The months following my graduation from University in July of 2017 were amongst the perhaps most difficult times of my life. I have previously described unemployment as a feeling: A heavy, uncomfortable mixture of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and stir-craziness. The symptoms of that feeling are in fact not so different from symptoms of depression: I observed in myself a tendency to sleep more, a loss of appetite, a loss of interest in most activities and difficulties bringing up motivation for daily tasks.
Studies have reliably linked unemployment to a decrease in well-being. A paper evaluating 16 studies of unemployment and mental health concluded that “unemployment has reliable (negative) effects on mental health” and that “there is evidence of a depressed mental health score being associated with unemployment” (Murphy and Anthanasou, 1999).
The general thesis is unsurprising: Unemployment sucks, especially following graduation. Students have spent their entire lives confined to academia, with clear instructions on how to live their lives and schedules to adhere to. A student’s success could be measured objectively through grades and feedback, creating a structure of positive and negative reinforcement with rules that could be easily adjusted to.
Students have also spent at least three years in an environment in which the competitive job market would have been highlighted to them, with the expectation that, after having completed expensive higher education, they would be above the curve. But higher education does not always lead to success in life. More people than ever attend University, making their degrees less significant. Additionally, “Life satisfaction is on average lower for those with higher levels of education” (Powdthavee, 2007, Clark and Oswald, 1996), which may be caused by a comparative effect in education, whereby higher education is accompanied by higher expectations of life.
Students are not the only ones raising demands on their own person: Often there is an unyielding expectation from parents that their educated children will find stable and desirable professions shortly after University. A great deal of my guilt and anxiety after University deprived from knowing that my mother and father dreamed of me finding a perfect creative job with my skills. I could never bear to tell them that university had not sufficiently prepared me or my portfolio for the creative industries, and they would never understand why I was applying to supermarkets and small dental practises when I should, in their eyes, have already become a graphic designer.
Often job applications are met with silence or rejections, without any feedback given. Our familiar structure is destroyed – no longer is anyone telling us whether we are on track to achieve our goals, or whether our efforts match up to expectations. A job offer becomes the only desirable confirmation of our skills and qualifications, but unemployment is no immediate reflection of a person’s competency. Sometimes the competition is too numerous, and the roles too few.
Powdthavee, using the shadow pricing method, estimated the psychic cost of unemployment at minus £143,000, comparing to disability estimated at minus £165,000. These numbers reflect on the monetary estimated value of life satisfaction, as compared to satisfaction measured by household income. But why does unemployment bear such a significant effect on our mental well-being and happiness?
One reason may be that, removed from the social context of work and schooling, the frequency at which we socialise with friends outside of our household may be drastically lowered, which stands in association with a loss of life satisfaction according to Powdthavee’s paper. There may also be a decrease in activity, as there are fewer reasons to leave the house. Hours of sleep may increase where there is no schedule to motivate an individual to get up in the morning. Where we may previously have adhered to a regime of our time, we are now free and unruled, and this lack of structure could result in less productivity, and in association a decreased sense of self-worth.
Another reason may be the loss of social identity and purpose. As humans, we establish a social identity through roles we play in the lives of others: As friends, spouses, colleagues and relatives, but also as components of our society, as students or employees. The loss of one of these social identities with no replacement decreases our sense of the ‘self’ and removes us from the person we previously saw ourselves as.
Then there is a distinct loss of purpose.
The objective to ‘get a job’ may hover vaguely in the air, but the precise steps to improve our chances in this undertaking are unclear, and our daily lives may be devoid of a meaningful mission when no reward is in sight. The study “Meaning and Purpose in Life and Well-Being: A Life-Span Perspective” (Wong, Peacock, Reker, 1897), found that “lack of meaning and purpose predicts perceived psychological and physical discomforts” and also noted a greater existential vacuum in young people compared to middle-aged people: “For the young, the uncertainties about one’s future and/or the absence of a clear career goal may conspire to foster a sense of futility and emptiness”. This is furthered by the impression that “Meaning for the adolescent, young and middle-aged adult are entered on establishing a stable identity, forming intimate relationships, and being productive and creative”.
Therefore negatively impacted by loss of identity, loss of purpose, and weighed down by our own and other’s expectations, it is easy to see why a decrease in motivation and mental health would follow a prolonged period of unemployment. This causes a dangerous downwards spiral, often removing us even further from our chances of future success. Employers are more likely to show interest in a productive, self-confident and happy individual, which is promoted by a higher life-satisfaction. The sadder we get about our situation, the less likely we are to resonate the positivity and confidence that might lift us out of our low.
In times of depression, and similarly unemployment, it is therefore important to remember to take care of one’s mental health and take proactive steps to securing our happiness and productivity. Both social interactions and health can significantly improve life satisfaction, so it is important to establish social connections and socialise frequently, as well as exercise and retain a healthy diet and sleep-schedule.
Assuming a correlation between happiness and productivity, we must also remain productive and creative, engaging in meaningful projects to enhance ourselves and our CVs and portfolios. One excellent way to assure many of these needs are met is by volunteering in a social environment and establishing a routine schedule. In my experience, I suffered unemployment far less when I started volunteering at the British Heart Foundation in my town on an almost daily basis. The work allowed me to meet people and leave the house and made me feel like a valuable member of society again.
Unemployment also allows for the opportunity to enhance skills that require a great time commitment. Establishing daily habits to improve upon existing talents or acquire new skills can aid in alleviating some of the guilt and sinking-feeling.
Keep yourself happy, sometimes it is just a question of time, resilience and patience: I was, after all, employed in the end. With an unemployment rate of 4.3% across Britain in June 2017, there still seems plenty of opportunity to make a career start. It is always good to remember that many suffer a loss of their perceived roles at some stage in their lives, all the more commonly out of University, and that this stage is an opportunity to form new meaning, make new connections, and establish a fresh sense of identity that is more independent and self-chosen.
Wong, Paul T.P., Peacock, Edward J., Reker, Gary T., “Meaning and Purpose in Life and Well-Being: A Life-Span Perspective”, Journal of Gerontology, 1987, Vol 42, No 1, 44-49
Clark, Andrew E., and Andrew J. Oswald. 1996. “Satisfaction and Comparison Income”, Journal of Public Economics, 61, 359-381.
Murphy, Gregory C. And Anthanasou, James A, 1999, “The effect of unemployment on mental health”, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 72, 83-99
Powdthavee, Nattavudth, 2007, “Putting a Price Tag on Friends, Relatives and Neighbours: Using Surveys of Life Satisfaction to Value Social Relationships”, Journal of Socio-Economics