Unemployment and Worklessness: It is No Fun Being Jobless

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Unemployment and Worklessness: It is No Fun Being Jobless

I would feel desperate if I had been without a good regular income for 20 weeks. (Margaret Thatcher, The Observer, 1984)

If I was given the choice of cleaning the floor and no job at all, I would say ’Pass me the goddam broom.’ (Sir Graham Day, The Sun, 1986)

No developed country can sustain one million unemployed for long periods of time without their minds becoming infected with a desire to topple the system. (Sir Frank Price, The Observer, 1981)

Psychologists study unemployment because it tells them a lot about the benefits of work. It is when you do not have a job, and want one, that you can discover what psychological benefits we derive from work.

From her work of the 1930s, Marie Jahoda (1982) developed a theory based on the idea that what produces psychological distress in the unemployed is the deprivation of the latent, as opposed to explicit, functions of work. Her theory was based on studies she did on people in Austria and England 50 years apart. Her theory was simple: 50 years ago the unemployed had no state support and experienced significant poverty. Fifty years later they received considerable state assistance in terms of health, housing and cost of living. Thus, if they are as distressed and unhappy as previous generations were, we cannot explain unemployment stress primarily in terms of money.

That is what she found. So the question became: why is work good for you? What are the psychological benefits of work that are denied to the unemployed? She listed five:

Work structures time. Work structures the day, the week and even longer periods. The loss of a time structure can be very disorientating. A predictable pattern of work, with well-planned ’rhythms’, is what most people seek.

Work provides regularly shared experiences. Regular contact with non-nuclear family members provides an important source of social interaction.

Work provides experience of creativity, mastery and a sense of purpose. Work, even not particularly satisfying work, gives some sense of mastery or achievement. Creative activities stimulate people and provide a sense of satisfaction. A person’s contribution to producing goods or providing services forges a link between the individual and the society of which he or she is a part.

Work is a source of personal status and identity. A person’s job is an important indicator of personal status in society. You are what you do. Unemployed people have lost their employment status and hence identity. Not unnaturally, there is a marked drop in self-esteem during unemployment.

Work is a source of activity. All work involves some expenditure of physical or mental effort. Whereas too much activity may induce fatigue and stress, too little activity results in boredom and restlessness, particularly among extraverts. People seek to maximize the amount of activity that suits them by choosing particular jobs or tasks that fulfil their needs.

People without work complain of being listless. They say they are defined by what they are not. Many shun social occasions because they cannot reciprocate social gifts or gatherings owing to lack of money. Many withdraw and to the surprise of many become less, rather than more, politically active.

The researchers have also documented a pattern or ’stage wise’ theory that many people go through when they lose their job. First, many people report great shock and some denial. Then there is a stage where people might alternate between optimism and pessimism, though the latter lasts longer. Some sink into a fatalistic hopelessness while others seem to adapt to a new reality. Some get into a negative downward spiral which leads to low self-esteem, no attempts to search for jobs and depression. Others learn to look upon the experience as an opportunity.

Not all jobs are good. It is possible to differentiate between ’good’ and ’bad’ jobs and ’good’ and ’bad’ unemployment in terms of nine variables that have proved discriminating in previous research. Thus it may be that if a person leaves a bad job, he/she may adapt well to good unemployment and there are many examples of this. The point being made here is that just as not all jobs are satisfying, not all unemployment is unsatisfying. Depending on the job, the person and the society’s reaction to unemployment, it may be possible to experience beneficial aspects of unemployment.


There have been at least three serious periods of unemployment (in the developed world) in the last 100 years: the Great Depression (1929—1933); the late 70s (1978—1983) and the current period of uncertainty caused by the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. During these periods there has been large research effort by social scientists to understand the causes and consequences of unemployment on an individual, group, societal and international level.

The issue of the effect of unemployment on mental and physical health has been investigated for nearly 40 years. Two schools of thought existed: some believed unemployment caused ill health, others that those in poor health were unlikely to find work. Inevitably there is bi-directional causality with vicious and virtuous cycles. People without work experience depression and lack of energy, which impedes their job search and therefore leads to further unemployment: a perfect vicious circle.

One of the most commonly investigated issues is the consequences of unemployment on mental and physical health. Paul and Moser (2009) found clearly that unemployed persons showed more distress than employed persons. They found a significant difference for several indicator variables of mental health: distress, depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, subjective wellbeing and self-esteem. The average number of individuals with psychological problems among the unemployed was 34 per cent, compared to 16 per cent among employed individuals. Men and people with blue-collar-jobs were more distressed by unemployment than women and people with white-collar jobs.

They found the negative effect of unemployment on mental health was stronger in countries with a weak level of economic development, unequal income distributions or weak unemployment protection systems compared to other countries.

The literature then is pretty clear. For those without work who want it there is often a psychological cost which grows greater over time. Even if the country where one lives provides good social security provisions, the unemployed are less happy and healthy than their peers who have work.


Jackson, P.R. & Warr, P.B. (1984). Unemployment and psychological ill-health: The moderating role of duration and age. Psychological Medicine, 14, 605—14.

Jahoda, M. (1982). Employment and Unemployment: A Social-psychological Analysis. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Jahoda, M., Lazarsfeld, P., & Zeisel, H. (1933). Marienthal: The Sociography of an Unemployed Community. London: Tavistock.

Kelvin, P., & Jarrett, J. (1985). Social Psychological Consequences of Unemployment. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Paul, K., & Moser, K. (2009). Unemployment impairs mental health. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 74, 264—82.