigmatize each other, even our friends and loved ones, rather than providing empathetic support. It means that we blame individuals for what are societal shortcomings, and these shortcomings remain as they are. Ultimately, this means that we remain trapped in an economic system in which we are all one step away from potential disaster.
The way out of this trap is to confront it head-on and shine a bright light on the assumption that unemployment necessarily reflects anything About the unemployed person rather than the economy, employers and the employment system. Until we do, we will continue to experience perpetual economic anxiety, regardless of key economic indicators.
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