Unemployment and Socioeconomic Status
Being unemployed can be an incredibly stressful experience. Difficulty paying bills is the most obvious stressor, but there are others: the threat of losing a home, feeling rejected while looking for a new job, and declining self-esteem are others. How do you now answer the question, “what do you do?”
Yet the challenges of unemployment are not equal opportunity experiences. An individual’s socio-economic status (SES) makes a big difference; two people standing next to each other in line at an unemployment office might have very different realities.
Socio-economic status is a collective measure of status based on education, income, wealth, and occupation, as well as an individual’s family background: parents’ education, income, wealth and occupation. All of these impact how a person will experience unemployment.
For instance, someone with more education is less likely to be unemployed. As you can see from the graph below, people without a high school diploma were three times more likely to be unemployed as those with bachelor’s degrees were in 2008. And because median earnings are higher with more education, people with college degrees might be more likely to have savings to dip into should they become unemployed.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
And yet for those people who are highly educated and unemployed—note the 2% with doctoral degrees who were unemployed in 2008—the sense of personal failure might be more significant. One possible silver lining to being unemployed during a recession is that a person might know many others in the same situation and therefore take their situation less personally. People with higher levels of education may feel more isolated if they are unemployed.
Another factor defining SES is occupational prestige, which can also shape how someone experiences unemployment. For example, a friend of mine who held an executive-level position lost her job when her company was bought out by a competitor. She was given nine months severance pay of her full salary and decided to start her own business, knowing that she would still collect a significant paycheck for several months. For other people accustomed to not just a high salary, but the power and authority that comes with a high-prestige position, it may be tough to accept that a high-level job might not open up for them.
This is one example of the downward mobility many people are experiencing right now. Aside from having less money to spend and having to alter their lifestyle, finding a job with less prestige also means a shift in one’s social standing and sense of self.
But for some people, who maybe identified too much with their work, unemployment seems to be liberating. In a recent article, the Los Angeles Times described how some people, mostly young and single, experienced “funemployment” by going to the beach, hanging out with friends, and even doing volunteer work. “And at least till the bank account dries up, they’re content living for today.”
Another Times article describes how to have fun in Las Vegas after losing a job by going to the cheaper restaurants in the older, downtown area of Fremont Street. “Vegas is not just the high-priced adult Disneyland I used to revel in. It has spirit and (dare I say it?) soul, and it was totally worth dipping into my severance package.”
The author also described how her newly unemployed status meant she would be mingling with a different crowd that she was used to: “Signs warn patrons not to smoke in line and not to steal the glasses. How enchantingly old school. But the jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing crowd said ‘Midwestern tourist’ more than hip gambler.”
It’s interesting how the author conflates downward mobility with people from a certain region of the country (as a native Midwesterner this rankled me a bit), but it is also a way of trying to distinguish one’s sense of self at others’ expense. A letter to the editor later chided the author for going on vacation at all while she was unemployed.
Clearly having a severance package, previously holding a high paying job, and not having a family to support might make the unemployment experience easier. So too might having a social network with valuable job connections, and family members willing and able to provide financial support and/or a place to live in the meantime. What other factors might make unemployment easier? What might make it more difficult?