In the United States, there are an estimated 18 million people that are unemployed. Much of this is due to economic changes that have occurred within the past decade. In the year 1996, there were an estimated 750,000 households living on less than $2 per day (prior to receiving government benefits). As of the year 2011, this figure had doubled to a whopping 1.5 million households, as a result of many people getting laid off or being unable to find work.
From 1991 to the year 2001, the United States was in its longest ever period of economic expansion. Even from 2001 to 2007, the economy continued to expand with the “Dot Com” boom and technological advancements with the computer. In the year 2007, a period known as the “Great Moderation” came to an end as the ripple effects of the subprime mortgage crisis took hold. This “recession” eventually ended, but unemployment rates are still fairly high.
One problem is that there is significant competition for low-level jobs, and many people simply lack the skills to perform higher level functions. Additionally some people chose to remain unemployed due to the fact that they feel it is below their dignity to take a low paying job [after getting laid off from a better paying one]. Although being unemployed for a short duration may not be a huge setback, a new study highlights that long-term unemployment can not only be detrimental to your psychological health, it can cause your personality to change – for the worse.
Long-Term Unemployment Changes Personality Traits: The Research
Research at the University of Stirling headed by Christopher Boyce decided to investigate the psychological impact of being unemployed by determining how personality traits are affected with prolonged unemployment. What he found was that your core personality traits can change (usually for the worse) the longer you’re unemployed.
How the study worked…
Sample: Boyce and his team of researchers examined a sample size of 6,769 German adults over a period of 4 years. Throughout this 4-year period, 210 people were unemployed for between 1 and 4 years, and 251 people were unemployed less than 1 year before getting a new job.
- 3,733 men
- 3,036 women
Methods: Throughout the 4 year period, personality tests were administered to all of the participants. These personality tests assessed the “Big Five” personality traits (in psychology) including: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The personality tests were given at different time points. It should also be noted that all participants were employed at the time of the first test. By the second test, the participant was either: still employed, unemployed for 1-4 years, or re-employed after being unemployed.
Results: Unemployment resulted in significant change to personality traits such as: agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. Those that were unemployed for a short-duration and then re-employed experienced minor change.
- Men: Men were found to experience an increase in agreeableness during their first 2 years of unemployment. However, after the initial couple years, agreeableness levels dropped, and went on to become lower than men who were employed.
- Women: For women, agreeableness was a trait that declined with each year of unemployment. Throughout the 4 year period, levels of agreeableness continued to drop with the passing of another year.
Lead researcher, Boyce, speculated that in the earlier stages of unemployment, “agreeableness” may be a favorable trait to find another job. Certain incentives may make people behave more agreeable to improve their current situation. However, he also believes that after a 2 year period, those without jobs may be significantly less agreeable simply because their bleak outlook and unemployment has become psychologically solidified.
- Men: It was also discovered that the longer men were without a job, the more their level of conscientiousness dropped. Conscientiousness is characterized by the desire to perform a task to the best of one’s ability, with thoroughness, organization, and vigilance. This is a trait that is specifically associated with enjoying your income. Since you have no income to enjoy, this may be partly why conscientiousness plummets.
- Women: It seemed as though women actually gained conscientiousness in the early and late stages of being unemployed. Researchers believe that this may be due to the fact that women often assist in “caregiving” activities.
- Men: After just 1 year of being unemployed, the trait of openness decreased among men. This means that their curiosity for the world around them experienced a significant drop.
- Women: Although women didn’t experience a sharp drop in levels of openness after just 1 year of being unemployed, they did experience a major drop by the second and third years of unemployment. Oddly enough, this trait significantly improved during their 4th year of unemployment.
Personality trait changes make it tougher to get hired…
When you become unemployed, particularly for a long period of time, three of the “Big Five” personality traits take a turn for the worst. This often makes it even tougher for an individual to find work. If you all of a sudden become less agreeable with others, your conscientiousness plummets, and you have a less open personality, prospective employers may be more likely to turn you down for a job.
- Agreeableness: This is a personality trait associated with sympathy for others, kindness, and cooperation. A drop in agreeableness may be associated with lack of a work routine, particularly one that involves social interaction. When you don’t have to work with others (or are alone a lot), there’s no need for the concept of teamwork to finish a particular task. At most jobs, you often have to do (at least a little bit of) work with someone else, bolstering your trait of agreeableness.
- Conscientiousness: This trait is not only associated with performing a particular job well, it’s associated with motivation and ability to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. If you aren’t conscientious, you probably don’t experience much motivation to get off your butt for work, let alone perform to the peak of your ability. When you’re unemployed, you have fewer opportunities to express this particular trait, leading to it becoming “dulled” in the process.
- Openness: This is another social trait that allows you to allow (or try) new experiences. Those that have high levels of openness tend to try new things a lot. When you’re unemployed, you may not have the opportunity to engage in new experiences, particularly those that are often induced via socialization. This may also be related to the fact that when you’re unemployed, you have less funds to partake in new, novel experiences (e.g. vacation). The lack of new stimuli for a prolonged period of time may make you less likely to engage in new experiences when finally given the opportunity.
Toll of unemployment more than just economic loss
The leader of the study (Boyce) believes that the effect of unemployment is more than just a financial loss. Unemployment creates a ripple effect that affects a person’s core personality traits – often detrimentally. Therefore, he believes that the government should make their best effort to reduce unemployment rates to increase wellbeing.
Boyce was quoted as stating, “Public policy therefore has a key role to play in preventing adverse personality change in society through both lower unemployment rates and offering greater support for the unemployed. Policies to reduce unemployment are therefore vital not only to protect the economy but also to enable positive personality growth in individuals.”
Additionally, he implied that our personalities are not “fixed” and that external factors (e.g. unemployment) can have a huge impact on personality traits. This means that there are other areas of your life such as relationships, friendships, hobbies, etc. that may impact the way your brain works and personality development.
Being unemployed creates neuroplastic changes in the brain
This research further supports the concept of self-directed neuroplasticity. Your entire brain functioning can change in response to wherever you focus your attention and put forth effort. If you become unemployed, you are now aware that you’re unemployed, aren’t contributing to anything meaningful, and your entire demeanor can change. If you continue to focus on the new way you’re feeling and don’t find work, you’ll give more power to the new neural-pathways that develop.
Personality was long thought to remain stable over the lifetime, but researchers clearly demonstrate that something as simple as unemployment produces significant change for 3 of the “Big Five” personality traits. People that were previously conscientious, agreeable, and open, experienced major drops in expressions of these traits. Furthermore the changes (for the worse) were more significant based on duration of unemployment.
The longer the duration of being unemployed, the more severe the effects… The personality changes undergo amplification the longer you remain unemployed. To decrease the likelihood that you’ll endure a debilitating personality change while you’re unemployed, it is recommended to find some sort of work (even if its volunteer work) to keep your favorable personality traits strong.
Suggestions for preventing unemployment-induced personality change
Below is a list of suggestions that you may want to keep in mind for mitigating the effects associated with unemployment.
- Find a new job (ASAP): If you were working, but got laid off, fired, or quit your old job, the first thing you should do is find a new job as soon as possible. Don’t wait for yourself to feel better before you start applying for something new, just do it right away. Getting a new job as soon as possible will result in the least amount of personality change. Some would argue that your personality won’t change at all if you find work right away.
- Health: While unemployed, make sure you are taking care of your personal health. Eating an optimal diet for mental health and getting plenty of exercise will provide significant benefit (Read: Psychological benefits of exercise). Do not neglect your health by taking up drinking and/or drugs to cope with your unemployment, this may lead to more detrimental outcomes.
- Learn new skills: If you feel as though your current employment skills are outdated, take the time to learn new ones. Really put in the effort to find a mentor, teacher, and/or program that will help you learn what you need to know. Many people shy away from learning new skills when they are necessary in order to stay afloat in this economy.
- Practice current skills: In order to keep your current skill-set as sharp as possible, you need to practice them. If you are a writer, keep writing everyday so that you don’t lose your ability to perform well. If your skill involves designing, keep designing daily to improve upon your existing technique. Practicing your skills will ensure that there is no “rust” or decline associated with your ability throughout a period of temporary unemployment.
- Relentless pursuit: Those that get jobs quickly after becoming unemployed are relentless in their pursuit. Some are so relentless that they don’t really care where they have to work, they’re going to work. If it means working at McDonald’s or even Wal-Mart, they’re going to take the work because not only will it keep them busy, they will get social interaction, and will still earn some money. The goal is to continuously pursue work (particularly the career that you want), while not being overly picky. Remember, you can always leave a job you accept, but you can’t leave a job offer you turn down.
- Social connections: Stay as socially involved and connected with the community as possible. Not only can socialization help you maintain beneficial personality traits, someone you talk to may help you get a job. Having favorable social connections is a powerful tool that you can leverage to get work.
- Stay busy: Avoid becoming lackadaisical as a result of newfound unemployment. Keep yourself busy so that you aren’t dwelling on the fact that you’re unemployed. Dwelling on the depressing reality that you’re unemployed will further strengthen its control over you and your brain. Keep yourself occupied with friends, family, volunteer work, housework, and applying for jobs.
Why unemployment may cause psychological harm…
There are several reasons that being unemployed may cause personality change and/or psychological harm (for some individuals). Most of these stem from feeling socially isolated for a prolonged period of time.
- Social isolation: Perhaps the biggest detriment associated with unemployment is a social disconnect. If you relied on your co-workers to be your primary social contacts in the past, you may not feel like you can talk to anyone. During the day, most other people are working, and you may start to feel socially isolated from society.
- Belief system: Being unemployed can quickly change your belief system as well. You may start to believe that the reason you don’t have a job is due to the fact that you are incompetent and incapable of producing any value. While this is not likely to be true, many people start to believe that they are incapable and/or don’t have the necessary skills for a job if they don’t get hired.
- Decreased income: When you aren’t earning any money from a job, you probably won’t be able to afford quality foods, top medical care, and living in a quality community. A simple decline in one area of your life such as that of dietary intake can have major consequences that influence other areas (e.g. cognitive function and mental health). In the past you may have been able to afford quality things, but with dwindling funds, you may have to settle for a poorer quality of life.
- Depression: Losing a job can result in many people feeling depressed. They may become depressed for a variety of reasons, most of which stem from a “loss.” The depression may stem from lack of stability and a structured routine that a job provides. The depression may be exacerbated by lack of finances and the psychological stress associated with getting laid off and/or fired.
- Anxiety: Some people become incredibly anxious that they don’t have work. This is due to the fact that their job loss was unexpected, and they “panic” because they have never been without work. Stress hormones takeover the body and a person may even have a nervous breakdown. Others become fearful that they’ll run out of money, aren’t able to stay in the “loop,” or begin to feel inferior to others as a result of not having work.
- Loneliness: You may start to feel incredibly lonely now that you are without work. While loneliness is not the same as social isolation, many people feel “lonely” as a result of lack of social contact. If you were around many people at work, but now you don’t have a community of people to interact with, you may end up feeling more depressed, and in some cases suicidal.
- Perceptual changes: Your entire self-perception may undergo change when you become unemployed. While working you may have viewed yourself as a competent breadwinner for the family. Now that you are no longer working and earning money, you may start to become depressed and feel more uncertain about your future. Even small perceptual changes can be detrimental to your mental health.
Personal experience with unemployment…
Although I don’t consider the results of the study to be conclusive and in no way does correlation equal causation, but I can testify for the fact that my levels of: agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness have all dropped (significantly) during the time I’ve been unemployed. While employed and occupied with work, I actually found it easier to stay motivated in all areas of life.
Even the little bit of social interaction that I got from the job I worked helped me feel less lonely and socially isolated. If I’m being objective, my personality has changed since I’ve been unemployed. Fortunately I wasn’t “laid off” or “fired” by my employer, rather I left my old career due to relocation. Below are some phases I personally experienced, many of which I believe go hand-in-hand with post-college depression.
Phase 1: Anxiety / Depression
Initially I experienced a lot of anxiety about where I was going to find new work and stay socially connected. The anxiety was intertwined with a depressed feeling that I should’ve stayed at my old job. I was nervous about making enough money to keep myself alive and functional and I was depressed that I lacked the social skills to go out and get a new job. The more I focused on my reality of being unemployed, the worse the anxiety and depression became.
Phase 2: Existential crisis
Likely due to lack of structure or routine in my day (that work provides) I went through an existential crisis. I got caught up with several addictions (many of which were difficult to overcome). At one point I was caught up in drinking and/or popping pain pills. Eventually the addiction shifted to sex and/or porn. I couldn’t figure out what I was “meant” to do here or my purpose for existing. It took me a long time before I realized that if I wanted purpose and meaning, I had to create it.
Phase 3: Social withdrawal
I went through another phase characterized by loss of social skills. I didn’t lose all of my social skills at once, rather they just slowly declined with decreased usage. The withdrawal made me less relatable to others, less likely to approach others, and really decreased my courage. I became significantly more timid and less likely to explore new places (e.g. restaurants).
Phase 4: Cognitive impairment
I believe my cognition and wit declined in part due to lack of usage. I know for a fact that my writing isn’t as precise or conscientious as it was in the past. I still try my best, but my cognitive abilities have declined as a result of decreased usage. The ability of socialization to keep me stimulated and mentally “aroused” lead to better cognitive function. The fact that I don’t get as much socialization as I did in the past has hampered my cognition to an extent.
Phase 5: Motivational deficits
Motivation declines significantly without social contact and/or a structured routine. Even if your workplace is crappy, you can still stay motivated. In fact, many times people that you dislike working with may serve to further motivate you to change and/or contribute more. It is nature for many to want to compete with others (in terms of production). Being around others can be inspiring and/or motivating in that there’s sometimes a bit of competition.
Phase 6: Realization
At some point, I realized that I had been declining in virtually all areas of my life, including my ability to think critically and write. Upon realizing this had occurred, I took conscious steps to slowly improve my situation. The key is to build some degree of positive momentum when you’ve trapped yourself into thinking that you’ll never be able to make a living or have a good life.
I created this momentum by forcing myself to write here everyday, which is part of the routine that I’ve established. I also make myself go to the gym 4x per week on the same schedule, and attend a “group” function 2x per week – regardless of how I feel. I walk outside daily, force myself to call family and/or friends, and talk to people when I have the opportunity. To mitigate the loneliness I also frequently listen to podcasts. Not only does it help me learn new things and gain perspectives, but the comfort of hearing a human voice decreases my loneliness.
Keep in mind: Correlation Doesn’t Equal Causation
It is important to realize that although this study discovered that several personality traits experienced change during times of unemployment, causation is difficult to establish. Some people may actually experience an increase in agreeableness and openness as a result of increased socialization during their time of being unemployed. Although there may be common trends among the unemployed, not everyone experiences this same effect.
There are individuals who lose their job and actually spend more time building quality relationships and making healthy lifestyle changes. It should also be mentioned that this study was conducted in a population of German citizens. Would we find the same trends among populations from other countries? It cannot be assumed until someone carries out a similar study in the particular country of interest.
Certain countries may utilize different coping strategies than others for dealing with unemployment. In some areas, being unemployed may not result in as steep of decline in traits like openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. It would also be worth investigating whether being employed (particularly in a positive environment) could increase the strength of certain (favorable) “Big Five” traits.
In other words, investigate whether people are deficient in certain traits by placing them into positive work-environments. Determine whether their personalities change over the course of 4 years. Similarly it may be worth investigating whether high-stress jobs and/or other unsatisfactory careers may serve as detrimental to one’s personality and/or mental health. Perhaps working a “dead end” job may be worse for your personality than being unemployed.
Note: It should also be understood that not everyone follows the same decline in expression of the three traits within the study with long-term unemployment. Realize that there is significant variation based upon the individual.
Adapting to the current economic times
It’s really sink or swim, fly or fall, eat or be eaten, adapt or get left in the dust these days in regards to the economy, which makes it tough for many people. From a historical perspective, many people held cushy jobs that allowed them to earn a healthy living without actually contributing much to society. Now that those jobs are becoming obsolete and companies are downsizing, it’s becoming more difficult to find work unless you have skills to fit the fast-changing economic times.
Additionally with a growing population and increased demand for technological-related skills, older generations are having a tough time finding work. The unfortunate reality is that if you are unemployed, you need to find something to fill that emotional void. Sure it’s about making enough money to support yourself, but the other aspects that come with a job such as social interaction (even if they aren’t positive interactions) keep the brain alert and stimulated and are often underrated.
Lack of social stimulation over a prolonged period is downright unhealthy and could lead to various forms of neurodegeneration. The age old adage in regards to personality seems to apply: “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” The less you express certain personality traits, the less likely you will be able to use them in the future. Similarly with your work-related skills, the less you use them, the more likely you are to lose them – all of which decrease your value in the eyes of an employer.
If you are unemployed, find a new job as soon as possible for not only the finances, but the socialization that accompanies it. You could be preserving many positive personality traits by getting a job as soon as you are unemployed. The longer you wait, the tougher it will be not only for you to find work, but to maintain positive personality traits such as: agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness.